Major League Cricket: Why the USA’s T20 League rivals the biggest franchise tournaments

Ali Khan and Jason Roy share the picture
Ali Khan (left), the star player in US cricket, and Jason Roy are two of the names playing in the MLC

After many false premonitions, pro cricket is finally ready to cross the much-anticipated border into the United States.

Joining an ever-growing list of global T20 franchise leagues is America’s Major League Cricket (MLC), which some believe could be the biggest disruption the sport has seen in some time.

With the first match of the inaugural tournament taking place on Thursday 13 July, BBC Sport unveil a competition with big ambitions.

What is MLC and how does it work?

The recent history of cricket in the United States has been filled with broken promises and failed ventures that have failed almost without a trace.

MLC has chosen NASA’s iconic space center in Houston for the glittering first player draft, which took place earlier this year, and hopes it doesn’t face similar problems there.

The first 19-game season will see six teams — MI New York, Texas Super Kings, Los Angeles Knight Riders, Seattle Orcas, San Francisco Unicorns and Washington Freedom — play in regular T20 format games over a 2.5-week period compete against each other.

Although the US is an associate member of the ICC, the games themselves, like the International League T20 played in the United Arab Emirates earlier this year, do not count towards a player’s domestic T20 career statistics.

Confusingly, the locations mentioned in each team’s name have little to do with where the games will be played. Due to a lack of suitable venues, the entire tournament will be held at either a converted former baseball stadium in Grand Prairie, Texas, or at a smaller cricket facility in Morrisville, North Carolina.

Justin Geale, MLC Tournament Director, is keen to address this: “In order to attract local fans, we need to play in local areas. Playing at two venues is not ideal.”

“The model has to come to home and away games fairly soon, so we plan to expand to a season of around 30 games next year. We already have plans to show up in San Francisco next year.”

“I would hope that within three to five years we can have large 10-20,000 seat stadiums in our key markets. That is our goal.”

Initial infrastructure problems had little impact on the quality of players the league attracted, and there were plenty of prominent names on board.

England’s only representatives are world champion Jason Roy, who gave up his England contract to play white-ball, and Liam Plunkett. It is understood MLC also vetted Moeen Ali ahead of his decision to join the Ashes from retirement.

Other veteran internationals include Afghan Rashid Khan, South Africans Faf du Plessis, Quinton de Kock and Kagiso Rabada, West Indians Sunil Narine, Kieron Pollard and Andre Russell, and Australian pair Marcus Stoinis and Aaron Finch.

The Grand Prairie Stadium in Texas
Grand Prairie Stadium in Texas was home to the Texas AirHogs baseball team before a $20 million remodel

How did it attract such big names?

There are no surprises here: money talks. The tournament was co-founded by The Times of India Group, India’s largest media conglomerate, and secured a whopping US$120million (£94million) in initial funding from some influential backers including Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.

Indian Premier League (IPL) club owners – Kolkata Knight Riders, Mumbai Indians, Chennai Super Kings and Delhi Capitals – have stakes in four of the six MLC teams, with the other two being owned by Australian state organizations Cricket New South Wales and Cricket Victoria supports .

“The beauty of having the IPL teams on board gives us credibility and access to players, coaching staff and great opportunities for the homegrown players here,” Geale said.

“Our first round of fundraising brought in a lot of high net worth individuals, including some very successful people from Silicon Valley who were very good at running businesses. However, our model is that cricket has to be very good.”

Each of the six teams had a budget of US$1.15 million (£900,000) to spend on a squad of 15 to 18 players. That put finances on par with The Hundred, despite having only a third as many games.

Roy is expected to earn around £150,000 for his time in the MLC, dwarfing the £60,000-70,000 he makes annually from his supplementary contract in England.

Is it just a fake IPL?

Faf du Plessis and Sunil Narine pose with the MLC trophy
Faf du Plessis and Sunil Narine are two of the captains of the MLC tournament

With Indian owners, Indian co-founders and a slew of backroom staff employed by IPL franchises, it’s easy to assume that the MLC would want to be a smaller copycat version of the world’s most lucrative cricket league.

“There is no escaping the fact that India is the commercial center of the cricket world,” Geale said.

“But we’re definitely trying to create our own brand. It’s definitely not the mini IPL. Our goal is to work out our own identity. MLC needs to be an American product as much as possible.”

MLC will draw on traditional US sports rituals, playing the national anthem before games, taking on the cricket equivalent of baseball’s ceremonial first pitch, and providing glittering entertainment during the innings break.

Geale continued, “When you go into minor league baseball, there’s a lot of effort there to attract people. In Dallas, where we want to engage the local community, we need to do a lot more of that.”

“It could be ‘cricket meets baseball night’, ‘Bollywood night’ or ‘Australian night’. Ultimately, the goal would be to bring together some of the best in America and some of the best in cricket.”

The scheduling of the evening games is a conscious decision to appeal to a local market rather than prioritizing overseas TV viewers. Nonetheless, the games in the UK will be broadcast on satellite channels.

The opening game – between the Texas Super Kings and the LA Knight Riders – is sold out. Geale concedes that locally you have to target the “low-hanging fruit” of people who already know the sport before you can attract newcomers.

“Although we don’t want just one Indian population, we have to start there commercially,” he said. “But we also use local schools and clubs to recruit new people, because that’s where the potential lies.”

“We are realistic. It won’t be full every night. Our stadium seats 7,000 spectators and we are working really hard to get the support locally.”

How big will it be?

It boasts strong financial backing, an impressive roster and took three years to develop, but in an oversaturated franchise league market, there are few guarantees of MLC’s success. The long-term hope is that the US could be the sport’s untapped superpower.

“I hate the word ‘potential’ because it’s overused in the US, but there’s a huge market,” Geale said. “Where else do we go if we want to expand the game? If it’s not China or Russia, it has to be the US.”

America’s star bowler Ali Khan is confident and says: “I think it’s going to be huge. I think after the IPL this will be the second biggest league.”

“Why? Because the market is here, the sponsors are here, the money is here. It’s a big country. There are so many possibilities. It’s life changing for us.”

For an American team that recently achieved Cricket World Cup qualification for the first time in almost two decades, there is hope that the tournament will help build a young domestic scene and an improving national team.

Excitement is not all-pervasive, however, amid concerns this side of the Atlantic about a tournament taking place in the English summer.

Hampshire Cricket Director Giles White said: “If it’s going to be a success there comes a day when they want to attract the best players. If these players come from this country, it could affect the competitions that are played here.”

But success is an assumption even Geale isn’t willing to make: “It’s something that keeps me up at night. We gave ourselves the best chance to be successful. Whether it succeeds or not, I cannot control that. It sounds on paper.” Great, but we’ll see. What an adventure, isn’t it?”

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