America doesn't really care about cricket. Can Major League Cricket change that?
Twenty-two men will paint North Texas purple, gold and yellow Thursday for a game of bat and ball during the historic debut of Major League Cricket. The sport is wildly popular in many places, but not in the United States.
The Texas Super Kings will host the Los Angeles Knight Riders in the opening match of a 19-match tournament at the newly transformed 7,200-seat Grand Prairie Stadium near Dallas.
"It's a new beginning for cricket in this country," said Zubin Surkari, who is managing operations for Major League Cricket. "T20 (a shorter format) is an exciting three hours of cricket, the pitch looks great, the field looks great. This has never been done in terms of a stadium of this magnitude."
Big debut with big money
MLC is a six-team competition that will be played from July 13-30 across two venues.
Grand Prairie Stadium in Texas will host the first eight games while the next seven matches will take place in Church Street Park in Morrisville, N.C., near Raleigh and Durham. The teams will then move back to Grand Prairie to participate in the playoffs.
MI New York, the San Francisco Unicorns, Seattle Orcas and Washington Freedom are the remaining four teams, all featuring plenty of international cricket stars.
MLC is a $120 million investment from multiple entities — mainly Sameer Mehta and Vijay Srinivasan, co-founders of Willow TV, the largest broadcaster of cricket in North America.
The two businessmen plan to grow the game in the United States by bringing in international talent, and building stadiums and training facilities in hopes of cultivating the new generation of U.S. cricketers.
Cricket's future in the U.S. remains uncertain
Despite being the world's second most-watched sport, behind soccer, cricket never managed to gain popularity in the U.S.
Surkari said the new league's backers would like to change that and are marketing MLC to any American who likes bat-and-ball sport.
"The T20 format of cricket is very palatable to most people," Surkari said. "Three hours of fun, getting ready for the stadium which has concession stands and lights and things for kids to do. It is like any other Minor League, Major League Baseball, but not just on that grand scale yet."
However, Peter Della Penna, a former ESPN cricket writer, said the MLC has failed to cater to the sporting culture of the U.S. and has not done much to cultivate organic support from the general American public.
"A lot of the tickets have been given away as gifts to the families of the cricket players and organizers to fill in the stadium for the opening night," he said. "There has been little to no effort made in terms of initiating grassroot level effort."
Penna has been covering cricket in the U.S. for the past 18 years. He said that MLC's approach of developing cricket in the country is not different from that of USA Cricket (the men's and women's national cricket teams), as both have depended largely on migration patterns instead of building an organic pathway like other sports.
"There are a lot of people immigrating to participate in MLC but what does that say about the health and sustainability of the league and cricket more broadly in the country," Penna said. "Instead of bringing in international stars that no Americans know about, cricket should rather be introduced as a high school league first which will create a pathway for it to be a NCAA Division 1 scholarship sport."
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