New US cricket league aims to crack world’s largest sports market

A group of more than a dozen high-profile investors including Microsoft chief Satya Nadella and Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan is backing a fledgling US Twenty20 cricket tournament in a bid to take the successful Indian Premier League model to the world’s largest sports market.

Others investing in the Major League Cricket tournament, the first of its kind and scheduled to launch in 2022, include Adobe chief executive Shantanu Narayen, Vijay Shekhar Sharma of Indian payments start-up Paytm and Texas property tycoon Ross Perot Jr, according to people familiar with the matter. 

Most have invested in a personal capacity in American Cricket Enterprises, which will run the league. Mr Sharma is putting in $1m, according to one of the people. 

Mr Khan, one of India’s biggest film stars, last week announced an investment through his Knight Riders Group, which runs the IPL’s Kolkata franchise and a team in the Caribbean Premier League. He is set to run one of an expected six Major League Cricket teams, the Los Angeles Knight Riders.

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“It’s like Bollywood meets Hollywood,” Venky Mysore, Knight Riders chief executive, told the Financial Times. “We’ve gone and been able to add a lot of value to different leagues . . . it made a lot of sense to be part of that.”

The individual investments were first reported by the Times of India.

Founded in 2008, the IPL’s formula of high-octane, high-scoring matches has become a money spinner. It has spawned similar leagues elsewhere that attract top global players, from the Caribbean to Australia’s Big Bash to the soon-to-be-launched even shorter format “The Hundred” in England.

The IPL has proved profitable for franchisees thanks to a bumper media rights deal with Star India, now owned by Disney, which in 2017 paid $2.6bn for five years. According to EY, the consultancy, the tournament’s media rights are close to the English Premier League’s on a per-game basis.

But cricket has a limited audience outside countries with links to the former British empire. Past attempts to generate interest in the US — including a series of exhibition matches at baseball stadiums in 2015 organised by retired cricket legends Shane Warne of Australia and India’s Sachin Tendulkar — have been largely unsuccessful.

Nevertheless, US cricket executives say diasporas from cricket-loving nations, especially the 4m-strong Indian-American community, will sustain franchises in hubs including Dallas, San Francisco and New York.

India-born Mr Nadella, for example, is a former amateur spin bowler and life-long enthusiast of the sport.

They also argue the T20 match length of three or so hours, considerably shorter than other forms of the game and often livened up with cheerleaders and pumping music, will resonate with US audiences.

“The T20 format works really well for us . . . It’s obviously a more exciting version of the game,” said Paraag Marathe, USA Cricket chairman and football operations head at the San Francisco 49ers NFL team. “As we have a corollary with the IPL, It’s easy to see what success could look like.”

Mr Nadella and Mr Sharma declined to comment. Mr Narayen and Mr Perot did not respond to requests for comment.

“Cricket hasn’t really worked before in the [United] States,” said Simon Hughes, a former cricketer and broadcaster who recently co-authored a book about the IPL. “It won’t be easy, but there is potential . . . They will have seen the profit that the IPL has made.”

Additional reporting by Richard Waters in San Francisco

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