March 19 is set to be a landmark date for cricket in the United States as the Visitor Center of NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston will host the player draft for the inaugural Major League Cricket (MLC) Twenty20 tournament that is scheduled to launch in July this year.
MLC will become the latest T20 league to surface across the globe, just months after South Africa and the United Arab Emirates introduced their versions to the cricketing world and almost 15 years after the Indian Premier League (IPL) changed cricket forever.
Al Jazeera spoke to Justin Geale, MLC tournament director, about the aims of the league, cricket in the US and if the sport really needs another tournament.
Al Jazeera: Does cricket really need one more tournament?
Justin Geale: There’s too much cricket, everyone will agree to that. It’s a very full calendar. But I think we have a couple of unique things in here. One is our window and timing. We sit very nicely in July.
What cricket needs now is new markets. If we’re going to sustain all this cricket, we need to reach new markets, new sponsors, and I think America really is the only realistic potential for it right now.
It’s such a big country and a very sophisticated sports market that is keen to take new things. In terms of growth, USA Cricket recognised this. We’re also hosting 20 matches next year as part of the jointly hosted World Cup with the West Indies. The projection for the game is strong here. If you look at LA 2028 Olympics, hopefully, we can get cricket included.
There’s also definitely a curiosity, no question about that. Which is why we aim to be here for the long term.
Al Jazeera: From short stopovers to a major league, how far has cricket come along in the US?
Geale: It’s been tough. The biggest challenge in this country is infrastructure, it’s finding the right spots to play the game. I come from Australia and I’ve worked in the IPL. When I got here three years ago, I was surprised at how good the domestic talent was. I was probably a bit shocked by where they were playing – lot of it was uneven outfields, football fields, synthetic surfaces, matting, etc. We needed better facilities, that’s been our biggest challenge and will continue to be.
But that’s improving and with that comes the ability to host the high-profile matches. In terms of a fanbase, there’s already an expat or first- and second-generation Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Afghans here. Throw in Australians, South Africans and the English and on the other coast the West Indies population, there’s enough knowledge and following of the game which is comforting for us.
I guess the bigger hook and aim is to bring new people to the sport, to convert the Americans to cricket.
Al Jazeera: Is that one of the major aims of MLC? What about revenue and the spotlight?
Geale: It has to be all things, to be honest.
If it doesn’t generate revenue, it’s not going to be sustainable. The opportunity here is huge. We’re talking about the second-biggest sport in the world in the largest sporting media market in the world. If we get the product right, I’m sure the growth and revenue will come through commercial opportunities not just here in the US but also through broadcast in India where cricket revenue really is coming from.
But as a league, first we need to show we can play good cricket. If we put a good product out there – good stadiums, good players, good wickets, good umpires – it will show we’re serious about cricket and we build it out from there.
We can really get to people here who understand the game and then really try and expose it to new audiences. The American sports consumer is such a sophisticated one. It will be unrealistic to think we’re going to have full stadiums from day one and new audiences will come in because they heard about cricket. We need to tap into the existing fanbase. Also, we’ve been developing the domestic players here for three years so they are ready for this.
If we get the actual product right, the rest is going to follow pretty quick.
Al Jazeera: How is the league looking financially? What are the expenses, pay scales and salary caps like?
Geale: The team owners have been selected for many reasons. They have been told to buy in and that this is going to take time. They also need to commit to funding a stadium in their hometown. That’s a pretty big ask and not done in any other league. So these guys are serious about it. For salary caps, from the get-go, we’re going to be competitive with all leagues – take the IPL out though. We’ll certainly be competitive with the recent leagues like the ILT20 and SA20 and certainly have a bigger cap than something like the CPL.
The opportunity for players to come to America is an exciting one. While the money is there, it’s a pretty nice idea to come tour America, play cricket, bring your family and your golf clubs too. We haven’t really struggled at all while talking to players. Realistically, we need to manage expectations [with spending] and be sensible in terms of our projections. There’s no point going broke and not having a year two.
Al Jazeera: What has the response from the sponsors been? Have you managed to break into the US market?
Geale: We’ve had a really good conversation with all the usual suspects but also a few American brands. That’s a bit slow because we’re selling a dream, a vision and they are committing to something they are not familiar with. We’re in pretty advanced talks for the MLC but we’re also realistic. It’s probably going to need a bit of a punt as it is a new sport for them.
Al Jazeera: So where does the MLC and cricket in the US go from here?
Geale: As we get more infrastructure, the season’s length grows and we can reach out to more cities. Attracting younger and new people to the game is also something we’re aiming at. For the first time, there’s a career in cricket here. To date, if you’re good at any sport you’re going to go and play something else because there’s a pathway to scholarship and career there.
MLC is an opening point to that as well. It’s in everyone’s interest to make the USA national team. All of a sudden, a lot of international teams will be keen to come on the way to the West Indies or come and do standout tours. Commercially, that opens up a lot more TV money and that money flows back into the players, the domestic structure.
Al Jazeera: What challenges do you see in reaching those goals?
Geale: So we’re not under any illusion to take on the MLB tomorrow. We have the existing cricket fans, they need to rally and get some critical mass. Also, distribution is important. We get some mainstream coverage and that will help with the exposure. We also need to manage expectations, like I said before. It’s tough. But our tournament window does help us, there’s a bit of downtime and hopefully we can attract new audience.
It’s going to be a hell of a ride but the key is to get year one under way, show the world we can put out a product, get decent crowds in and I think the momentum will quickly build.