Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Going forward, cricket diplomacy will be a great thing between India and the US: Sanjay Govil

The Indian-American tech entrepreneur and owner of a franchise in Major League Cricket on how cricket can grow in the largest sports market in the world

Published: Dec 1, 2023 10:46:50 AM IST
Updated: Dec 1, 2023 11:06:26 AM IST

Going forward, cricket diplomacy will be a great thing between India and the US: Sanjay GovilSanjay Govil institutionalised his passion for cricket by buying Washington Freedom, one of the teams in the newly launched Major League Cricket (MLC) in the US.

Sanjay Govil was born in Canada, but grew up in Delhi and later moved to the US for higher studies. What he carried along with him was his love of cricket, which only deepened despite spending the next few decades in a country that had nothing much to do with the sport. In 2001, Govil founded Infinite Computer Solutions, which became a billion-dollar technology services provider. Six years ago, he started a second company, Zyter, a software venture. This year, the entrepreneur institutionalised his passion for cricket by buying Washington Freedom, one of the teams in the newly launched Major League Cricket (MLC) in the US. In an episode on Sports UnLtd, Govil took us through the journey of cricket and MLC and plans for his cricket team, his third venture. Edited excerpts:  

Q. The inclusion of cricket in the 2028 Olympic games in Los Angeles. How excited are you about that? 
Cricket, as you know, is followed by a couple of billion people, and there are people who only follow cricket and they don't watch any of those other sports. Including cricket, as part of the Olympics, in my mind, is way overdue. And we're very grateful to the IOC for including cricket in the Olympics in Los Angeles. And the impact is going to be multi-fold. I think as cricket comes in, more and more countries will start having cricket teams to participate in the Olympics. Also, the number of people watching the Olympics is going to go significantly higher because you have all those people who don't watch any other sport but cricket. Third, countries like the US will obviously put a lot of money into cricket infrastructure, schools, cricket development academies etc. So, overall, it’s a big plus. It's one of the frontiers which we had to have to get international recognition.   

Q. What role do you think that the MLC, which was launched this year, might have had to play with the inclusion of cricket? 
 
As much credit as we would like to take for MLC, the answer is negligible, because the roots of cricket have been established way before MLC came into being and the motion to include cricket was way before the season even started. So it's all the great work which has been done by the IOC, the lobbying which has taken place by countries like India who have been a very strong supporter of cricket in the Olympics. It's a big tribute to the cricketing world, especially countries like India, who have done a great job. I know PM Narendra Modi is a big fan of cricket—I was one of the few invitees to the State dinner with President Biden and him, and PM Modi, during his speech, specifically mentioned cricket. Cricket diplomacy, I think, is going to be a great thing going forward between India and the US.   
 
Q. After having grown up on the IIT-Delhi campus, where your father worked, you went to the US for studies. How did you keep up with cricket there?   

I kept playing cricket even when I was in university, and obviously kept following cricket. In the late 80s and early 90s in the US, it was very hard to watch cricket. We had to go to places where they had a satellite link.  But, with OTT, it has evolved now, the awareness of cricket has exploded, and T20 has brought tremendous exposure. And IPL, especially, has been fantastic in terms of promoting T20 cricket. I think the IPL success has had a great part to play in the IOC’s decision. And we all respect people like Nita Ambani, who owns the Mumbai Indians franchise in New York (in the MLC) and has been instrumental because of her role in the whole IOC.  

Also read: Cricket in the Olympics: Why it's a win-win


Q. How involved are the local US communities with cricket, given that baseball is the national pastime? 
If you go to any city in the US, St. Louis, Missouri, Atlanta, Chicago, DC, what have you, there are clubs mushrooming all over the place. In fact, in the DC area, we have various counties, like districts in India, and in each county 40/50/60/70 teams who passionately play every weekend. And they have hardball cricket, meaning red-ball cricket, they have tennis ball cricket and so on. But it's not institutionalised, so we have these leagues being driven by people who are really passionate. Having cricket as part of the Olympics is going to institutionalise the sport. Also, many Americans are exposed to cricket now because of the diaspora playing the sport. They travel a lot to India—the outsourcing hub—and see cricket. It's just a matter of time before cricket becomes really big in the US.   
 
Q. How did MLC come to you? Why did you decide that you're going to buy a franchise?   
I can sit here and say it was a great business move and so on and so forth, but I'm a big believer of God and Lord Tirupati. And what happened was that it was just a matter of chance. There was this individual who, for many years, I was supporting just out of pure altruistic motives. He used to run leagues in New Jersey, and one day he called and said, “Sanjay, I really want you to meet the founders of MLC.” And I looked at the list of investors—from the Adobe CEO to Satya Nadella, and it was a very impressive list. And I didn’t know where I fit. And the gentleman told me, “Just meet the founders of the league.” I met these guys and they were very nice—I met them over breakfast and that’s how I got in. The team was originally supposed to go to Atlanta and I convinced them to move to DC. Like many things in life, it's just chance and being at the right place, right time, and God stepping in.   

Q. What were your expectations from the league before the first season?   
To be honest with you, I was very scared. There are six teams in the MLC—one team is owned by the Mumbai Indians, the second by KKR, third team by Chennai Super Kings, Seattle owned by Satya Nadella, some investors and they have a collaboration with an IPL team, then you have San Francisco which is owned by Venky and Anand, and other investors. So, for me, the first thing was I had no team, I had no logos, no T-shirts, I didn't know where to buy a bat, helmet or glove, I did not know how logistics work, I had no idea how to transport all these people. And I was going to compete against the Mumbai Indians and KKR and Chennai Super Kings and other stalwarts. My first instinct was just survival, that I don't embarrass myself on the international stage.   

Q. How did the finances work out in terms of media rights and sponsorships, and how do you see these growing?   

We didn't really have a lot of time to get started last year. The budget cycles close in November for sponsorships, and by the time we decided to go, it was May/June. Regardless of that, we did do extremely well in sponsorships. For TV rights, we were able to sell to Willow and CBS in the US, in India on Jio and Fox in other countries. But it was our first season. We had to make deals short-term, investment wise, to make sure that we are more well-known. I think 2024 is going to be bigger in terms of sponsorships. And we had a lot of learnings from the IPL.  

Also read: The T20 World Cup in 2024 will give a huge fillip to cricket in the US: MLC's Tom Dunmore
 
Q. What are some of these learnings from the IPL?   
For instance, who to address from an audience perspective, how to negotiate TV rights, how to go about for sponsorships, what should be the rules and regulations in terms of drafting players, how many international players versus domestic players, how do you promote domestic cricket when it's lacking—the list goes on and on. Having proper documentation, having the right agreements between the owners and the league, how to revenue share between the teams, and the league and USA Cricket, insights into how to deal with different associations, including the ICC.   

Q. US is one of the largest sports markets in the world. But at the same time, it's also extremely crowded. They have their NFLs, the NBA. Now Lionel Messi is playing in the MLS, so that’s also vying for attention. What makes you so confident that cricket will also find its space and grow? 
 
Because we have a very strong base. I've seen numbers like 20-25 million people who watch cricket in the US. Second, the Indian-American community and the diaspora community is very powerful in a lot of corporations, and they see our market as a big market for themselves—they feel that they have to get involved in cricket. And, as you rightly said, MLS has become really big now, especially with Messi coming in. And a lot of companies felt like they missed out on the MLS, because now the media rights and the sponsorships are very high. So they are seeing cricket as the next MLS. They see a huge opportunity to jump in now because they feel like it's at ground level.   

Q. What parallels can you draw between setting up a venture and running your own company and running a cricket franchise?   
The difference is when you start a business, you don't quite know what you're doing. You have a vision, but it's never narrowed down to something. In cricket, the rules are defined, and then you become an entrepreneur within those rules. The element of entrepreneurship comes in from perspective of investments and getting the right management team, the right coaches, people who are passionate. There's a marketing aspect to it, which is getting good brand ambassadors etc. So there's a marketing angle, which is entrepreneurial, there's the investment angle, which is entrepreneurial, there's an organisational aspect, which is entrepreneurial, then motivating the team, which is entrepreneurial. On the flip side, the rules are defined. So you cannot be a true entrepreneur where you can define the vision.   

Q. The application of data analytics in games is now popular. Any thoughts on how you want to apply tech here, especially given your background? 
 
I'll give you two examples. For two years, I owned Delhi Acers, a badminton franchise in India’s Premier Badminton League. The first year when I took over, I had no idea about badminton. And we purely chose players on analytics. We didn't go for any high-profile names, like PV Sindhu or Saina Nehwal. And we took a team, which was the last the previous year, and the very first year, we won the championship. In MLC, since it was very late and we were just focussed on getting the team ready, we left the team selections to other people. And we came third just based on passion. [At the end of the tournament], I looked at the statistics of the players in MLC versus IPL, and it was pretty much identical. Failure in IPL resulted in failure in MLC. So, one of the big aspects of MLC is going to be collecting that data, and then making selections based on that. Analytics is absolutely here to stay, and teams not using it will face a big disadvantage.