Kagiso Rabada of MI New York playing against San Francisco Unicorns during a Major League Cricket match held at the Grand Prairie Stadium, Texas, United States Image: Courtesy MLC
The first edition of Major League Cricket (MLC), a six-franchise T20 tournament in the US, is into its last mile, and there have been a few sell-outs already, says Tom Dunmore, the vice president of marketing, MLC. America might be a baseball country, he says, but there’s no reason why cricket can’t be slowly injected into its landscape, especially because newer audiences are willing to look beyond the traditional favourites. The country also has a history with the game—the first ever international cricket match was played between the US and Canada, in 1844, a good 33 years before the first Test match was played between England and Australia. MLC has made a good start, but the focus in the next few years will be on finetuning the platform and building a new audience, Dunmore tells Forbes India in an interview. Edited excerpts:
Q. The group stage of Major League Cricket (MLC) is over. Your first thoughts on T20 cricket in America?
We’ve sold out all the seven games in North Carolina and the first few games in Dallas, although these are relatively small venues. The stadium in Dallas is 6,000-7,000 capacity, while the former is about 3,500. But I’m sure we could have sold many more tickets even if we had larger venues.
But it’s not just the numbers. The energy and the passion in the stadium, and the excitement of seeing international players in flesh, have been incredible. We’ve already got a great support base from cricket fans who’ve grown up in a cricket-loving country but now live here—that gives us a strong platform to build from. They’ve never had a domestic league to watch and follow nor prime time cricket to watch; they’ve had to watch it in the middle of the night, in keeping with the time zones of the rest of the world where cricket matches are typically played. T20 gives you the chance to take a great product to them, where you can bring superstar players from other countries along with quality domestic players. When you combine that, you’ve got something that really works.
We didn’t know for certain how this would be received, but early indications are definitely strong. We’ve had proof of concept that the existing fanbase loves it, from here it’s a question of how we build new fanbases. It’ll take time, but the US is such a big country and such a sport-mad country that even if we get a sliver of the larger population that doesn’t know cricket, it will add to what’s already the fourth or fifth-biggest cricket media market in the world anyway. Q. How has cricket grown in the US, especially at the grassroots level?
It’s grown a lot from a fairly low base over the past few years. A lot of new academies have sprung up, there are about 20 affiliated major league cricket academies around the country now. We have our minor league system, which is a development or pathway league of sorts; it has 26 teams in it from 20 cities around the country, playing around 100-150 matches round the year. The minor league’s great for the future of the sport. The major league, as great as it is, is a short tournament; we need high quality cricket through the year to give development opportunities to players and enable communities to watch the sport. And that’s what the minor league does. Also read: A T20 cricket league has taken off in the US. Wait, what?Q. America itself has a lot of popular sports. There’s Major League Baseball, NBA, NFL. Soccer superstar Lionel Messi has recently joined MLS, so that will have a lot of eyeballs. How can you get Americans to watch cricket?
It’s all about introducing it and finding the right audiences that are primed to be interested in it. I think the younger baseball fans are a great audience for cricket; they already like a bat and ball sport, albeit cricket’s a little different. You see US sports fans embracing newer sports than ever before, be it F1 or soccer. It’s not like the old days where they were just fans of the big four sports.
It’s about explaining the sport as well and we have to do some fundamental work there. That’s a great project for us for years 2,3 and 4. This year, it’s about getting the platform right and reaching out to the core audience; then we can really look to expand to other audiences in future.
I think if we get people out to watch a cricket match, they’re going to love it. We all know how exciting a T20 match can be, and now we’re building stadiums and producing it well so you see it in the right way. It’s all a matter of giving people a taste and then build it on from there. Tom Dunmore, VP, marketing, of MLC
Image: Courtesy MLC Q. A lot of spectators of cricket in the US are expats from the subcontinent and the Caribbean islands. How can cricket be taken beyond these two constituencies?
By testing different audiences. We do some work with influencers, like Jomboy, who’s a baseball influencer, based out of New York. We’ve done cricket-baseball crossover content with him. Plus, it’s about creating good experiences in the stadium, and making it attractive for people to go and see the matches. There’s a high bar for sports in the US, and the fact that we are able to bring the best players really helps. We’re also doing marketing activations with local sports teams like NFL’s Dallas Cowboys and baseball team Texas Rangers. The media outreach is important too, to get on the news and sports coverage. But it'll take time, we want to build audiences brick by brick. The T20 World Cup is coming to the US [co-hosted by the West Indies] next year. It’s going to be massive, because Americans know how important a World Cup is. That, I feel, will break through to a mainstream audience. Q. Multiple T20 leagues have mushroomed across the world. How does MLC stand out from being just another T20 league?
We’re different in a lot of ways, first being we are building cricket in a non-traditional market. Unlike the newly launched SA20, the domestic T20 league in South Africa, we are a new market. We’re also building infrastructure for the sport in the US. Most other T20 leagues operate with existing infrastructure—The Hundred is playing in all the big Test match grounds in England, same in South Africa. In our case, we are building stadiums, academies, coaches, domestic players. We’re investing millions of dollars into creating what you need to have a T20 league at all. We are really going bottom-up instead of top-down. Also read: From handball to panja, why sports leagues are taking off in India Q. What are some of the lessons to learn from the IPL, when it comes to scaling the game?
The IPL is on another planet compared to everyone else in cricket. But, it’s ironic really, how they’ve Americanised cricket—the music on the ground, the experience, we didn’t have all that in cricket before the IPL. And we are bringing it back to America. The way the teams are such strong brands, how the players have transformed into stars, we want to see that in the US. We do have some of the same players, and some of the IPL brands too. But we want our own teams that don’t have IPL brands to develop alongside them. So, while there is a lot to learn from the IPL, we need a slightly different approach given we have to develop the sport as well. Q. The first season is drawing to a close, with the MLC final on Sunday. What are the post-season plans?
To keep the momentum going and build on it. It can be done through social and digital content and through more activation, building connections for the minor league that will start right after. And then, we’re heading into the next year, which is huge since the US will co-host the T20 World Cup along with the second season of the MLC. That’s a lot to prepare for, and we want to work along with the ICC to help promote the sport in the US.
One of my most abiding memories of the past 10 days is the first time we saw a big six. The crowd got on their feet and cheered and waved flags, and it felt like you were watching cricket in any cricket-loving country. To have that in an American stadium is pretty cool. Every time I see that, I’m happy we’ve built this and, hopefully, we can deliver more of these moments to fans for years to come.