Washington Freedom’s Obus Pienaar signs autographs between deliveries during the third match of Major League Cricket Season 1 between the Seattle Orcas and the Washington Freedom at Grand Prairie Stadium, Grand Prairie, TX on July 14. Andy Mead – SPORTZPICS – MLC
Like billions of sports fans around the world, many of my favorite childhood memories involve cricket. Although I was born in Canada, I grew up in India, where my father was doing a PhD. In India, cricket is life. My father and I were huge fans of the game. There’s nothing like watching a match live – the sound of the bat making contact with the ball and the ball skimming the wicket. We loved talking about our favorite moments and discussing our favorite players. It was an opportunity to share time and space not only with the team and the sport we love, but also with each other; to connect through our shared passion for this beloved hobby.
When my father got a teaching job in the US, we left India and cricket behind with her. When I was completing my high school education in Alabama and attending college at Auburn University, I could no longer watch the games being played in India, and there was no easy way to follow the ups and downs of the season. On occasion, we’d get a bunch of fans together, usually British and South Asian expats, and take over a local ball field to play a little cricket. But for the most part, we had no way of staying connected to cricket. It is the second most popular sport in the world, but in the United States it was still unknown.
In the time since then, the world of sports has undergone many changes. The professionalization of the sports business has transformed sports leagues and teams. They are now complex businesses with multiple sources of revenue, from live entertainment and intellectual property to hotels, catering, fashion and real estate. More and more teams are part of a diversified portfolio of assets, with media rights, technology, intellectual property, real estate and large operational teams focused on optimizing profitability.
The relentless pursuit of financial optimization has brought with it a host of new ways for fans to watch and connect with the teams they love. Along with advances in technology, this new approach has opened up avenues like streaming, betting, and fantasy, providing avenues for fans to engage with their favorite sports and players locally and globally. Today, an Indian-American family living in Alabama can stream highlights and full matches played by India’s best cricket teams, no matter where they compete.
However, while these changes have expanded access for both casual and devoted fans, taken to an extreme, they risk eroding the passion that drives the unique relationship between teams and fans. When fans are seen as customers, rather than passionate supporters, we lose some of the purity of the sport. And when teams are managed as high-yield financial assets, the fan experience becomes similar across teams and leagues, removing some of the quirks and idiosyncrasies that used to make fans unique across regions. With a more professionalized experience comes a sense of distance; even with more opportunities for access, fans are kept at a distance.
So when the opportunity arose to launch a new professional cricket league in the United States, I jumped at the chance. This was an opportunity to share a sport he loved with others who love it, to provide the kind of personal experience that is increasingly lacking in other professional sports. From this idea came Major League Cricket, a new franchise league in the United States. Currently comprised of six teams, with squads from Texas, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle joining the Washington Freedom (the team I own, based in Washington, D.C.), the league’s 2023 season will feature 19 matches played over 18 days, preparing for the first MLC championship final on July 30, 2023. As many teams have a connection to the franchises in the Indian Premier League, we have structured the season so that matches take place during the regular low season of Indian cricket. In addition, we may offer streaming opportunities that provide additional access to fans without cheapening their experience.
One of the elements that make this new venture unique are the owners. Of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Adobe From CEO Shantanu Narayan to Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan, the owners have the same kind of connection to the sport that I do: one based on a history of true fandom and a desire to share their enthusiasm with others.
There is no doubt that our sport will grow and change over time. Make no mistake, I and others who have invested in this new league see an opportunity to grow cricket in the United States as a passion project and as a business. But we are determined to never lose the purity and fanaticism of sports, and to safeguard the experience that is so important to all of us.
Sanjay Govil is the Chairman of the Board of Infinite Computer Solutions and owner of Washington Freedom.
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