Major League Cricket (MLC) finally got underway in the United States last week after several false starts, fuelling hopes that the sport is poised to break new ground in a huge new market on the back of the popular Twenty20 format.

Five years after USA Cricket shared its plans to launch a domestic T20 tournament, the inaugural edition of the MLC kicked off having assembled an impressive array of investors.

Four of its six franchises are owned by business entities which also own teams in the Indian Premier League (IPL), the money-spinning standard bearer of franchise cricket.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is co-owner of the MLC’s Seattle franchise, while Washington and San Francisco franchises have strategic partnerships with the Australian states of New South Wales and Victoria.

While franchise-based competitions are springing up all around the world, Tom Dunmore, MLC’s marketing vice president, said the U.S. competition cannot be dismissed as “just another T20 league”.

“We’re building stadiums and youth academies, we’re building training centres and bringing in coaches and players,” he told Reuters from Dallas.

“Those will be available for the USA national teams as well.

“It’s not really like other T20 leagues that are using existing facilities in cricket-mad countries.”

While cricket remains a niche sport in the U.S. it has been around for a long time in the country – the first international cricket match took place in New York in 1844 with the United States taking on Canada.

The MLC could be cricket’s vehicle to break into a sporting landscape dominated by baseball, basketball and American football, said Dunmore.

“We’re cracking a new market for the sport,” he added.

“Cricket hasn’t really broken into a major new market for some time. So this is a chance not only to do that, but to do it in the world’s biggest commercial market.”

Dunmore said cricket’s existing fan base in the U.S. made it the sport’s fifth-largest market.

“If we slice off even a small percentage of the rest of the population, you’ve got a massive market.”

West Indies’ Kieron Pollard, one of the first players to fully embrace franchise cricket, was confident MLC would take cricket “prime-time” in the U.S., even though others had failed to break open the market.

“Obviously before MLC, different people have tried different things,” the 36-year-old, who leads the league’s New York franchise, told Reuters.

“But now the difference is the backing of the Indian franchises and the international players that are coming.”

‘THE BUZZ’

Success on the global stage would help boost cricket’s profile in the United States, and while there has been no big breakthrough as yet Pollard said they are getting closer.

A U.S. team featuring players mostly of Indian origin made it to the 50-overs World Cup qualifiers in June but failed to make the cut for the main tournament in India later this year.

But the experience of rubbing shoulders with the likes of former South Africa captain Faf du Plessis and England international Jason Roy would stand them in good stead, Pollard said.

“It augurs well for USA cricket, and hopefully the young talent that is there in America can use this opportunity to grow into better international cricketers,” he added.

Co-hosting the T20 World Cup next year with West Indies will also give the game a boost in the United States.

The launch of the MLC assumes even more importance coming at a time when the International Cricket Council (ICC) is lobbying for the game’s Olympic inclusion at the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

Dunmore said the MLC was providing cricket much-needed visibility as the game bids to return to the Olympics for the first time since 1900.

“The crowds and the excitement, the buzz, the media attention both in the US and globally, now that’s truly helpful,” he added.

ICC Chief Executive Geoff Allardice acknowledged the buzz MLC has created in the United States.

“There are a number of developments in the U.S. that are helping to raise awareness of the game, the start of the MLC is one of them, they draw a lot of attention to the sport,” Allardice said last week.

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