Cricket’s American dream takes flight – ‘This season is about proving we can do it’

“The growth progression for the sport [in the USA] is really strong,”

says MLC tournament director Justin Geale

It is the day before the third Ashes Test but Justin Geale, an Australian from Wagga Wagga, is not in Leeds. Instead, he is 4500 miles away in Dallas. “I’m walking around the stadium now,” he says. “It’s about 40 degrees, and there’s a cricket ground out in the middle.”

Geale is the tournament director for Major League Cricket (MLC), the six-team franchise competition which launches on Thursday. He is an experienced administrator who spent eight years working for IMG, predominantly at the IPL, but says of bringing MLC into existence: “This is the hardest thing I’ve done.”

The league has secured over US$ 120 million of funding and the involvement of four IPL owners or co-owners, plus two Australian states as “high-performance partners”, adds to its credibility. The squad lists for the inaugural season, which runs from July 13 to 30, are stacked. More than 30 IPL players are involved – and will earn up to $175,000 for two-and-a-half weeks’ work.

Cricket has hoped to expand its reach in the USA for decades with limited success, but the next five years will present three “touchpoints”, to use Geale’s word: the launch of MLC; the 2024 men’s T20 World Cup, co-hosted by USA and West Indies; and the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles, which the ICC is actively targeting as part of its plan to “drive targeted growth” in the USA.

“This is where the growth could be,” Geale says. “I think every cricketing nation acknowledges that. And the timing of that World Cup next year is really important. Speaking for everyone, we’re not here to take on MLB [Major League Baseball] or any other sport. But I think the growth progression for the sport is really strong.”

The league is owned privately by American Cricket Enterprises (ACE), rather than by USA Cricket, and effectively operates as a start-up. “It’s privately funded by people who see the vision,” Geale says. “There’s a lot of high-profile businessmen who are privately invested.” They have already staged two editions of Minor League Cricket, which is positioned as a developmental league.

“I’ve said it from the very start: if this is going to work in the USA – after so many false starts – then the cricket has to be good,” Geale says. “Our philosophy for MLC was to try and get some of the best players in the world here, and we’re combining that with domestic players who were either born here or have relocated and set up their lives here over the last three years.”

Grand Prairie Stadium was reopened as a cricket venue at a ceremony on Tuesday • Major League Cricket

This year, fixtures will be split between Grand Prairie in Dallas (12 matches) and Church Street Park in Morrisville, North Carolina (seven matches); in future, all six franchises plan to have a home stadium, which would enable the league to be played under a full home-and-away format. Geale is hopeful that both venues will be conducive to quality cricket: “We’ve done all we can.”
Will anyone actually watch it? There are plenty of tickets available for most games but the opening night is sold out and Geale says that sales are “tracking a little ahead” of expectations. Major broadcasters around the world will show it, though start times do not lend themselves favourably to viewers in the subcontinent.
“My genuine hope is that in the first couple of days, everyone can see it’s good fun, it has good cricket and we can really drag some more people in,” Geale says. “But we’re really focusing on engaging local leagues here and local people within the Dallas and Houston regions, which can be a real hotbed of cricket in this country.”

A significant obstacle is the heat: it is mid-summer, and temperatures will be high throughout the tournament. The flip-side is that MLC has found a window in the calendar that is relatively clear, only clashing with a handful of Test series. “I wouldn’t love to be starting a T20 tournament around Christmas time,” Geale says.

The result is that some of the best players in the world have arrived in the USA – including a handful of active Pakistan players in Shadab Khan, Haris Rauf and Imad Wasim. “The guys don’t play in the IPL, and there’s all sorts of reasons and politics around that,” Geale says. “Whereas in the USA, we have the opportunity: it’s based on freedom over here.

“We really want to be a league that is open to everyone: if you’re good enough and you want to play, come and play. We’re pretty happy to have the guys here and I think the fans here are too. There’s a huge amount of Pakistan fans over here, and they want to see their heroes. I hope that continues in the future.”

The relationship between MLC and USA Cricket has not always been smooth. There was a delay in MLC obtaining official sanction from the governing body earlier this year, but Geale insists, “It’s in our interests to get along. We are absolutely working together on this.”

MLC has a liberal attitude to the definition of a “domestic player”, with Corey Anderson, Liam Plunkett and Dane Piedt among those classed as locals. But Geale admits, “If this is going to be a sustainable, long-term project then it needs to have American players as well. They need to be part of it.”

USA went winless at the recent men’s ODI World Cup qualifier in Zimbabwe, suggesting there is some way to go yet. And with the ICC set to introduce caps on the number of overseas players permitted per XI in franchise leagues, MLC – in which teams can field up to six this year – needs more domestic talent, which it hopes will emerge in the long term if the league is a success.

What does success look like in MLC’s first season? “We’re in for the long haul, and this season is about proving we can do it,” Geale says. Over the next two-and-a-half weeks, it will start to become clear whether or not cricket’s American dream can become a reality.