Today’s guest columnist is Josh Lalor, an Australian professional cricket player and consultant for KPMG.
The June sale of media rights for the next five seasons of the Indian Premier League (IPL) changed the global landscape of the sport forever and set cricket on a path soaring towards the USA.
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The $6.2 billion deal, a 258% increase on the last cycle, leaves the NFL as the only sport globally with a higher per game fee than the IPL’s $15.2 million per match. With 1.4 billion fans in India alone, it’s a fair assumption that 1 in 5 people on the planet are IPL fans. That kind of loyalty does not go unnoticed. In May it was announced that Chris Paul and Larry Fitzgerald invested in the Rajasthan Royals, the inaugural IPL winners in 2008, joining co-owner RedBird Capital, which bought a 15% stake in 2020.
It is not just iconic American sporting names investing in this burgeoning league. Amazon, Disney and Viacom18 are household media conglomerates that were short-listed to participate in the media rights e-auction, with Amazon pulling out at the 11th hour, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall. What in the world could be too expensive for Amazon? Disney and Viacom18 did not rest, with Disney retaining the TV rights at $3 billion and Viacom18 winning the digital rights for around the same amount, staggering figures.
The IPL is the pinnacle of T20 cricket, the game’s shortest form—a little like a Major League Baseball contest, but where it’s possible to see the equivalent of 20 home runs per game. A single match last season featured 27 balls sent into the stands. It’s little wonder why this game has officially entered the global elite of sports.
With growing interest from American firms, the logical question becomes, what does this mean for the U.S.?
As a passive observer from the other side of the world, it always looked as though cricket in the States was layered with ambiguity and false starts, with the governing body, USA Cricket, expelled from the International Cricket Council (ICC) in 2017.
Enter Paraag Marathe.
The long-time San Francisco 49ers executive and vice chairman of Leeds Football Club became chairman of USA Cricket in 2018 and has led the ascension of the sport nationally and elevated the nation’s presence globally. Under Marathe, USA Cricket has won the right to co-host the T20 World Cup in 2024. This is a monumental turnaround in five years, and although Marathe is soon stepping away from the role as chairman of the national governing body, he remains a key member of a five-man panel driving cricket to be included in the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.
Major League Cricket (MLC) has been a sleeping giant of the cricketing world for decades, but Marathe might finally have awakened it. MLC announced in May that it has completed an initial close of $44 million in Series A fundraising. With a further commitment totaling $120 million over the next 12 months, MLC will have the funding, the governance and the opportunity to catapult cricket along its projected growth timeline in the U.S. As the sport’s chief innovator, the IPL undoubtedly has plans for MLC and the USA’s population of roughly 4.5 million Indian expats.
Meanwhile, the sport is drawing the interest of some of American business’ best and brightest. Microsoft CEO Satyan Nadella and Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen are listed among the early investors in MLC and continue the narrative that smart and innovative people are investing their time and money in the growth of cricket domestically and abroad.
Will history repeat itself?
Major League Soccer began play a year after the U.S. hosted the Soccer World Cup in 1994, and the major international event jump-started what is now a thriving national league. With the T20 Cricket World Cup scheduled in the U.S in 2024 and the sport’s potential inclusion in the Los Angeles 2028 Olympics, cricket will have the runway to drive commercial investment and grassroots participation across the country.
The recent IPL media rights sale changes the global cricket landscape. If the IPL decides to do so, it now has the capacity to offer the best players in the world a higher salary for a 10-week tournament than they can earn with their national teams in a year. Major League Cricket is the perfect complement for the IPL and has a chance to become the second most prominent league within a decade.
Less travel, more time with family, shorter commitment, more money. I’m quoting LeBron James out of context, but international cricketers are going to have to decide “where to take their talents.”
International cricket, with its ever-congested schedule, is suddenly at long-term risk of not having access to its best players. A sport which has been built on the foundation of creating strong cricket-playing nations is being disrupted by an even stronger league in India—and the prospect of an emerging U.S. sidekick. This now starts to sound a lot like soccer, where strong leagues are prioritized over strong nations.
The IPL remains the catalyst that influences the rest of the game globally, perhaps more so than those of us inside the sport could imagine. With continued growth in the world’s second most populous country (India), a sudden foothold in one of the world’s biggest sporting markets (U.S.), interest from some of the world’s wealthiest people (Ambani and Bezos), and commitments from some of the brightest in their field (Marathe, Nadella, Nadayen), this staid old game is suddenly the hot new thing.
Lalor, a consultant with KPMG, has spent the past 15 years playing cricket professionally in Australia and other leagues around the world. He has held a diverse set of roles at all levels within cricket in Australia, and co-founded the racism awareness campaign Reflect Forward, which leverages the power of sport and athletes’ personal stories to start a conversation on racism.