The world’s most popular actor is betting millions of dollars that the U.S. is ripe for establishing a pro league of media-friendly cricket.
Shah Rukh Khan, a Bollywood legend who is arguably the world’s most popular film star, and his Knight Riders Group are investing in American Cricket Enterprises (ACE), a U.S. group that plans to launch Major League Cricket in 2022. The pro circuit will play Twenty20 cricket, a slimmed-down version of the sport that takes place over three hours. Knight Rider and American Cricket will announce their partnership tomorrow morning.
“Even though cricket is not a mainstream sport in the U.S., the size of the diaspora and the appetite for cricket is so strong that the U.S. is the second-largest market to consume cricket content, after India,” Knight Riders Group CEO Venky Mysore said in a phone call.
Knight Riders is majority-owned by Khan, who has made more than 80 movies and is said to have 3.5 billion fans worldwide. Other stakeholders in Knight Riders Group include Juhi Chawla, a Bollywood legend in her own right, and her husband Jay Mehta, a scion of the family that owns international conglomerate Mehta Group. Among Knight Riders’ holdings are the Kolkata Knight Riders, a T20 squad in India, as well as T20 franchises in Trinidad and Tobago and South Africa. “We are convinced that Major League Cricket has all the pieces in place to execute on its plans and we look forward to making our partnership an enormous success in the coming years,” Khan said in a statement.
T20 cricket was developed in the U.K. in 2003 and has exploded in popularity since, fostering pro leagues in India, England, the Caribbean and elsewhere. To accommodate national team cricket schedules, T20 seasons generally take place in bursts of 60 games over two months each year. The U.S. league likely will take place in late summer after the Indian Premier League has its season, allowing for international players to come stateside. ACE plans to begin a minor league system in 2021 in preparation for launching what’s expected to be a six-team U.S. pro circuit in 2022.
Rather than selling franchises, ACE is selling ownership interests in the league, with most investors eventually adopting a league team as their own. The dollar commitment of Khan’s group isn’t disclosed, although ballpark figures for ACE’s early pro league fundraising are in the $60 million to $75 million range, according to Mysore.
The Knight Riders Group is the first Major League Cricket investor to be disclosed. For Khan’s group, the entry into the U.S. makes sense since the country is an important Bollywood market and dovetails with plans to establish the Knight Riders as a mainstay T20 brand worldwide.
“The combination of Bollywood and T20 cricket has been extremely successful in other markets, and we’re looking to leverage that to the extent we can in content creation and the merger of entertainment and cricket,” said ACE co-founder Vijay Srinivasan in a phone call. Srinivasan is also CEO of Willow Television, an American sports channel focused on cricket. “T20 broke out as a television product in 2007 and since then has been totally energized. Some estimates are that three-quarters of all cricket media revenues are associated with the T20 format.”
In addition to signaling that the U.S. is a fertile media market for cricket, the Knight Riders’ stateside move also can improve the level of domestic competition, according to Paraag Marathe, chair of the USA Cricket Board. “Here is one of the most reputable groups in India coming in, having had the benefit of hindsight, learning all those things we haven’t had and being able to point us in the right direction—that is so valuable for us,” he said.
USA Cricket is working with ACE to develop the game domestically, including identifying stadiums for the minor and major league cricket circuits. The groups just inked a deal to renovate the Dallas-area ballpark of the Texas AirHogs, an independent baseball team that shut down with the cancellation of the 2020 minor league season. Dallas is the first city announced to have a major league cricket team, with others to be determined. They likely will be located in other metropolitan regions with high Indian-American populations, which include New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, San Jose, Calif., and Washington, D.C. While cricket is a comparatively minor sport in the U.S., it has a robust base of upwards of 20 million fans who regularly watch cricket and thousands of amateur teams, according to Marathe.
“Here we have the second-largest sport in the world in the largest media market in the world—that right there tells you it’s a massive opportunity,” said Marathe. “People here in this country love to see the best of the best and as we build something that becomes one of the world’s best leagues… the sky’s the limit. We’re going to be on an exponential trajectory of popularity.”