Cricket-loving expats in US attract big media investment

Cricket-loving expats in US attract big media investment

On a Saturday this month, just after morning prayers, members of Masjid Quba Masjid in Brooklyn attended a party.

Over bites of halwa and sips of tea at Lahori Mirchi — the heart of Little Pakistan — on the edge of the Midwood neighborhood, patrons offered hopeful, yet measured remarks. In the first match of the Men’s Cricket World Cup in India, Pakistan was facing its fiercest on-field and geopolitical rival India.

“Pakistan and India are just an adventure,” said Nisar Khan, 49, who came from Pakistan 18 years ago.

For decades, early morning communal gatherings were the only way for South Asian immigrants to experience cricket matches. Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi Americans would pack restaurants, movie theaters and student unions to connect, via pay-per-view broadcasts, with the sport and culture they left behind.

Nowadays, those vigil parties are more rare. More and more fans can watch games from their living rooms. Given the growing clout of South Asian Americans, media companies have invested heavily in cricket in recent years. Times of India Group-owned ESPN and Willow TV share US rights to this year’s World Cup. Like other matches of the tournament, the Pakistan–India match was streamed on ESPN+.

“I watch it like I watch anime on Netflix,” said Michael Pachter, a technology analyst at Wedbush Securities. This is “a very small portion of their overall customer base, but a rabid group of fans who love the content.”

It’s one of many ways various companies are trying to capitalize on cricket’s relatively small – but loyal and growing – audience in the United States.

Investors have invested more than $1 billion to expand the sport in the United States, and spent more than $100 million to build a cricket stadium for a new league. The league’s team owners include Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella; Indian actor Shahrukh Khan; and Mukesh Ambani, an Indian telecom tycoon.

The sport will be played at the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, marking the first time cricket will be included in more than a century. Next year’s Twenty20 World Cup – a shortened version of this year’s event, taking up much less time – will take place in North America. Under the tournament, India and Pakistan will also play their first match on American soil.

But while businesses and politicians see an opportunity, many of the five million Americans of South Asian descent see a game and a life abandoned thousands of miles away.

Whether it all ultimately comes to fruition will be largely determined by fans like Bhaveshkumar Davda, who was born in India but grew up in New York City in the 1980s. In the early 2000s, Mr Davda, 52, had to go to theaters to watch cricket, but he was able to watch the Pakistan-India match at home this month. After the game, he wore an Indian cricket cap and a Knicks starter jacket while walking down the street in Jersey City’s Little India, celebrating India’s victory.

“Everyone loves watching cricket,” Mr Davda said. “Even old people, even young people.”

While many Americans unfamiliar with cricket watch the game avidly, the scale of its global popularity is undeniable, largely due to the intense interest among South Asians.

When the Indian national team plays a big match, workdays are often disrupted, stores are closed and routines come to a halt. India’s streaming service Hotstar, which is owned by Disney, said 35 million people watched Pakistan-India match on service. Indian cricket star Virat Kohli has more Instagram followers than NBA’s LeBron James.

Satyan Gajwani, vice president of the digital arm of the Times of India Group and one of the investors trying to increase interest in cricket in the United States, said focusing on Indians living outside India is a big part of Willow’s strategy. Was. He noted the prosperity of Indian Americans, who make up the majority of the South Asian population in the United States. According to latest census estimatesIndian Americans have the highest median household income of any group in the country.

“It has to be a powerful and engaging and well-served audience,” he said. “From a business standpoint, it seemed like something you could build.”

Today, Willow reaches four million American homes and is distributed on carriers like DirecTV, Dish and Comcast, which is a far cry from what started in 2003 as a site that often offered incredible streams of international matches. Was. This has been helped by the growth of the South Asian American population – which doubled from 2010 to 2020 – and overall improvements in streaming infrastructure.

Before starting streaming cricket, ESPN purchased Cricinfo (now known as ESPNcricinfo), a website dedicated to cricket coverage, in 2007. Now this site brings millions of hits of traffic every month. John Lasker, senior vice president of ESPN+, said that ESPN’s cricket coverage has helped it “reach fans we weren’t serving before.”

After sharing the rights to this year’s World Cup with ESPN, Willow has the majority of rights to stream and broadcast games to North American audiences for the next five years. It is also the media partner of the new domestic professional league, Major League Cricket, which played its inaugural season in July.

Cricket had to struggle for a long time to make its mark in the United States. The upstart league folded due to lack of funding and organization, while the American Cricket Federation did so. Expelled from International Cricket Council Amidst the financial crisis. Media companies such as Nimbus and Zee Media had little success in broadcasting Indian matches in the US.

But the success of Twenty20, cricket’s shortest format, and continued immigration and the growing influence of South Asian Americans elevated the game.

In Test cricket, the oldest and most traditional form of the game, matches can last up to five days with no result, a fact that often surprises American sports fans. Test matches are solemn affairs that pause for tea and refreshments breaks, with both teams wearing white uniforms. Even one-day matches like this year’s World Cup can last up to eight hours.

In Twenty20 matches, which take just three hours, each side wears colorful attire as pop music plays between balls and cheerleaders keep the energy high. Their shorter format encourages the most exciting aspects of the game: big hits and run chases.

Cricket may still struggle to gain widespread support. While the South Asian population is growing rapidly, the community represents a small portion of the TV audience.

But cricket fans bring a greater level of intensity and commitment. According to comScore data, the typical Willow viewer watches the channel more than 24 hours per month, nearly twice as much as ESPN and nearly four times as much as MLB Network.

Now, the key to the sport’s expansion in the United States is to cater to less extreme observers. Watching, playing and experiencing cricket up close can bring cricket “beyond the pure South Asian diaspora”, Mr. Gajwani said.

Morrisville, NC, was one of two host cities for the inaugural season of Major League Cricket, drawing crowds of over 3,500 for each match in late July. Vendors in the stadium sold Indian ice cream and butter chicken, and live country music embodied the boisterous atmosphere. The South Asian population in Morrisville has grown rapidly over the past quarter-century, with immigrants attracted by high-paying tech jobs in the Research Triangle area.

According to Morrisville Mayor TJ Cawley, the city had been building a park for baseball for about a decade before deciding to dedicate it to cricket, realizing that the sport was more popular locally. In July, Church Street Park was a site for Major League Cricket, and it hosts a local amateur cricket league.

Mr. Cawley, who grew up playing ultimate frisbee in Westchester County, outside New York, said he “also played in the league for a few seasons.”

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