Knight Riders Group buys stake in USA T20 franchise project MLC

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The Knight Riders Group will play “a very broad role” in the USA-based Major League Cricket (MLC), the latest attempt to launch a franchise-led T20 tournament that is expected to kick off in 2022. That brings to three the number of leagues in which the Knight Riders Group have a team, after the IPL and CPL, and they will hold a “significant” stake in the tournament.

The investment in the MLC by the Knight Riders group, which is owned by Bollywood actors Shah Rukh Khan and Juhi Chawla along with her husband Jay Mehta, will be strategic and see them playing the role of “consultant” to help USA Cricket run the six-team T20 league.

The league will be unlike a number of others at least in one way: the six (to start with) franchises will own a part of it. “In the IPL or the CPL, you own a franchise, and that’s all you own and operate”, whereas in the case of the MLC, “you have a stake in the league”, Venky Mysore, CEO and managing director of the Knight Riders, said.

The Knight Riders Group, which owns Kolkata Knight Riders and the Trinbago Knight Riders, was invited by American Cricket Enterprises (ACE), USA Cricket’s partner in developing a professional T20 league in America. The result is what both ACE and Mysore have called “a long-term investment in American cricket”.

“When they invited us, we said we want to take a deep dive into this, and not just have a short-term outlook,” Mysore told ESPNcricinfo. “So they see us as a consultant in many ways, apart from being a big part of the league. They want us to play a very broad role, to help and assist them with all aspects of cricket in the US.

“USA Cricket are looking at a bigger national cricket set-up, academies, develop talent, and all that is complementary to what the T20 league will do as well. In addition, we will be working hard to build infrastructure there, six world-class stadiums in the next few years.

The Knight Riders Group owns the Trinbago Knight Riders in Hero CPL (CPL/Getty Images)

“It will be like a public-private partnership where you have conversations with the city council and they are used to doing it with other sports when it comes to, say, giving you land, or long-term financing arrangements.

“Eventually their ambition is to host international competitions, including, potentially, the World Cup. So this could be on the agenda. USA has a strong sports culture. It’s also the No. 1 media market. Cricket is the second-most-watched sport in the world, so you combine it all, it’s got all the ingredients of a very successful product.”

Only last week, Greg Barclay, the new ICC chairman, indicated that the USA would likely be one of the places cricket will target in its push for further growth. He had also hinted at the possibility of wresting global events away from India, England and Australia, and that the USA would be “the logical place to start”.

If and when it is launched, having been postponed by a year already due to the COVID-19 outbreak, MLC will be the first professional T20 league in America. It is already the latest in a string of attempted professional T20 league ventures in America since the start of the millennium.

ProCricket was launched with much fanfare in 2005 and was headlined by numerous former internationals including Mervyn Dillon, Robin Singh and Colin Miller, but it folded operations after just one season. A planned venture by independent New York businessman Jay Mir called American Premier League was targeted for 2008 but never launched.

KKR players celebrate a wicket (Photo: IPL)

The USA Cricket Association then signed an agreement in 2010 with New Zealand Cricket, Neil Maxwell’s Insite and Podar Enterprises to start a franchise league by the year 2012 but various administrative issues resulted in another failed launch. USACA later signed a $70 million agreement in 2016 with former St Lucia Zouks owner Jay Pandya, once again aimed at launching a T20 league.

However, USACA was under ICC suspension at the time, throwing the validity of the Pandya agreement into doubt and plans fizzled out a year later when USACA was formally expelled by the ICC.

Pandya’s “American Cricket Premier League” subsequently filed a lawsuit in May 2019 attempting to block American Cricket Enterprises from pursuing a T20 league in partnership with USA Cricket, but the suit was withdrawn a year later.

“What you are looking at here, is that everyone is aligned,” Mysore said. “You have a stake in the league, and the decisions that are made have a bearing on you and the league. You are also looking out for the health of the tournament. Here, we will be party to the decision-making, which is important.

“Normally, the finances flow into the entity that owns the league, whereas here, the stakeholders get a large chunk of it. To that extent, you gain or lose based on the kind of decisions that are made.”

From the point of view of the Knight Riders Group, who had also bought a team in the aborted South African Global T20 League – the Cape Town franchise – the aim has been to become a round-the-year entity, something they have made clear for some time now.

“Lots of people say we are the only global brand in T20 cricket, and we take a lot of pride in that,” Mysore said. “That was always our vision. The IPL is for two months, and maybe a month leading up to that, but what do you do to keep your brand alive the rest of the year.

“The vision is to build the business at a global level, and own two, three, four, five franchises around the world, and build them on the mother brand of Knight Riders, and use a common template and model about how you operationalise the business, how you do your branding, your sponsorship deals, your merchandising deals, etc.”

MLC is expected to be a city-based competition, but while developing six stadia is a big part of the plan, it is likely to start with three venues, according to Mysore: Fort Lauderdale, which has hosted international cricket in the past; a Dallas-based baseball ground that will be repurposed; and one in Morrisville, North Carolina.

“They were very encouraged that UAE was able to hold an eight-team event in three cities, and this is a six-team event,” Mysore said. “In five years, they might think about expanding it. That’s the broad thought process.”

There is talk of at least some prominent names from Test-playing countries being on the radar of MLC, as and when the time for such a thing comes up, but the player-recruitment process will be the same as elsewhere to start with: a draft or an auction, with players from around the world listed. “Then, over time, when the scouting and grassroots programmes kick in, we are hoping more and more local players get involved,” Mysore said. (ESPNCricinfo)

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