When the Grand Prairie Airhogs baseball team announced it was closing in October, many in the community of 200,000 people outside Dallas, Texas were aghast. Fans took to the team’s social media accounts lamenting what was “a horrible loss.”
But as soon as one door slammed shut, another quickly opened.
Situated strategically between Dallas and Fort Worth, Grand Prairie is one of the most ethnically diverse areas in America today. In a city in which nearly a quarter of residents were born outside the US, one in seven hail from countries in the south Asia region.
Grand Prairie is also ground zero for major sporting activity. The Dallas Cowboys National Football League franchise – the most valuable sports organisation on the planet, valued at $5.5 billion – and the Texas Rangers baseball team are both a 10-minute drive down the highway in Arlington.
Those elements combined have helped set in play what US cricket authorities say will be the sport’s most ambitious – and strategic – foray into the American market yet. Last month, Major League Cricket (MLC) in conjunction with USA Cricket, the country’s governing body, announced the signing of a long-term lease of the Airhogs stadium with plans to turn it into the leading cricket venue in the country.
Capacity will be increased to hold 8,000 spectators and the facility will include a dedicated performance centre for the men’s and women’s national cricket teams. The long-term plan, officials say, is to host major international games and tournaments including ICC and T20 world cup qualifiers.
Grand Prairie’s local government, which owns the stadium, is fully behind the move, with mayor Ron Jensen stating how it’s an exciting “opportunity to bring cricket to Texas … cricket is the second most popular sport in the world.”
All this is happening at a time of major upheaval for baseball. Last year, Major League Baseball, whose 30 franchises own all players in the 160 affiliated Minor League Baseball teams, effectively announced it would take complete control of player development.
The move means that 42 yet-to-be-named minor league franchises attached to the organisation will be cut loose. Some may continue as independent entities, though many are expected to shutter.
Since a majority of the stadiums they occupied are owned by local municipalities, these city authorities now find themselves on the hunt for new tenants.
That’s where cricket steps in.
Cricket authorities see these changes as a way to help get the sport in front of audiences both in large metro areas and the American heartland.
According to Will Swann, director of corporate development at MLC, taking over soon-to-be-available baseball stadiums across the county is an affordable way to get “high class stadiums.”
“It’s early days, but the major markets we’re looking at include San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington DC and the New York-New Jersey area,” he says.
“We have some identified that we’ve started conversations with. But it’s about finding the right location and the existing structure or bowl that would work for converting to cricket.”
The move could finally put a sport followed by 20 million people in the US firmly at the centre of the world’s biggest sports market.
Swann says that some of the most obvious infrastructural changes relate to the shape of the grounds – baseball is played on a diamond-shaped field, while cricket requires a mainly oval playing surface pitches at its centre.
“The really attractive part is that we feel we can convert these grounds while keeping the main bowl structure intact.”
Unique sports venues across the world
Launching in 2022, Major League Cricket has the backing of some powerful names in the American sports world, including Paraag Marathe, a senior executive at the San Francisco 49ers NFL team and the son of Indian immigrants.
Six teams, including one based in Grand Prairie, are expected to open the inaugural Major League season. This month, it was announced that MLC has attracted investment from Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan, a co-owner of the Indian Premier League’s Kolkata Knight Riders.
All the while, efforts are afoot to develop the game at the community level. In August, 24 teams were confirmed to take part in the Minor League Cricket inaugural season scheduled to start in the spring.
For Major League Cricket, officials say striking a balance between importing star talent and developing new American players is a primary goal. While it’s not clear yet how many international players each team will be allowed to sign, the figure will likely be four to six.
Aside from attracting to the game what, as football has found out, can be a fickle American audience, other challenges include finding the right stadiums and once that’s done, re-laying parts of Major and Minor League pitches to construct turf wickets.
“That’s a key element to people improving their game,” says Swann.
“But the local cricket communities we’re working with are incredibly supportive and motivated.”