Is U.S. Cricket Licensing on a Sticky Wicket?

Cricket is the second most popular sport globally, after football/soccer, with an audience of more than 2.5 billion across 180 countries. It is particularly strong in South Asia (Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afghanistan, and especially India); Australia and New Zealand; England (the birthplace of the sport); the West Indies including Trinidad and Tobago; South Africa among other African countries; and additional locales such as the United Arab Emirates.

The sport was first brought to the future U.S. when it was still part of the British colonies, and it remained popular through the 1800s before fading away. Since then, it has been little-known to most American consumers. But it is seeing its popularity rise in the U.S. of late—although it retains niche status—and promoters believe this expansion will continue. This could spur more licensing opportunities down the road.

Recent milestones in the sport’s growth include:

  • The U.S. men’s team beating expectations in this summer’s Men’s Twenty20 (T20) Cricket World Cup. The Americans beat Canada and powerhouse Pakistan (in a major upset) before losing to India and England to end their run. Although the U.S. team had defeated Bangladesh in a game leading up to the tournament (another upset), it had only qualified for World Cup play because it served as a host country. As an associate member of the global governing body (the International Cricket Council, or ICC), the U.S. plays in the T20 and One Day Internationals formats, but not the Test matches that are the traditional form of play for elite teams. (Three-hour matches, like the T20 format, are considered more accessible for Americans than longer, more complex forms.) The national team is planning to participate in more international tournaments in the next decade.
  • The U.S. co-hosting the T20 World Cup for the first time. It partnered with the West Indies, with matches held in Texas, Florida, and New York, as well as across the Caribbean. The tournament helped raise interest in the sport in the U.S., including spurring increased digital interaction on social media and on the ICC website and app. The ICC platforms were visited by 2.7 million U.S.-based users, a significant bump from the 2022 World Cup, with 52% of users estimated to be new fans. All told, 190,000 fans attended the 16 T20 matches that took place in the U.S., and 10s of thousands more enjoyed the games on video at “fan parks” in major cities across the country.
  • The growth of the Indian American population. U.S. inhabitants with 100% Indian heritage have become the largest single-ethnicity group in the U.S., with 4.4 million, surpassing people with 100% Chinese roots in 2020. The Indian population grew 60% between 2010 and 2022, according to the U.S. Census. Indian Americans, along with other South Asian Americans, have been driving the growth of cricket in the U.S. to date; for real success the sport will need to expand into other population groups as well.
  • The launch of Major League Cricket. This new American league started competing in June 2023, with six teams—the Los Angeles Knight Riders, MI New York, San Francisco Unicorns, Seattle Orcas, Texas Super Kings, and Washington Freedom—playing during a three-week season. The league’s second season started last Friday, July 5. Owners of MLC teams, which have invested nearly $1 billion in the league, include several teams in the Indian Professional League (IPL) along with current and former executives of the biggest U.S. tech companies, mostly of South Asian heritage. Over the next few years, the MLC plans to expand the number of teams, whose players are mostly international athletes, and the number of games played. Meanwhile, 45 current MLC players represented their countries in the World Cup, while Team USA featured more than a dozen MLC players.
  • Increased investment in grassroots cricket for men, women, and children over the last several years. There are more than 200 club teams, 400 individual cricket leagues, and an estimated 200,000 players in the U.S., according to USA Cricket, all significant increases from five years ago. In addition, more than three dozen cricket academies have been set up in the past seven years by a Major League Cricket-affiliated group. This grassroots infrastructure will be critical for developing players and fans beyond the current international core.
  • Expanding, albeit still limited, media exposure. An Indian-backed cricket-centric streaming channel, Willow, launched in 2010; it is the primary streamer of MLC games and carried the T20 World Cup as well. The New York MLC club’s games were also aired on the New York Yankees’ YES Network. ESPN+ carries international cricket competition and league play, and Sling TV offers a bundle of cricket-dedicated programming from Willow and international streamers, as well as premium content from ESPN.
  • The return of cricket to the Olympics in 2028. The Games, which are being held in Los Angeles, will be the first since 1900 to include the sport. Many experts believe having these games in the U.S., along with the higher-profile television coverage, may provide another boost to the sport, especially if the U.S. team does well.
  • The increased diversity of the sports market in the U.S. in general. The sports landscape is still dominated by the five major men’s pro leagues, along with collegiate sports, but there is much more interest than in the past in other options, such as women’s sports, international soccer clubs, and global sports that are emerging and/or little known in the U.S. to date. This means U.S. fans are more likely to sample an unfamiliar sport like cricket.

Merchandise licensing tied to cricket entities is still limited in the U.S. market. T10 Sports, an Indian company owned by Jade Knits that creates merchandise for the IPL’s Punjab Kings and the national cricket teams of Oman and Kuwait, as well as for global sports entities in the Indian market, signed on in 2022 as the official kit and apparel supplier for USA Cricket, selling the shirts worn by the national team in the T20 World Cup and the events leading up to it. The products are available on the USA Cricket shop. The MLC shop, meanwhile, sells t-shirts, caps, bucket hats, and sweatshirts for the MLC, its teams, and USA Men’s Cricket.

Globally, the ICC licensed U.S.-based Fanatics in September 2022 to operate the official ICC online store, manage retail shops for key ICC events in 2023, and manufacture licensed ICC products on a global basis. In summer of 2023, the ICC sent out a request for applicants interested in designing, developing, and implementing a global turnkey merchandise licensing program for ICC events happening in 2024 through 2031; however, the group has not announced any new partners as of yet from this call for expressions of interest.

In another global initiative, the Federation of International Cricketers Associations (FICA) paired earlier this year with Winners Alliance, the U.S.-based for-profit division of the Professional Tennis Players Association, to establish a group licensing program for 500 cricket players from 13 territories around the world, including England, Australia, West Indies, and Ireland. The agreement establishes a one-stop shop for commercial partners to gain access to the players’ name, image, and likeness rights with a focus on video games, trading cards, and other collectibles.

In countries where cricket is more established than it is in the U.S., licensing activity is more robust, as would be expected. In India, for example, a dedicated licensee, FanCode Shop, handled merchandising for the ICC men’s and women’s T20 World Cups, including gear and lifestyle products, with merchandise available in airport stores in six cities and in other retail locations across the country. FanCode also manages the stores for seven IPL teams and works with a variety of European football clubs, the WWE and NBA, and other local and international entities.

Meanwhile, some individual IPL teams have significant licensing programs. The Reliance-owned Mumbai Indians team, for example, has a growing list of licensees, including Ecentric, PlayR, Suditi, Celio, Dudeme, and Skechers, all for apparel; Cybeart for gaming chairs; EUME for backpacks and travel accessories; Parksons for playing cards; CrunchBox for popcorn; Chupps for footwear; and Boldfit for training gear.

Cricket-related licensing efforts are also in place in other key markets, from England to Australia/New Zealand.

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