The late August sun punishes Morrisville, North Carolina. Jets on approach to nearby Raleigh-Durham International Airport pass low over Church Street Park, their engine roar lost in crowd noise and the thump of a DJ’s bass. It’s the 2022 Minor League Cricket championship, and the Seattle Thunderbolts find themselves in a low-scoring first innings against the Atlanta Fire. Then, with a confident pop, Seattle’s Andries Gous hits a six (analogous to a home run in baseball). The crowd knows it’s good, and a cheer erupts in the afternoon heat.
“You’re at the beginning of something,” Mark Stohlman, former mayor of Morrisville and a cricket player himself, says from the sidelines. “Cricket will take over.”
True believer Vijay Srinivasan Ph.D.’95 watches, pleased, from the VIP tent. Three decades ago, Morrisville was a rare place the New Delhi-raised Srinivasan could play his beloved sport. Now it’s a thriving hub, drawing an estimated 2,700, per Stohlman, to this championship match. Srinivasan, already the co-founder of Willow TV, a successful cricket TV channel, is investing in park upgrades as he launches Major League Cricket with longtime partner Sameer Mehta.
Srinivasan is bringing the majors to Morrisville, which is clearly ready. He believes the rest of the U.S. is too.
“The passion is there,” he says. “The audience is there.”
A young Srinivasan loved sports, and cricket is the sport in India. Not long after moving to Chapel Hill in 1989, Srinivasan helped start North Carolina State University’s intramural cricket club. From a handful of local teams, a league grew. Soon, Morrisville’s Shiloh Park had a cricket pitch.
“This is the early roots of what is now the Triangle Cricket League, which is now one of the most thriving leagues in the country,” says Srinivasan.
As a young professional, Srinivasan rode the ’90s internet bubble. After the crash, he decompressed at a major English cricket event. Upon returning to the U.S., though, there was no way to watch the finals. He knew what to do.
“With the bubble bursting, there was this enormous amount of internet bandwidth available,” Srinivasan explains. In late 2002, Srinivasan and Mehta launched Willow.tv, named for the best tree for crafting cricket bats, to livestream international cricket for American viewers.
The site was immediately inundated by a cricket-hungry American audience. By 2010, Willow was a Dish and DirecTV channel in about 60,000 homes. By 2016, when the Times of India bought Willow, its viewership topped 3 million.
Though Srinivasan was living in the Bay Area, the Triangle’s robust cricket scene held his attention. In 2015, Morrisville opened the Church Street Park cricket pitch. With more than 40 percent of the city’s population South Asian, per Stohlman and Deputy Town Manager Brandon Zuidema, there was a greater demand for cricket venues than baseball fields. Cricket legend Alvin Kallicharran lives in Morrisville, Stohlman adds, and was instrumental in showing the International Cricket Council Church Street’s potential.
“It put us on the map worldwide,” says Stohlman.
Once bleachers, practice facilities and broadcast capabilities are constructed, it will be one of two Major League Cricket venues – the other is in Grand Prairie, Texas – just in time for the league’s 2023 inaugural season. Each team in the new league is based in a city with a large South Asian population. From his broadcast experience, Srinivasan knows cricket fans travel internationally for major matches. Now Morrisville can expect them.
“We’ve got a robust media market. We’ve got a very affluent and passionate audience base in the U.S.,” Srinivasan says. “These are the perfect foundations for a cricket league.”
Outside August’s Minor League Cricket championship, which Seattle won, a shuttle bus driver tells passengers that this championship was bigger than last year’s, and next year’s is going to be even bigger.
“Fastest growing sport in America,” he declares.
He pulls away from Church Street Park, then slows down, then stops in the road for a commanding view of the pitch, the players, the fans. He sees a thriving cricket community, and it’s just getting started.