Sanjay Govil wants to make cricket “an American sport.” Photograph courtesy of Sanjay Govil.
DC’s newest professional sports team, the Washington Freedom, will make its Major League Cricket debut on Friday with a match against Seattle in Texas.
The first pro cricket league in the US, MLC has four other teams—Dallas, Los Angeles, New York City, and San Francisco—and will play its 2023 season matches at Dallas’ home stadium and at a cricket ground in North Carolina. By 2025, however, the Freedom hope to play home matches in the area at a dual-use baseball/cricket stadium built in partnership with George Mason University.
Cricket is estimated to be the second-most popular sport in the world behind soccer, but its appeal is concentrated in South Asia, the Caribbean, South Africa, and Oceania. In the US, the Freedom and MLC initially will be counting on fan interest from South Asian and West Indian immigrant communities that already have flourishing amateur leagues—but future growth will come from building a broader base of support.
To better understand how the Freedom came to be—and where American cricket is heading—Washingtonian spoke with team owner Sanjay Govil, an IT executive from Rockville and lifelong cricket enthusiast:
Tell us a bit about your background. Did you grow up playing cricket?
I was born in Canada, where my father was doing his doctorate, and then we moved back to India.. I grew up playing cricket, like any other Indian. If the total population of India is 1.4 billion, I would say 1.4 billion people either play or follow cricket. So it’s like a religion there, it’s in everybody’s blood, and it’s a national pastime.
I moved to Alabama in my senior year of high school and went to Auburn University. I used to play in Auburn, but obviously there was no mechanism at that time to watch matches. So there was a void for a few years when there was no cricket for me. Then I moved to upstate New York to work for IBM. I did my master’s at Syracuse again and played for the Syracuse cricket team. At that time there was no real league, so we had created our own league in upstate New York. Our captain was Raj Subramaniam, who is now the CEO of FedEx— I just met him again at the Biden state dinner with Prime Minister Modi. I moved to Maryland in ‘91 and have called that my home since then.
Is there a big amateur cricket community in this area?
We have so many leagues in every county: Loudoun County, Fairfax County, Montgomery County, Howard County, PG County, and Baltimore County. We have fields all over. We have our Infinite Eagles team, which plays the Maryland Cricket Premier League, and we are the most successful in terms of winning championships. So I’m very proud of that. I’m a U.S. citizen, proud to be an American, but at the same time, my love for cricket has always been there.
People like us, as we’ve grown, our children have grown, and the amount of kids who are playing cricket now at different academies across the United States is mind boggling. We have parents who literally take their kids at 7 AM and come back at 4 PM for cricket. There’s so much money in cricket now, just like soccer, just like the NFL and so on, that they see this as an avenue where people can play in leagues across the world from the Indian Premier League to Major League Cricket in America, and the Big Bash in Australia. So that’s going to be huge.
So cricket is one of the most popular sports worldwide, and many Americans, especially South Asians, are die-hard fans. But there are also a lot of Americans who don’t know how it’s played. Are you thinking about ways to build a stronger fanbase in DC?
My goal is to make this an American sport. The goal here is not just South Asians, they’re already in it, right? So a lot of my effort is going to being an evangelist for this sport among people who are not exposed to cricket. The good news is that they are already being exposed to cricket because, you know, ESPN occasionally has scores. The second thing that’s a very interesting fact is that cricket used to be played in the US until the 1800s.
But the goal is definitely to evangelize the sport in the US. We’ll start to create a lot of social media stuff on how cricket is played, just to bring awareness. We fully understand this is going to be a multi-year cycle. The beauty about this is that this is a three-hour game and you go there and just bang, bang, bang. It is run after run after run, and you go there and have beer, burgers and hot dogs and you know, all the stuff we love here. So it’s a combination of being at a party and enjoying a game.
Major League Baseball has been trying to pick up the pace of its games. Is cricket a faster paced game?
I think it’s as fast-paced as the NFL and the NBA, and there is no comparison between baseball and cricket in terms of pace. I mean, it’s nonstop action. The only time there’s no action is when the bowler is coming in to bowl, but there’s action even then, because there’s so much anticipation. And every ball counts. So it’s a very intense game, very fast paced, and you really get into it when you’re supporting your team.
Let Freedom Ring 🔔 🇺🇸 🏏
— Major League Cricket (@MLCricket) March 15, 2023
This first season lasts less than a month, and all the games take place in Texas and North Carolina, where stadiums already exist. When will DC get its own cricket stadium?
The goal is to have your stadiums up and running as soon as possible. Our goal is 2025, and as every city has its own stadium, we’re obviously going to have matches in each stadium. So the limiting factor is the lack of infrastructure right now. We’re very fortunate that we teamed up with George Mason University to build a stadium, which is going to be a combo of baseball and a cricket field, the first in the United States of America, and it’s going to be a great blueprint for all universities and colleges. And next to us—I cannot name the team—but there’s going to be another professional team coming next to us. They’re building their stadium there, and the concept is to build a whole township in that area. This is being built in the West campus [in Fairfax] because they have like 130 acres of land. So it’s going to be a great thing for the community and a great thing for Washington. The [T20] World Cup is slated to be hosted by a combination of the United States and West Indies next year. It’s already announced. That’s another big impetus for cricket. And then the Olympics 2028 is looking at adding cricket. If that happens, then it’s going to be a full court press on improving cricket in America.