In cricket, Olympic officials could add one sport and 1.4 billion fans

Cricket – ICC World Test Championship Final – India Practice Session – The Oval, London, Britain – June 4, 2023 India’s Ravindra Jadeja during practice Action Images via Reuters/Peter Cziborra

The world’s most populous country really cares about only one sport, but India’s 1.4 billion people and soaring economy are enough to attract the attention of the International Olympic Committee – so much so that cricket could find its way onto the program for the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

With its complicated rules and days-long matches that sometimes end in ties, cricket never fit the Games, which partially explains why India has had little Olympic relevance beyond 35 medals, 10 of them gold. But a condensed, three-hour form of the game called Twenty20 or T20 has boomed in India, making the 15-year-old Indian Premier League the world’s most lucrative sports leagues, and has caught the eye of IOC officials who yearn to be a part of the country’s growing wealth.

Cricket has gone from being one of nine sports L.A. 2028 organizers are considering for inclusion to one of the top choices. A recent Guardian report saying cricket is “very likely” to be added to the program has been confirmed by two people with knowledge of the situation who caution that nothing has been finalized.

“The stars are aligning,” said one of those familiar with the deliberations but unauthorized to speak publicly.

The reasons are obvious. The IOC sees India as the next frontier, and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi sees the Olympics as a means for his global ambitions.

“For the IOC, the Indian subcontinent is one of the most underserved areas for youth,” said Terrence Burns, the chairman of the T Burns Sports Group, which has worked with the IOC and several bid cities and Olympic sports federations on marketing projects.

The IOC, which relies on huge corporate sponsorships and expensive television rights deals, is aggressively seeking new markets, especially as streaming cuts audience numbers for traditional broadcasts. By holding two Olympics in China in the past 15 years, the IOC has built a significant base. India stands as the next big prize and Olympic officials are working to find ways into the country.

The Los Angeles program will be finalized this fall at the IOC’s full member session in Mumbai.

“Look at the size of the cricket fan base in the Indian subcontinent,” Burns says. “People might say cricket isn’t big in the U.S., but it’s bigger in a place that is four times bigger than the U.S.”

Cricket was in the Olympics once before, during the 1900 Paris Games, when just two countries, England and France, played the Olympics’ lone match. After that, cricket and its days-long matches disappeared from the Games without much discussion about bringing it back. Then in 2008 the IPL came along.

Before the IPL, cricket was built around national and state teams, who played either the multiday or single-day forms of the game. The crowds were mostly adult and male, the atmosphere serious. When the idea of a T20 cricket league with big-city franchises and prime-time matches shown on television was first suggested, many in India’s cricket world were hesitant. It attacked many of India’s cricket norms. There was a thought it wouldn’t work.

Instead, it was an instant hit.

“That’s because of how it was packaged,” said Ronojoy Sen, a senior research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies at National University of Singapore and the author of “A History of Sport in India.” “It was a complete entertainment product that attracted not only traditional cricket fans but also nontraditional cricket fans.”

The Indian cricket many people think of now is played quickly at night, under blazing stadium lights, with huge family crowds in big stadiums. The whole thing is “a reality TV show almost directed to Indian housewives,” as described by Mihir Bose, the author of “The Nine Waves, The Extraordinary Story of How India Took Over Cricket.”

Bollywood stars often show up to IPL matches, the biggest of them being Shah Rukh Khan, a swashbuckling celebrity, often referred to as “The King of Bollywood.” Early on, Khan bought the Kolkata franchise with another film star, and they named the team the Knight Riders, after the 1980s American television series where David Hasselhoff fought crime with a talking supercar.

“When Khan comes to a match, he brings a group of Bollywood stars, and they sit in the box with him,” Sen said. “That adds extra glamour to it.”

The money around the IPL is astounding, given that it is essentially a start-up league that plays only from March to May. Last year, Forbes valued seven of the IPL’s teams at over $1 billion, roughly the same as lower-tier NBA teams, while playing far shorter seasons.

“It changed the face of cricket,” said Bose.

To get an idea of how big T20 cricket is in India, the 2022 International Cricket Council World Cup match between India and Pakistan drew 256 million viewers in the country. This year’s Super Bowl had an audience of 112 million. Reportedly, the ICC, the sport’s federation who is handling the Olympic bid, has told the IOC that the addition of cricket will raise the broadcast revenue from India’s rights deal to as much as $260 million.

While Modi doesn’t carry himself as a sportsman in the mold of Russian President Vladimir Putin, he once ran the local cricket organization in Gujarat, his home state. Jay Shah, the son of Modi’s closest political associate, runs the country’s cricket authority known authoritatively as the Board for the Control of Cricket in India (BCCI).

Shortly before Modi became prime minister, he pushed for the cricket stadium in Gujarat’s capital city, Ahmedabad, to be demolished and replaced by what has become the world’s largest cricket stadium, a 132,000-seat circular edifice that he named Narendra Modi Stadium, with blue and orange seats, a ring of luxury suites and six indoor practice pitches. The stadium seems as much a tribute to Modi’s growing power as it does a sports facility with the first event upon its 2020 completion being a grand celebration for then-president Donald Trump.

Until recently, Modi and the BCCI did not seem interested in the Olympics, unwilling to relinquish control of the sport around the globe and resisting the idea of seeing top players leave midseason to play in the Olympics. That hesitation has waned, however, as evidenced by Shah’s addition to the ICC’s Olympic working group.

More significantly, Modi seems to want an Olympics in India, specifically Ahmedabad, which is being triumphed as a new sports and cultural hub. Pushing hard for the 2036 Games, India recently hired the Australian design and architecture firm Populous to help prepare a master plan.

“Modi very much wants to host an Olympics,” Bose said. “He is refashioning India and he wants to refashion it away from the British Empire, basically making it a new country. The Indians want to show they are a world power. To host an Olympics will do that.”

Given cricket’s obscurity in the United States, the sport seems an odd fit for the L.A. Games and yet it has been growing in this country. Earlier this year, a six-team American league, Major League Cricket, heavily funded by wealthy Indian corporations, played its first season – a two-week tournament at an old minor league baseball stadium in Grand Prairie, Tex. Eventually, the teams will be based in major American cities, including one outside Los Angeles, owned by Khan and named the Knight Riders.

The league is counting on drawing not only from the 4.8 million Indian Americans in the United States but the reach of top executives at American companies such as Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayan, both of whom have invested in the MLC.

“Prominent people in Silicon Valley want cricket in the United States,” Bose said,

The problem with adding any new sport is that something will have to be removed. The IOC’s new cost-saving measures require Summer Games to have no more than 10,500 athletes, a significant drop from the 11,420 who competed in Tokyo. Los Angeles’s preliminary program is close to that limit with organizers still needing to fit in boxing, which has been restored by the IOC after being left off the original program because of issues with the sport’s former governing body.

Los Angeles doesn’t have to add any sports, but Los Angeles Olympics Chairman Casey Wasserman seems to want a groundbreaking Olympics, much like the city’s last Games in 1984. Not only is cricket getting a long look, but two people familiar with the situation say flag football, which is backed by the NFL, and baseball and softball are under serious consideration as well.

Inserting cricket will bring logistical problems, as well. The ICC is proposing men’s and women’s tournaments with six teams each for a total of 180 athletes. But that doesn’t include coaches and trainers and other support officials who will need to be housed and fed and transported to competition and practice fields. Wasserman insists the L.A. Games will pay for themselves and will use only existing and temporary facilities.

Finding a place to hold a cricket tournament could be challenging, though a 10,000-seat stadium for Khan’s Knight Riders is planned near a recreation park in the Orange County suburb of Irvine.

“Sometimes, it’s not a matter of what sports you want, it’s what you can afford,” said Burns, who added that cricket could provide additional sponsorship opportunities. “What it’s going to come down to is, can L.A. make money off this?”

Even if cricket ultimately does not make it into the Los Angeles Games, it likely won’t have to wait long: The main stadium for the 2032 Olympics in Brisbane, The Gabba, is the city’s primary cricket ground.



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