A new Atlanta cricket franchise will host its first match July 31, a milestone boosters of the globally popular sport believe will cement its local fanbase and tap into its growing national momentum.
The roster of the Atlanta Fire includes players from Bangladesh, South Africa and Sri Lanka, a coach from Jamaica, and an ownership group originating in Bangladesh with established roots in Georgia’s business community.
Clad in black jerseys with flames creeping up one side, the team stood on the steps to the south wing of the Georgia State Capitol Wednesday as lawmakers and team owners announced their grand ambitions for a sport that is fanatically followed internationally but has so far enjoyed limited interest in the U.S.
Mohammed Hasan Tarek, the Fire’s owner and CEO, came to the U.S. from Bangladesh during high school, going on to graduate from Georgia State University. Even as he established himself in real estate and other ventures, he stayed involved in community sports, eventually becoming president of the Bangladeshi Sports Council of Georgia.
The Atlanta Fire’s debut as a club team in 2018 was fortuitous, coming just before the U.S. gained national status for One Day International cricket — one of three varieties of the game sanctioned by the International Cricket Council. Then in 2019, Major League Cricket — backed by investors from India’s largest media groups — announced that its first season would begin in 2022 with six teams from across the U.S.
The Atlanta Fire is one of 27 minor-league teams playing the shortened Twenty20 form of the game, which usually lasts about three hours rather than a day or more. The lower league will serve to gin up interest in the sport, provide an on-ramp for players and feed talent to the majors. But Mr. Tarek doesn’t see the Fire staying at this level.
“Our goal is to become the major league team,” the father of three told Global Atlanta, noting that receiving this nod for Atlanta will likely be based on the team’s on-field performance as well as factors like sponsorship, audience and facilities. “Having those gives you the edge.”
Judging by a separate Wednesday announcement, it would seem the team is on its way.
Major League Cricket and the Atlanta Fire announced a new partnership with Atlanta Cricket Fields, a 54-acre complex in Cumming that will serve as the team’s home field. The deal calls for indoor practice facilities and improvements to its main oval that would position it to host future international events. Already, the complex sees about a thousand people come out every weekend to play and watch club games taking place across its seven fields, a member of the ownership group told Global Atlanta.
Iain Higgins, the CEO of USA Cricket, flew in from California to recognize the Atlanta Fire and to pledge the national governing body’s use of the complex as a regional training ground and its support for future efforts to gain accreditation for ICC tournaments.
Mr. Higgins said the grassroots movement for cricket in Georgia is indicative of how the sport is growing across the country.
Seeing basketball jerseys from the recently surging Atlanta Hawks upon arrival at the Atlanta airport, Mr. Higgins said he envisioned a future where homegrown cricketers can similarly be embraced by their community as they reach the highest levels of the sport.
“That’s the pathway, that’s the ecosystem that we’re trying to build in Atlanta in particular and also across the rest of the country,” Mr. Higgins said.
While he conceded it’s the “early stages” of mainstreaming the sport beyond its traditional diaspora audiences in the U.S., he was heartened by the way cricket lovers in Georgia have “hassled” schools and community centers into carving out room for it.
“For me, that’s the biggest challenge for making cricket to the mainstream: getting into the schools,” he said.
Born in England in the 16th century, cricket is a sports phenomenon in many parts of the world, especially in British commonwealth countries across the Caribbean, Africa and South Asia. India boasts its largest single national viewership, with market alone being enough to place cricket in the ranks of the world’s most-watched sports. The ICC Cricket World Cup regularly draws in-person spectators in the hundreds of thousands and television and online viewers in the billions. Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, rose to fame in the sport before delving into politics. A movement is afoot to include cricket in the 2028 Olympic Games.
But in the U.S., Mr. Higgins said, the audience is between 10 and 20 million, mostly among immigrant communities who find themselves rooting for teams in their country of origin.
Jerry James, president of the Atlanta Gladiators hockey team and chair of his league’s diversity committee, said Georgia’s minority communities constitute a “sleeping giant” when it comes to sports’ economic potential.
Georgia is known for mainstays like the Atlanta Braves and Falcons in football, but “If you pull back and look at the culture and diversity of the Atlanta metro in general it’s deeper than that.”
Atlanta United, the Major League Soccer franchise that has taken the city by storm, is a prime example, he said.
Pedro Marin, a Democratic state representative from Duluth, said at the event sports infrastructure can drive economic development and job creation that are sorely needed as the state comes out of the pandemic.
The effort is by no means the first to bring cricket to Georgia. A separate ownership group called Global Sports Ventures in 2019 planned to buy Gwinnett Place Mall and build a 20,000-seat stadium on the site to host an Atlanta franchise. The deal sputtered when USA Cricket in 2019 awarded the operation of Major League Cricket to a rival bidder.
More on the new USA Cricket / Atlanta Fire joint venture at Atlanta Cricket Fields: