Three decades before investing in a T20 professional league hoped to finally ignite cricket in the U.S, Anand Rajaraman left India to study abroad at Stanford University and wondered whether he was leaving behind his beloved sport for good.
Chennai-raised Rajaraman like many of his similarly aged compatriots became hooked to cricket when underdog India memorably won the 1983 World Cup in a landmark triumph that changed the sport forever.
But advancement in technology, with iconic cricket website Cricinfo being one of the first popular sports sites on the internet, ensured this budding tech wizard had his fix in terrain where the popular British bat and ball game was barely visible.
Right in time too as a new generation of flamboyant cricketers, led by legendary Sachin Tendulkar, started to make their mark for rising powerhouse India.
“People from prior generations who moved from India to the U.S. or wherever couldn’t follow the sport anymore because there was no internet,” Rajaraman, who is the co-owner of San Francisco Unicorns in the groundbreaking Major League Cricket, told me in an interview.
“But I moved when the internet was just beginning and that allowed me to follow the game and keep in touch with it even though I wasn’t in India.
“We also had for the first time the ability to use satellite dishes to watch live telecast of games in the U.S.”
Rajaraman played cricket with a tennis ball socially during his college years, often leading to baffled looks from those walking by wondering what was going on.
Back then Rajaraman could never have prognosticated that decades down the track he would be a leading part of a fledgling cricket league in his adopted country, luring top players from powerhouse cricket nations with healthy remuneration.
“I never dreamt that the possibility would arise even though I’ve always been a huge fan,” he said.
After college, Rajaraman set his sights on Silicon Valley and embarked on a highly successful career as an entrepreneur. Along with Venky Harinarayan, co-owner of the Unicorns, he was a founding partner of early ecommerce company Junglee, which was acquired by Amazon
They also later founded Kosmix, which was acquired by Walmart
Even amid a hectic career, Rajaraman’s passion for cricket never wavered and he was noticeably stirred in 2008 by the advent of the Indian Premier League – the glitzy professional T20 league which has increasingly become a juggernaut over the last 15 years.
“It was the beginning of cricket moving from a sport that was being played between national teams and becoming a franchise model,” he said. “That along with the T20 format which took a five-day sport and packaged it into a three-hour format.
“Both these innovations I thought were the right things needed to bring cricket into the U.S, which is a franchise sports country.”
After cautionary tales, most notably in 2004 when an eight-team T20 professional league called Pro Cricket folded after just one season, development for MLC started late last decade.
Given his background and innate enthusiasm for cricket, Rajaraman was inevitably approached early about owning a franchise and naturally captivated by the grandiose plans. Of course, as a shrewd venture capitalist, he wanted to thoroughly evaluate the proposal.
“I invest in start-ups for a living, so clearly I wanted to evaluate it not only as a passionate cricket fan but also as a business opportunity,” he said.
“The macro factors are very, very favorable. We have the second most popular sport in the world and the largest sports market in the world. There are enough passionate fans in the U.S. who follow cricket and watch games through the middle of the night.
“So that shows the potential if you can create a local franchise league, where games are being played at prime time for the local audience. That potential is huge,” he added.
With those factors considered, Rajaraman was convinced as he and Harinarayan started building a franchise from scratch.
The six founding franchises – San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, Texas and Washington – are in key markets with a healthy number of expatriates from South Asia.
Having lived in the Bay Area city of Palo Alto for over three decades, Rajaraman was the obvious candidate to take the reins of the San Francisco franchise.
Now part of the Bay Area sports scene home to several iconic teams – NBA powerhouse Golden State Warriors are the seventh most profitable sports franchise in the world according to Forbes – the pressure has been on to create an identity, starting with a name.
“We wanted to pick a name for the team that reflects the region, not just a bland name that’s common for a sports team,” he said about the choice for the San Francisco franchise to be called Unicorns.
“San Francisco Bay Area is about technology and Silicon Valley, that’s what people think about San Francisco.
“In Silicon Valley, a company that’s hugely successful is called a unicorn. Over the years that terminology has expanded to very successful sports people being referred to as unicorns.
The distinctive name, however, was initially greeted with some skepticism.
“Many people, including people involved with the league, perceived it to be a very risky name because it is not used for sports teams,” Rajaraman said.
“But Silicon Valley is all about taking risk and succeeding. It’s not about doing the predictable move.”
The Unicorns’ playing kit and logo will be orange, light blue and navy blue colors representing the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean.
The new team led by former Australia skipper Aaron Finch, however, won’t be playing at home in the inaugural season starting on July 13 with all games in the 18-day tournament to be played in Dallas and Morrisville, North Carolina.
A stadium in Santa Clara is in the works and set to host international cricket although won’t be ready for next year’s T20 World Cup in the U.S. and Caribbean. “It’s not going to be a huge stadium, I’m thinking around 10,000 (crowd capacity),” Rajaraman said.
“Something like the small grounds in New Zealand, where you have a few stands but pretty grassy banks for families. That’s the vibe we are going for with an American feel to it.”
After years of unfulfillment and false dawns amid a volatile American cricket scene, excitement is building for a tournament expected to create a ripple in the U.S. and beyond.
“Why we’re able to get top players into the MLC is due to the high salary cap, which is very important,” Rajaraman said. “I think MLC has an achievable shot at becoming one of the top three cricket tournaments in the world in the next five to 10 years.
“It’s very exciting to be part of. I had no expectation this would happen, all my career has been about technology.
“To mix the things that I love together is amazing and we’re really looking forward to building a long-term successful franchise that has a passionate fan base in the Bay Area.”