Seattle Thunderbolts take cricket to the next level as tech backers follow dream to grow sport in U.S.

The Seattle Thunderbolts pose for a photo after receiving new jerseys. (Seattle Thunderbolts Photo)

Cricket fans in the Seattle area now have a team to get behind as the sport continues to grow in popularity in the region and attract investment from backers who work in the tech industry.

The newly organized Seattle Thunderbolts are taking part in the inaugural Toyota Minor League Cricket Championship, which features 27 teams across 21 U.S. cities competing in more than 200 matches over 10 weekends this summer. And before long, the Thunderbolts could be a Major League Cricket franchise as that endeavor gains steam in the U.S.

(MiLC Image)

The formation of a team is the result of years of dedication from Seattle-area players and families, many of whom grew up with the sport in India and helped foster its growth in the region after moving to the States.

Longtime tech workers are among the most ardent supporters, including a trio of investors who are backing the new team: Salman Taj, an executive at the Swedish telecom Ericsson who runs an incubator for the Americas; Vijay Beniwal, a 20-year Microsoft veteran; and Phani Chitneni, a senior client partner at UST Global.

“You can see there is a boom in technology companies moving into Seattle — everybody is here now,” Taj said. “Similarly, there’s a boom in terms of how many people are playing cricket and following cricket.”

GeekWire saw that firsthand two years ago when we visited a park in Redmond, Wash., to get a taste of the enthusiasm around youth cricket and to learn how many of the parents work for area tech companies.

Chitneni, who started playing when he was 5 years old, played competitively in India and stuck with the sport after moving to the Pacific Northwest 21 years ago. His impact has been greatest off the field as he’s worked to build a community and infrastructure to sustain the sport.

Beniwal has more than 20 years of involvement with regional and U.S. cricket.

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“It has been amazing journey seeing the sport grow and where things are today,” Beniwal said.

And Taj said interest is only growing, with around 250 kids playing in the Seattle Youth Cricket League.

The Thunderbolts and the Minor League Cricket effort are part of the continued buildup toward Major League Cricket and plans to bring a professional cricket league to the U.S. Started by the founders of Willow, a broadcaster of cricket in the U.S. and Canada, and The Times of India Group, India’s largest media conglomerate, Major League Cricket is backed by a host of tech notables, including Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Madrona Venture Group Managing Director S. “Soma” Somasegar.

Nadella and Somasegar are also both part of the Seattle Sounders FC ownership group.

Cricket action is a familiar affair in parks east of Seattle. (Seattle Thunderbolts Photo)

While Seattle and the rest of the Pacific Northwest are represented by the Thunderbolts at the minor league level, the hope is that the region could secure one of the six or eight spots that make up the Major League Cricket cohort in the near future.

“For that to happen, of course, our team should do well, as a Seattle minor league team. And we should be able to showcase that the local community and the local folks are very engaged with the sport,” Taj said. “And that’s what we will be working on these next two years.”

Major League Cricket is the ticket to making the sport a mainstream success in the U.S., Beniwal believes. He said entry into the U.S. for the second most watched sport in the world has primarily been constrained by the lack of any organization making an attempt to grow the sport at all levels. Major League Cricket is doing that, the backers say.

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Jagan Nemani, a former entrepreneur-in-residence at Madrona Venture Labs who started the Cricket Academy of Puget Sound and helped launch the Seattle Youth Cricket League, is now head of academies at MLC. He’s managing cricket academies across the country while also serving as head of technology for the league, managing websites, apps, and other assets.

“So much is happening in the background that is developing and spreading the sport,” Beniwal said.

All 27 Minor League Cricket teams follow the same approach in team makeup: three professional players of foreign origin residing in the area where the team is located; three youth players under age 21 all from the region; two free agents from anywhere in the U.S.; and eight more players who are residents of the team’s home region.

At the major level, teams will “try and get some big guns,” Taj said, and bring internationally renowned cricket players to play in the U.S.

The Thunderbolts have attracted sponsorship from digital technology company UST, Indian grocery chain Apna Bazar, and the educational platform Skool of Code. The team opened play last weekend in the Bay Area with three matches, dropping all three to teams named Silicon Valley Strikers, Golden State Grizzlies and the East Bay Blazers.

Willow streamed the action on its YouTube channel:

The teams in Minor League Cricket compete in the Twenty20 version of the sport, which is a shortened format in which matches can last about three hours, compared to some traditional 8-hour cricket matches. Teams will compete in four geographic divisions — Eastern, Central, Southern, and Western — and MiLC Finals Weekend will take place in early October.

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The goal is to play all games or as many games as possible on natural turf, the way cricket is played internationally, and the Thunderbolts will play home matches at either Klahanie Park in Issaquah, Wash., or at Marymoor Park in Redmond. New cricket fields, one for youth and one for MiLC, are being constructed at Tollgate Farm Park in North Bend, Wash. — an effort Nemani helped spearhead.

Taj called the formation of the league, creation of a team, securing investment and sponsorship, building fields, and generating interest a long road. But it’s an exciting one to be on considering how rabid fans can get about sports in the U.S.

He’s hoping for the same for cricket.

“This is absolutely a dream come true,” he said. “We are all passionate and all played at different levels and whatnot, but this is something which is really, really amazing.”

View the Seattle Thunderbolts’ roster here and see the upcoming schedule here.

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