Seattle Orcas, ‘America’s Favorite Cricket Team,’ builds local support

Event held at Bellevue Downtown Park can be catalyst for the world’s second most popular sport.

The sport of cricket finally seems to finally be taking some strides here in America, and for the Seattle Orcas, they are looking to build on an uber successful 2023 first season.

Last year, the announcement and execution of the inaugural season of Major League Cricket came and went faster than expected, and the fandom was just getting started. The Seattle Orcas — backed by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and managing director at Madrona Venture Group Soma Somasegar — are rearing to go for the second season.

“One of the reasons we were excited to bring cricket to Seattle is because we think there is an amazing amount of people that are passionate for the sport here,” Somasegar said.

The Orcas hosted a pre-MLC 2 fan event at Bellevue Downtown Park on May 3. The Orcas partnered with the ICC T20I World Cup being hosted in the U.S. and West Indies, and had a photo opportunity with the World Cup Trophy. Fans also could meet and take photos with fromer Seattle Thunderbolts captain and returning Orcas domestic player Harmeet Singh and also New Zealand cricketing legend Ross Taylor, who is the Orcas batting coach.

Around 1,200 people showed up to the event. The queue to take a photo with the trophy nearly wrapped around the fountain at the park. This quality of turnout was something Somasegar never imagined.

Bellevue City Council and Mayor take a photo with Seattle Orcas ownership. Ben Ray / The Reporter

Bellevue City Council and Mayor take a photo with Seattle Orcas ownership. Ben Ray / The Reporter

The Orcas and Thunderbolts (the Orcas’ minor league cricket affiliate) have been attempting to give young kids in Washington an opportunity to play the second most popular sport in the world. Back in 2017, when the idea of the MLC was pitched, Somasegar knew they had to gain interest at a grassroots level.

“It was by design when we were thinking of MLC back in 2017. Because it was so new (in the U.S.), we need to put building blocks in place and set up 30-40 cricket academies around the country and minor leagues,” Somasegar said.

One benefit MLC organizers used was the pandemic. Because of the shutdown, it gave MLC a chance to spread the game in individual communities before the professionals came over.

“Because of COVID, we knew the major leagues was going to be a little later in launching, so we used that time to go set up academies and launch the minor leagues,” Somasegar said.

What also helps gain interest is winning. The Orcas finished in first place last season and fell to MI New York in the championship game. Keep in mind, this was the first season of the MLC. A new sport to Americans, new teams, new players. The game between MI and Seattle was watched in 87 countries across the world.

“87 countries was an eye-opening kind of thing. Total numbers of viewers were in the tens of millions… For a first season, there was a level of interest and curiosity, and we feel good about the quality of the sport,” Somasegar said.

Despite all the success that MLC had in the first season, heading to year two, new challenges await.

“People always say the second time you do something is always the hardest. The first time has no expectations. The second time, there are all these expectations because of what happened the first time… If we can make the second season successful, we will be off to the races,” Somasegar said.

He is hoping that the players aren’t worn out because this year they are third in a string of top-flight cricket events. The Indian Premier League, T20 World Cup and then MLC follows it up.

“We are working really hard to make sure the quality of the game is there. The players, the game, the pitches are all there, so we can look and say ‘this is getting better and better every year,” he said.

Building fandom

The idea of creating a cricket league in the USA started back in 2017, and originally Seattle was not set to be one of the franchises, according to Somasegar.

“As a league we didn’t know what to expect,” Somasegar said.

A big challenge that faces the MLC and the Orcas is geography. All of the games are split between being played in Texas and North Carolina despite team names being San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Seattle.

While the season was commencing last year, Somasegar said he met a fan from California who never thought she would see a cricket game in person again. She had traveled to Dallas to watch a game — that is what MLC can do.

“There are people who have driven 700-800 miles to watch a game last year. That kind of love and support is phenomenal, and we didn’t expect that (in year one),” he said.

Along with being a new sport, and not being on network television, attending a game is a challenge in and of itself. But events like the one at Bellevue Downtown Park are huge for Orcas ownership to gauge their audience.

The only way last season to watch Major League Cricket was on WillowTV, a cricket-only paid television channel. Think Disney-Plus, but for cricket. It is probably unfamiliar to most people who are not in the know about the sport of cricket.

Seeing a 1,200-plus crowd show up during the middle of the day on the first Friday in May was impressive for Somasegar and other Orcas front office members.

On some shirts and on all social media posts, the Orcas are claiming to be “America’s Favorite Cricket Team.” Now there are only six options, but Somasegar is hoping to bring in more fans with a clever slogan and a little help from America’s team.

“We took some inspiration from the Dallas Cowboys… We saw what they do and used some inspiration there and a big fan base is going to make or break cricket here. So we wanted to find something that is going to be catchy, attractive and bring people together,” Somasegar said.

“We were just the first to do it, saying it loudly and proudly.”

Harmeet Singh (right) and Ross Taylor (left) take a photo with a fan at fan fest. Ben Ray / The Reporter

Harmeet Singh (right) and Ross Taylor (left) take a photo with a fan at fan fest. Ben Ray / The Reporter

Community backed stadium?

Ownership was seen mingling with supporters throughout the entire two-hour event. Even Bellevue City Council, Redmond City Council, Bellevue Mayor Lynne Robinson, and a pair of state representatives were in attendance at the event.

“It is so inspiring to see our youth playing at the highest level,” said State Rep. Vandana Slatter.

Having support from elected officials on top of fans is massively important to see from an ownership perspective.

“It is super cool to see (local support) because of our long-term goal. We want to make cricket a mainstream sport here in America, not just for the Indian, Pakistani and Australian communities. You want the local politicians to be invested and personally passionate about something like this. We knew from day one we needed their support, and they have been incredibly warm and supportive,” Somasegar said.

Slatter was adamant that this is just the beginning of the fandom for the sport of cricket in the state of Washington.

“Today I believe we are building a movement. I have come to believe that cricket is more than just a sport. It is a unifying force that transcends boundaries. It brings together people from different backgrounds, cultures and beliefs,” said Slatter, who represents the 48th Legislative District.

There has been an effort to build a top-flight cricket facility in King County. Mayor Robinson made it a point in her speech to get people in attendance to email their representatives to show the demand for a stadium.

Robinson said that they expect a stadium around 2028, and Somasegar thinks a bit sooner.

“We want to build a cricket community park, so we need their (local politicians) support. So the sport can be here in the long term,” Somasegar said.

Marymoor Park in Redmond has been the thought to where a stadium would be built, but there has been some outspoken opposition to that idea. But regardless, there is a want for a stadium and the opportunity might be too good to pass up.

“We are actively working with King County and City of Redmond and Bellevue and there is a chance we can have something up and running for 2025. If for some reason the process takes a little longer or we miss a deadline or something, absolutely by 2026. Are we going to get there in 2025? Time will tell, but I have high confidence that we will get there in 2026,” Somasegar said.

Once there is a legit setup, that is when the local market and community can take off.

“Once you start having games locally, all these kids can go out and watch a game,” said Somasegar.

Play on the field

As mentioned earlier, the Orcas had a fantastic season a year ago. Just because it is a new league doesn’t mean the talent level is low. How most cricket leagues/tournaments work is that teams have an international player limit.

“As far as Seattle goes, we just didn’t want to be at the bottom of the table. But we didn’t know what to expect… At the league level, the quality was not the product that we had expected,” said Somasegar.

Those international players are some of the best cricketers in the world. On the Orcas, one of their best players, Heinrich Klaasen, is regarded as one of the best middle-order batters in the world and he rocks the green and gray kit of Seattle.

Along with Klaasen, the Orcas had eight other international players. The rest of the roster was from the domestic player draft. For Seattle, Harmeet Singh was a domestic player who was drafted last season with the number one overall pick. He played with the Seattle Thunderbolts, who play at Tollgate Farms in North Bend in Minor League Cricket.

“One of the reasons we played so well was because of our domestic players played really, really well. The local players stepped up and helped like everybody else… Them coming together was fantastic,” Somasegar said.

Six Thunderbolts were drafted — three to Seattle, two went to the Washington Freedom and one to the Los Angeles Knight Riders. The Thunderbolts give fans in Seattle a chance to see the highest level of cricket around.

Somasegar hopes that with the emergence of MLC in its second season, the Thunderbolts can build some momentum of their own. Having a team in North Bend was always part of the master plan. Along with leagues like the Northwest Cricket League and the Maple Valley Cricket Club, local kids are getting opportunities to play, and now they have a professional chance to play as well.

“We wanted more (involvement), but what we didn’t expect was so many kids would already be playing. We wanted that, but we didn’t realize there was a beginning of such a strong foundation,” Somasegar said.

Seattle Orcas banner at Bellevue Downtown Park. Ben Ray / The Reporter

Seattle Orcas banner at Bellevue Downtown Park. Ben Ray / The Reporter