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Sachin Tendulkar, the ‘Michael Jordan of cricket,’ comes to US

Sachin Tendulkar has more Facebook followers than Lebron James, Derek Jeter or Tom Brady. But chances are you haven't heard of him.

Around the world, Sachin Tendulkar is a cricket legend. People call him the "God of Cricket." His career earnings exceed $100 million.

"Sachin is Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson put together," said Usman Shuja, a former U.S. national cricketer. "The star power and respect he has is beyond anyone alive today."

Sachin Tendulkar of India raises his bat on scoring his century during the Group B ICC World Cup Cricket match between India and South Africa on March 12, 2011, in Nagpur, India.
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Sachin Tendulkar of India raises his bat on scoring his century during the Group B ICC World Cup Cricket match between India and South Africa on March 12, 2011, in Nagpur, India.

Now Tendulkar is in the United States for the first time. In an event called "Cricket All-Stars," Tendulkar and his Australian rival, Shane Warne, will captain a team of fellow cricket stars that will play in Major League Baseball venues in New York, Houston and Los Angeles.

"We want to bring awareness of cricket to America. It has caught on all over the world. Why not in America?" said Ben Sturner, CEO of the Leverage Agency, who is producing the tour.

Sturner admits that it's not going to happen overnight. "It's going to take some time," he says. "We have to educate people."

Cricket is one of the most popular sports in the world. Cumulative revenue between now and 2023 for the sport's governing body, the International Cricket Council, is projected at $2.5 billion to $2.8 billion. The number of people playing cricket in the United States is small — ICC had 37,338 total participants in its development program in 2013 — but the sport is getting bigger in part due to a growing expatriate fan base.

"You have a lot of expat cricket fans from India, Pakistan and Jamaica who are starved for cricket in any form," said U.S. correspondent Peter Della Penna of ESPNcricInfo. "Those are the people who have been buying tickets to this event."

Tickets for the All-Star Cricket event range from $50 to $175, and while there was strong interest initially, ticket sales have slowed down at the higher prices.

"You can go to an NFL game for cheaper," Della Penna said of the $175 ticket price.

Usman Shuja began playing cricket as a 1-year-old in the backyard with his brother and dad in Pakistan. His father played professional cricket and wanted to pass the sport on to his son at a young age. Shuja attended the University of Texas and went on to play for the U.S. National Cricket Team.

He said he believes that youth programs and getting kids interested at a young age, like he was, will be critical for the sport's success in the United States. But he said "a lot of things that have to happen in concert" for cricket to take off. "Hopefully, the U.S. National Cricket Team will start performing well," he added.

Della Penna says there are many barriers that has prevented cricket's growth in the U.S.

"If they wanted to put on a free clinic for kids who have never played, once they walked out of the clinic, they can't just walk into Sports Authority. Cricket equipment is not readily available."

The sport also skews male, which could be a problem in a country where it's considered important that equal opportunities exist for men and women.

Despite the barriers to entry, sponsors see big potential in this space. Cricket All-Stars has attracted marketing partnerships with Fortune 500 brands such as Pepsi, StateFarm, Citi, MasterCard and Uber. Pepsi's support in the United States comes even as the beverage giant pulled out last month from an agreed-upon sponsorship of the Premier League cricket tournament in India. That event has been hit by repeated corruption allegations.

Regardless, sponsors say they're enthusiastic about the U.S. event.

"This is a clear area of opportunity for us to reach passionate fans," said MasterCard Chief Marketing Officer Raja Rajamannar. "We are looking at this sponsorship as a first step onto the cricket field."

ESPN has also embraced cricket. In January, the network introduced ESPN Cricket 2015, the first live and on-demand subscription service.

ESPN's digital cricket platform, ESPNCricinfo, logged 13 million unique visitors during the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup during the Australia vs. India semifinal.

"USA provides more traffic for the site than any country except India," Della Penna said.