23rd January 2018
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No matter the time of the year, it seems there is always a T20 tournament taking place. Right now, it is Australia’s Big Bash. Shortly, it will be the Pakistan Super League and then the IPL will come along. The Caribbean Premier League (CPL) will take place in August and England’s T20 Blast occupies a similar time slot. With so many T20 competitions now in existence, there is a danger that they could all start to blur into one. For that reason, the organisers of the CPL are determined to make sure their tournament stands out.
The CPL is already unique in certain ways. It is the only one of the world’s top T20 leagues that is not run by a governing body – it is a private enterprise run with the blessing of Cricket West Indies – which means making money for its stakeholders is an important concern. It is also the only tournament which is played at the same time as another leading competition and the domestic market is serves is smaller than most, too.
This year’s edition of the CPL will be its sixth. After the third season, the competition’s Chief Executive Damien O’Donohoe confidently predicted that it would begin to turn a profit but it has yet to do so and it failed, once again, to make money last year. In an exclusive chat with Cricbuzz alongside the chief operating officer Pete Russell, O’Donohoe says the business side of the CPL is “always a challenge” and the sponsorship of Digicel, the telecommunications company, is “absolutely vital to keep the tournament going”.
The money side of things is important, but it is not, according to O’Donohoe, the only consideration. “A big part of what we are trying to do is bring another revenue stream into these countries,” he says. “There’s a lot of these countries that could do with that.” The economic impact of the 2017 tournament was calculated by SMG Insight to be worth nearly US$ 100 million. “The amount of jobs we create is phenomenal,” says Russell. “It does give a good guide as to what very big sporting events can do to an area like the Caribbean.”
Although the CPL have expansion plans, the Caribbean is very much its major focus. “We’re improving the tournament year on year,” says O’Donohoe. “We are spending more money to help improve the product. We’ve had offers from outside the Caribbean to host the finals but we’ve tried to keep them within the West Indies because we know how important this is for the region. We are growing our audience globally and it’s generating great excitement for Caribbean cricket. What it proves is that people love cricket there.”
The CPL’s global broadcast and digital viewership for the 2017 tournament was up by 25% on the previous year to nearly 200 million. The largest audience share was in India and O’Donohoe confirms that the CPL plan to do all they can to cultivate links with the lucrative Indian market including potentially playing some games in India. “Anyone who runs any type of cricket tournament will always look to India,” he says. “It’s the biggest market by a country mile. Single-handedly, that country keeps cricket alive.”
Two CPL teams now have Indian owners with Shah Rukh Khan part owning Trinibago Knight Riders and Vijay Mallya running the Barbados Tridents. That has generated much interest and the CPL are looking at ways to further develop their relationship with India. O’Donohoe says they would “love to play games there” and the CPL would want Indian players to play at some stage in the future “to experience how good it is.”.
The CPL have been leaders in innovation and digital solutions, using Facebook Live, the first T20 tournament to do so, Twitter and Instagram to project coverage of the tournament round the world. Because of the smaller Caribbean market, a key focus has been on getting the competition recognised. ‘The Biggest Party in Sport’ is their tagline and it seems to have gained plenty of traction.
“One of the things we set out right from the get-go was how we could make this a global event,” says Russell. “We’re very different from the Big Bash and IPL. They don’t really mind about their international audience because from a TV viewership and income perspective, their home markets are their focus. For us, it was very much about how we build our brand internationally.
“If you look at when we play, a lot of the countries are dark [it’s their night time]. We’ll be going into the UK, India at pretty anti-social hours. So we are very specific with the way we target people. In India for example, it’s ‘Wake up to Carnival’. We sit down every year and say: “Cricket, we get it. We’ll get the best players in the world coming in. But how do we make everyone get more involved with CPL?””
O’Donohoe has recently visited the Big Bash in Australia to see how they do things and the league met with football team Manchester City from the English Premier League on Friday (January 19) to pick their brains about building a global brand. O’Donohoe and Russell are constantly looking to American sports too as well as outside the sports industry. “We’re small, we don’t have the budgets and if we don’t innovate, we are not going to stay alive,” says O’Donohoe.
Neither will they stay alive if they don’t start to make money. A big reason for the failure to turn a profit in the last two years has been the costs of taking the CPL to the United States. In 2016, there were six group games played in Florida. Last year there were four matches as the organisers changed the schedule and times of the games – day rather than night matches – in the hope of reducing costs. It worked up to a point but they still lost a “considerable amount” and attendances were down.
“We made some mistakes in the US this year,” admits Russell. “We put our hands up. We should have played under lights which was a decision we made because there weren’t lights in the stadium and that’s an extra cost to bring them in. That had a huge difference because if you’re playing in 100 degree heat, people are not necessarily going to come out and watch.” Ticket prices were also increased.
“We still feel that the overall investment has been a good one in the US,” says Russell. “That has been borne out by the amount of people who would be interested – if we ever get a franchise there – to own one in the US. Long-term I think it will pay off. Our strategy certainly hasn’t changed.” The CPL are in discussions with the ICC, who now govern the game in the Americas, about working together to spread the gospel, perhaps with some financial assistance.
Of course the long-term success or otherwise of any T20 league is in the quality of the cricket. And here the CPL is improving. The feedback Russell has had from the players is that the standard is “pretty good” although he admits the Caribbean pitches still need more pace so that the average scores can increase from the 150 mark to the 180s or 190s. “All this stuff about where all the fast West Indian bowlers have gone, the reality is until they sort their wickets out, back to a bygone era when they were fast and bouncy, you’re not going to get them,” Russell says.
“A lot of pretty average medium pace bowlers can take wickets on those pitches because of the nature of them. The players find it challenging because they’re playing on very different wickets but I don’t think the quality of the cricket has diminished. There are still some excellent battles and we’ve had some very good finishes in the games. Over the five years, we’ve definitely improved the playing surfaces but there’s a way to go still.”
The tournament arguably attracted a higher-class of overseas player last year than it ever has with the likes of Kane Williamson, David Miller, Hasan Ali, Brendon McCullum, Rashid Khan and Eoin Morgan all taking part although the tournament cannot yet compare with the star quality which the IPL attracts. There is the hope that more star names will play in the future although the continued delays in payments to a number of Tridents players, first reported by Cricbuzz, is proving an embarrassment.
The St Lucia Stars were the only side to look out of their depth, losing nine of their 10 group matches. The other was a no-result. “The Stars came to things very late, weren’t particularly organised and at that level, you get found out very quickly,” admits Russell. On a more positive note, St Kitts and Nevis Patriots, the smallest island, made the final which “showed that these smaller islands can compete with the big boys which is very important in the Caribbean context”. Russell expects the Stars to be far more competitive next year.
What the CPL may look like in five years time remains to be seen. There has been much interest from potential owners although there is not currently any team for them to buy. There are, however, plans to start two new teams. “We set the tournament up with six teams to grow to eight,” Russell says. “We’re going to be very careful with where we put those extra two. We are not 100% convinced that the two should necessarily sit within the Caribbean. There are opportunities in the US, Canada or maybe somewhere else but that’s still a couple of years away.”
Expansion may be risky given the tournament has yet to reach profitability. The failure of South Africa’s Global T20 to get off the ground, in part because of a lack of willing investors and owners – as well as some pretty awful governance from Cricket South Africa – should serve as a warning that nothing can be taken for granted in this world of multiple T20 competitions. At some stage, the CPL’s investors will want a return on their investment. It’s unclear how long the tournament can go on without making money.
For now, O’Donohoe and Russell are committed to developing the CPL in the Caribbean and burnishing the passion for cricket in the region which is so obviously still there. Making money is important to them – they are businessmen after all – but so too, they say, is helping restore cricket to its rightful place in the Caribbean. “The CPL is so important to Caribbean cricket at the moment what with some of the challenges the West Indies face,” says O’Donohoe. “It’s really invigorated the people of the region. We have a duty to ensure that stays the way it is.”Taken from CricBuzz