June 5, 2011

Never mind the auction, here's the draft

Desh Gaurav Sekhri
Cricket's Twenty20 leagues could learn from an American system that has a lot to recommend itself

The Sri Lanka Premier League (SLPL) is the latest addition to the growing number of Twenty20 leagues across the globe. While there is much to be learnt about the SLPL's ownership structure and player selection process, a few aspects are now known.

Featuring seven teams, and to be played in July and August, it is meant to showcase existing and emerging Sri Lankan talent to the world. The international component, capped at five players per team and four in each playing XI, is likely to feature a raft of Pakistanis - who were excluded from the IPL after the first season - and a dozen-odd Indians. They will be paid between US$10,000-35,000 each in the first season, a figure expected to significantly increase in future editions.

So far so good. Now comes the sticking point: the international players will not be put up for auction, or be part of a draft or lottery, but will be assigned by the Sri Lankan cricket board to the franchises on the basis of the teams' "needs". This is a departure from the norm in other professional sports leagues, and doesn't quite pass muster, especially for a fledgling league.

The SLPL's proposed method appears to be similar to the one used by the now-defunct Indian Cricket League, in which all teams were under a single "owner", who also happened to be the executive, legislature and judiciary of the league. Players were divided between teams based roughly on their regional affiliations, and in the case of overseas players, randomly distributed among the squads by the single parent body.

The proposed SLPL allocation process contains a number of inherent risks:

The lack of separation between a franchise's player selection and strategic decision-making on the one hand, and the decision-making by the league's governing council on the other could lead to conflicts of interest.

If player selection and remuneration are not linked to performance, there is a risk quality of competition will suffer.

There could be doubts about the authenticity of match results when the ownership and the governance council are overlapping or synonymous.

Since the SLPL is likely to be the least lucrative of all the Twenty20 leagues globally, it will likely require systems to tackle mass dropouts or other problems arising from last-minute rescheduling (of international fixtures).

These prospective risks may make the IPL's auction formula seem, in comparison, the ideal road to go down. But there are better selection options than the auction system or a "need-based" allocation of talent. A successful player-allocation system needs to have a transparent process, and must promote parity and balance among teams.

The SLPL, and other Twenty20 leagues in future, would do well to consider a draft system for player selection. The draft is one of the fundamentals of US professional sport, whose franchise and finance model is known to have inspired the IPL.

Under the draft system, the league's central office provides to the franchises, more than a month in advance, a list of players who have made themselves available for selection. The franchises make their assessments of the players and make their plans going into draft day.

If the IPL has a draft and Delhi gets to pick first, and they need an Indian legspinner to replace Amit Mishra, they can use their pick to select the best Indian legspinner available, even if he is not the most coveted player available in the draft (i.e. the likes of, say, Chris Gayle, Lasith Malinga and Jacques Kallis, who represent greater absolute value as players may be available to be picked)

The draft selections have pre-determined wages: all players picked in any particular round have the same pre-decided wage. Each subsequent round has a successively lower wage. Players may, however, be given performance-based incentives within their contracts; so, based on how each player performs, his final earnings will differ from others picked in the same round of the draft as him. Therefore even if Player A is the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, his base pay will be the same as that of any player chosen below him in the same round. However, due to the performance-based incentives in his contract, he may still earn more than anyone else in the draft, but only, of course, if he performs as well as or better than expected.

Thus, player selection is based largely on the unique skills of each cricketer, which determine where he is picked in the draft, and by which team. So, for example, if the IPL has a draft and Delhi gets to pick first, and they think their primary need is for an Indian legspinner to replace Amit Mishra, they can use their pick to select the best Indian legspinner available, even if he is not the most coveted player available in the draft (i.e. the likes of, say, Chris Gayle, Lasith Malinga and Jacques Kallis, who represent greater absolute value as players may be available to be picked). This is more efficient from a team's perspective than for the office of the commissioner to allocate players on the basis of skill sets. The value that each individual player is seen to offer any given team's performance and cohesiveness will determine how soon he is picked.

The draft process, as in the American National Football League, for example, comprises several rounds and sessions. The inaugural SLPL, if it were to adopt the draft, would have seven teams, each looking to fill 18 roster spots in total. There would be 18 rounds of seven picks per round in total.

In American drafts, the least successful team in a league gets first choice of player during a draft, but as the SLPL is a start-up, what will work best is a "lottery draft". In a lottery draft, a transparent mechanism decides, well in advance of draft day, the sequence in which the teams get to make their picks. The sequence is machine-generated, takes place in front of all the teams' managements, and is on live television. The lottery is a random mechanism that only determines where a team will pick in a round, not whom they will pick or for how much. If a team wants to use their pick to select a certain player, they may do so, provided the player is available when it is their turn to pick.

In addition to the main draft, there can be supplemental drafts, in in-between years, for players who were unavailable during the lottery draft, or who have improved, or appeared on the scene, since. Similarly, a "waiver / reserve" draft can be brought in for players who may have been released by their teams or were not picked in the lottery draft. This works somewhat like the IPL's transfer window.

An auction may seem attractive, but it simply isn't as efficient or as equitable as a draft. Most importantly it does not allow teams to formulate and execute the best possible strategies, and it does not reward players according to their performance. That's not to say the draft system is perfect, but problems can be solved relatively easily here.

Unfair lottery advantage: What if one particular team wins the lottery in back-to-back rounds, therefore getting the best players available in each? This can be avoided by disqualifying a team from taking first pick in such an eventuality, and stipulating that they pick last in that round instead. All other teams will move up one position.

Back-up plans: What if teams pick against the grain? Say, season six of the IPL has a lottery draft system in place, and the Delhi Daredevils have won the No. 1 pick. They are expected to pick a left-handed opening batsman in round one, but if they choose, say, a legspinner with their No. 1 selection (as in the Amit Mishra example above), that may throw teams choosing after Delhi off their stride. To let teams gather their thoughts and strategise afresh, they can be allotted a certain amount of time, say three minutes, to decide on their next move.

Abiding by the rules: In order to ensure that teams don't find it difficult to stick to league-mandated stipulations like foreign player caps, encouraging domestic players, and so on, the draft can be divided into sessions. For example, the SLPL draft can be divided into sessions for picking international players (five mandated per team so five rounds of seven selections per round), national players (10 per team, so 10 rounds of seven selections per round), and emerging Under-21 Lankan players (three per team, so three rounds of seven selections per round).

The SLPL could find itself facing the after effects of saturation due to IPL and ICC world events; that monotony could be fatal. A lottery draft system will help keep the league fresh. It isn't perfect, but it's a positive step towards increased fair play and parity in Twenty20 Leagues. The SLPL provides a good opportunity to introduce a draft system that can be adopted across the board by all the Twenty20 leagues worldwide - including perhaps the IPL, from season six.

The author is a sports attorney with J Sagar Associates. The views expressed here are his own. He can be reached here

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