February 5, 2013

No thanks to the Pakistan board if the PSL succeeds

There does seem to be a market, and sufficient interest, in a T20 league in Pakistan, but the PCB's defensive mindset is not helping

Pakistan's national team may be battling it out in South Africa at the moment, but life at the PCB these days is heavily dominated by the domestic matter of the Pakistan Super League. It's still just an idea, and there isn't much yet to show for it beyond a name and a logo, but there is a distinct buzz about it. If the PSL's organisers are working their way down a checklist, then the first box - the one requiring them to create a bit of a stir - can certainly be ticked.

One reason for the chatter is that the event is shrouded in mystery. All that the PCB is willing to reveal at this point is that it will be a T20 league with five city-based franchises competing over 23 matches starting March 26, and that - judging from the player auction slabs - serious money will be involved. Beyond this, things are sketchy. The five cities have not been named, and PCB officials politely demur when questioned about finances in granular detail. "Everything will be revealed in due course," said Nadeem Sarwar, the PCB media manager, in a recent phone conversation. "Talk of financial matters like net capitalisation and broadcasting revenue is premature at this point, but I can assure you all details are being worked out with great efficiency and diligence."

An indication of the PCB's serious intent regarding PSL is the involvement of the ICC's ex-boss Haroon Lorgat as an advisor to the league. The naming of Mike Procter as a match referee, and the appointment of a four-person umpiring panel comprising Rudi Koertzen and Russell Tiffin, in addition to Asad Rauf and Aleem Dar, are also positive signs.

Pakistan cricket insiders have also warmly welcomed the naming of Salman Sarwar Butt as the league's managing director. A respected banker and noted cricket buff, Butt was instrumental in setting up Pakistan's domestic T20 competition, whose first edition in 2005 was sponsored by his then employer, ABN-AMRO Bank. Even in Pakistan's fractious cricket circles, no one has anything negative to say about him. During a recent phone chat, he confirmed that there was mounting interest in the PSL from broadcasters and potential team owners. "I cannot give you any names at the moment," he said, "but the interest in TV rights has come from outside Pakistan as well."

Butt (no relation to the Pakistan ex-captain) converses in a calm and reassuring manner, and seems clear about the limits of what he can create. When asked if he plans to reproduce the glitz and glamour of the IPL, which is inevitably held up as the gold standard for any franchise-based T20 competition, he refused to take the bait. "Lalit Modi is a legend, and what he did in creating the IPL was simply brilliant," said Butt. "Our effort is different - the scale is simpler, and we are struggling with certain limitations, but we are confident of delivering an impressive product."

It remains to be seen how effectively those limitations can be overcome. Ultimately, what will distinguish the PSL from Pakistan's standard domestic T20 tournament is the presence of overseas players and a substantial glamour quotient. PCB officials are claiming they can attract a host of high-profile stars - the Kevin Pietersens, Michael Clarkes, and Chris Gayles of the international game - but given the security perception surrounding Pakistan - already the England cricketers' association and the Federation of International Cricketers' Associations have advised players against participating - that appears a tall claim. Glamour too, at least in the conventional sense, will be hard to come by: Pakistan has no Bollywood equivalent, gossip and tabloid media are frowned upon, and the country's conservative outlook precludes the presence of sexualised cheerleaders.

Despite these constraints - each a barrier in some form to the league's commercial prospects - there is evidently still enough in the PSL to attract genuine business interest. Industry insiders say that both Pakistan's local private sports channel, Geo Super, as well as the UAE-based Ten Sports, are expected to bid for television rights and are interested in telecasting PSL matches on their platforms. Their reasons may be different - Geo Super needs it to validate its brand, while for Ten Sports this amounts to required maintenance of its long-term relationship with the PCB - but either way, it is oxygen for the PSL.

Perhaps the strongest criticism of the PSL is that the PCB's intent appears rooted in negativity. In public statements and media interviews, Zaka Ashraf, the PCB chairman, has positioned PSL as some desperate manoeuvre to help lift Pakistan's image as a host cricketing nation

I was also able to speak to two potential team owners, one of whom went on the record. "We are fully behind this effort and keen to become a franchisee in PSL," said Atif Bajwa, CEO of Bank Alfalah, which is already a major sponsor of the Pakistan national team. Bajwa shied away from discussing team composition or monetary figures, but my second, anonymous, source, a well-heeled Karachi businessman, was more forthcoming. "I anticipate an upfront investment of US$5-6 million per year for acquiring and maintaining a PSL franchise," he said, adding that he was attracted to the business model because he felt he could generate a profit.

As with any other commercial cricket league, franchisees will have three chief sources of income from the PSL: their share of the broadcast rights, gate receipts, and advertising. Pointing to examples from the IPL, the Karachi businessman felt he could also use the platform of PSL team ownership to enhance revenues from his primary business (which in this particular case happens to be a media and entertainment empire). This gentleman was not too enamoured of the PCB, but he is nevertheless confident about the value of top-level cricket in Pakistan as a business product. "PCB are the custodians of Pakistan cricket, so we have no option but to deal with them," he said, "but it would be better if all affairs of the league were quickly passed over to a consortium of private team owners."

Perhaps the strongest criticism of the PSL is that the PCB's intent appears rooted in negativity. In public statements and media interviews, Zaka Ashraf, the PCB chairman, has positioned PSL as some desperate manoeuvre to help lift Pakistan's image as a host cricketing nation. The naked yearning for foreign stars and the clumsy announcement of a US$2 million life insurance policy for each overseas signing embody this approach, which only draws further attention to Pakistan's security stigma.

Even though cricket authorities in a number of countries have prohibited their players from participating in the PSL, such admonitions are only to be expected and one can't take them to heart. The good news is that the PSL is on the map and is getting discussed; given the constraints, any publicity is good publicity. There is enough of a market for the PSL to exist - and even succeed - but the PCB's defensive mindset is not helping. Pakistan's cricket board naturally has to set up the fundamentals, but it would do well to quickly hand over the reins to private enterprise, and then just stand aside and watch the show flourish.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi