Cricket Hong Kong chief executive Tim Cutler has targeted growing the profile of cricket in Hong Kong both locally and for onlookers abroad as a key objective for year two of the Hong Kong T20 Blitz, which begins on Wednesday at Tin Kwong Road. Speaking on the eve of the tournament, Cutler said he hoped this year's event, particularly thanks to the overseas talent assembled, could make the tournament a marquee event.
"I think everyone at Cricket Hong Kong has been blown away by the level and the number of overseas players that are coming," Cutler told ESPNcricinfo. "I think when Shahid Afridi was announced as the first big signing by Kowloon Cantons, that was one of our local English newspapers - the South China Morning Post - it was one of their most shared articles in recent memory for them. To see that impact of that and to continue on with Misbah-Ul-Haq, Tillakaratne Dilshan, Kumar Sangakkara is probably the biggest name throughout and then to have the likes of Darren Sammy - we've got a great spread of cricketing talent."
The inaugural edition of the tournament was hastily arranged in a seven-week timespan last May, and rain eventually washed out the majority of the seven fixtures scheduled over three days, spoiling the appearance of former Australia captain Michael Clarke. This year's tournament has been extended to 11 matches over five days after a fifth team was added.
"This year we had a lot more time to prepare so that has meant that between us selling a fifth franchise, and of course HKI United has taken over the island franchise from Woodworm, but with City Kaitak coming on as the fifth franchise, there has been increased presence from those franchises both working together and working really hard internally about building their sponsorship and other partnership income," Cutler said. "It means that they can afford to bring out the likes of Shahid Afridi, who is unfortunately now injured but still coming as a mentor, but the Dilshans and Misbahs to come out."
With the increased profile and length of the tournament have come increased costs as well. Though Cutler says the Hong Kong government has made an exception for increased availability of the Tin Kwong Road ground for this tournament - Cricket Hong Kong's usual allotment is 14 hours per week for the government-run facility.
Cutler expects the tournament to cost roughly US$350,000. According to him, 1,000 general admission tickets per day have been sold out for the two weekend dates at US$25 a head and VIP tickets are priced at $160. Gala dinners for the franchises are also being organized with tickets sold to help recoup some money.
"We very much see this as an investment not just promotion wise and development here in Hong Kong but also on a broader scale across emerging nations in Southeast Asia and beyond as to what can be done doing things a little bit differently and innovating," Cutler said. "I think we're the first Associate T20 tournament to take this tack with a Blitz by name and by nature to be done in five days. Whilst it is a short tournament, each of the leases held by the franchises have options to be held up to ten years so everyone is in this for the long run.
"In terms of trying to recoup funds from a Cricket Hong Kong point of view, revenue for sponsorship is building and the better work we can do at the ground to increase capacity will only help us as time goes on. As the profile of the tournament increases over the years, the big step for us will be when it gets to broadcast [rights] point of view."
This year's tournament will be streamed in HD over the internet rights free so that "anyone can watch it, reproduce it and embed it". With the increased viewing access and high profile names also comes greater scrutiny and interest from betting markets. Hong Kong has been under the scanner in the recent past when allrounder Irfan Ahmed was slapped with a 30-month ban last year for failing to report full details of suspect approaches to ICC ACU authorities.
"We are acutely aware of the challenges and threat there is from illegal gambling and bookmakers in our game, especially targeting emerging nations as we've seen in the past with one of our players suspended," Cutler said. "We'll have two ICC ACU staff that are coming out which is great and we appreciate the ICC support."
Aside from the superstars the tournament has attracted, Cutler says it was important for Cricket Hong Kong to stay true to their roots with a focus on Associate development. It was mandatory for each franchise to sign at least one Associate player outside of Hong Kong and also have one Hong Kong Dragon, a player of Chinese descent.
"Very early on we identified the opportunity of making sure that other Associate or Affiliate Members would have their players have opportunities to come too," Cutler said.
"By putting on a world class event, which I think the Blitz is building up to be - we've got people all across Hong Kong wanting to know 'what is this T20 Blitz?' that they're hearing talked about - and when they see the amount of attention and people talking about Hong Kong and cricket in the same sentence, I think that's a chance for us to start a conversation with a lot of people who don't know too much about cricket and build from there."