February 25, 2016

The CPL keeps its focus set on India

The Caribbean league wants its brand to remain local but is seeking to attract IPL investment, and Indian players and TV audiences

The CPL claims it brings million to the Caribbean every year and is not happy with the financial and infrastructural support it has received from the regional Caribbean governments © LatinContent/Getty Images

When Ernest Hilaire, the out-going CEO of the West Indies Cricket Board, announced in late 2012 that a "commercial T20" league would be created, few would have blamed those that witnessed the rise and ignominious fall of Allen Stanford for being a bit nervous.

It has been almost seven years since the spectacular collapse of Stanford's business empire, and with it his groundbreaking Stanford 20/20 tournament, but for many the Texan fraudster's name is still the first that springs to mind when considering T20 cricket in the Caribbean. The wounds are yet to heal. But Caribbean Premier League CEO Damien O'Donohoe says that Stanford isn't discussed anymore by those running the CPL.

"Like with anything, even if Stanford had never happened it would have taken us time to build trust," O'Donohoe told ESPNcricinfo. "Of course, in year one, people were bringing up the Stanford name, but, to be honest, it isn't a name we have heard in over two and a half years now. We have come in and promised a huge amount, and we have delivered over and above what we said we would do."

In recent weeks Stanford's name has reappeared as a result of a BBC interview in which he claimed, from his prison cell in Florida, that he was not guilty of the crimes for which he has been sentenced to 110 years in jail. Beyond those headline-grabbing assertions, however, it was his comments about the commercial viability of cricket in the Caribbean that were of most interest.

"I was trying to grow the Stanford brand globally," Stanford told the BBC's Dan Roan. "What nobody understood is that I anticipated this new generation of players that we were going to uncover. When we had our first cricket tournament, we broadcast that and I gave the TV rights away globally. We had over a billion people watch our matches and that was the island-versus-island competition."

For all of his failings, Stanford "got" T20 cricket and where it belonged in the modern Caribbean culture. In many ways the CPL is the natural progression of his vision

Perhaps the CPL is no less exploitative. It is, after all, a private venture attempting to make money out of West Indies cricket. Digicel are the majority shareholder of the tournament and, just as Stanford did, they see the potential of cricket in the Caribbean to generate income, and the numbers seem to be proving them right.

That is not to say that the CPL is not doing its bit for growing the game. Kids are proudly wearing their CPL jerseys, the players have school visits written into their contracts, and the CPL management make it very clear that helping the grassroots game is as much part of their goals as any financial reward. There is plenty of evidence that these are more than just empty promises.

O'Donohoe is very proud of the growth that the league has shown over the last three years. TV viewership is up to 92 million and attendances have increased 44% in last year, thanks to a move to more floodlit matches after an experiment with day-time games to better suit a worldwide TV audience. The quality of overseas players has increased. This season Brendon McCullum, AB de Villiers and Shane Watson will all be taking part, which will help raise interest. The issue is how to make that growth continue at the current rate and allow the CPL to hold its own against the likes of the IPL and the Big Bash.

The answer, as always where cricket is concerned, is India. The CPL has already made decent strides in this regard. Hero is now the title sponsor and there are two IPL owners with teams in the tournament. Half of that growing TV audience is from India. Finding a way to increase that connection with the Indian market is described by O'Donohoe as the CPL's biggest challenge.

"In year two we played the majority of our games during the day and it had an impact on numbers through the turnstiles. And at the end of the day we realised, this is a Caribbean product for Caribbean people. It is something that they are massively proud of, as are we," O'Donohoe says. "I think you can't alter your local product to try and please international markets. What we are trying to do is playing games later at night and building a package for the Indians, which is like a breakfast TV package, so it is, 'Wake up to the CPL.'"

Venky Mysore (right): "Indian viewership is 50% of CPL viewership. There are a few ideas that are being collated and brainstorming taking place on how you get Indian viewership going" © BCCI

This approach has already been successful for NBA basketball in India, and has also worked for the BBL in the UK. The major danger here is that the CPL will lose what makes it special. When people tune in, they do so as much for atmosphere as for the cricket. The need to court the India market puts this at risk. Finding that balance is why O'Donohoe says the challenge is so large.

Venky Mysore, CEO of both Kolkata Knight Riders in the IPL and the newly renamed Trinbago Knight Riders of the CPL, is excited about finding a way to make the CPL a viable live television product in India.

"I connected [the CPL management] to Sony, who is the broadcaster in India, because we do a lot of work with Sony. And we are working on some ideas, because the stats that CPL showed me were impressive that last year. Maybe it was a coincidence - with our entry, viewership doubled, and Indian viewership is 50% of CPL viewership. I think it will be fabulous to do something interesting. There are a few ideas that are being collated and brainstorming taking place on how you get Indian viewership going."

Mysore is also keen to point out the advantage of having Indian players taking part in the CPL, although he is aware that this is a long shot. For him the BCCI allowing the up-and-coming Indian players would be a start.

"I think it will be great to have Indian players as well, as I said in the past. I think the board has their own reasoning for [restricting involvement], but I hope that they will ease up on that, at least in a limited way to start off with, allowing some of the emerging players, because there is a lot of talent there. It will be great for them to come and have this kind of exposure."

No one is better placed to get the BCCI to rethink its stance on Indian players than IPL franchise owners, and now that there are two very high-profile link-ups between the CPL and the IPL, the Caribbean league is very well placed to argue its case for some Indian involvement. If that does happen, it will be a massive coup for the CPL as the first T20 tournament other than the IPL to have the biggest drawcards in the sport playing for their teams.

"What we are trying to do is playing games later at night and building a package for the Indians, which is like a breakfast TV package, so it is, 'Wake up to the CPL'"
Damian O'Donohoe

While India is a much trodden path, albeit one with potential to grow, the real prize in cricket expansion is the USA. The demise of the United States of America Cricket Association has seen the ICC take over the running of the sport in the country. This has allowed the CPL to gain agreement to host six matches in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. With the CPL promising cheap tickets, they should be well attended, and will serve as an excellent gauge of where cricket in the USA sits in the present climate.

The CPL is run in an attempt to generate profits and, O'Donohoe says they are close to breaking even. While Stanford spoke to the BBC about potential profits further down the line, his events always looked to be less about making money and more an exercise in furthering the Texan's cult of personality. It seems the CPL method is working. Whatever the motivation, this has been the most successful - and soon to be the longest-lived - T20 cricket venture in the Caribbean's history.

That is not to say the CPL has not had its problems. That need to break even has led to some challenges in dealing with the various governments in the region. The CPL estimates it brings some US$56 million into the Caribbean each year. In return they have requested governmental support, both in terms of finance and infrastructure. Last year there was talk of Barbados losing its team, after O'Donohoe and COO Pete Russell accused the government and private sector on the island of failing to support the enterprise.

It is telling that Vijay Mallya, the new owner of Barbados Tridents, was keen to stress when speaking at the CPL draft that government support had been vital in his decision to purchase the team. It is also very interesting that the St Lucia-based franchise Zouks have dropped the country's name from their promotional materials ahead of the 2016 season, the implication being that St Lucia's failure to offer adequate support to the CPL has cost them the free "advertising" that comes with being associated with the franchise.

While it is understandable that the CPL is looking for some support from the governments of the islands it visits, the issue will always be the lack of money in an economically depressed region. This has been a source of conflict for all cricket in the Caribbean, and chances are it will continue to be that way for the foreseeable future. To reach an agreement that makes all parties happy will not be easy.

What we know for sure is the CPL has gone a long way towards revitalising confidence in cricket in the Caribbean. The games are well attended, the TV viewership is growing and the organisers are arranging those matches in the USA. O'Donohoe even says there is interest from a third IPL owner in purchasing a team. The issues with the national set-up are not going away but the CPL has meant there are at least some positives for cricket in the West Indies. The tournament exists as a separate yet symbiotic entity to the national team and its growth should be celebrated.

Outside of the Caribbean, there may be a lingering cynicism about Stanford's original involvement in cricket, but within the region, his legacy remains mixed. For all of his failings, Stanford "got" T20 cricket and where it belonged in modern Caribbean culture. In many ways the CPL is the natural progression of his vision. Had the Stanford circus continued, it may well have ended up looking much like the current set-up, with its Indian investment and expansion into the USA.

The CPL wants to be an integral part of West Indies cricket, not just something that makes money out of it. When speaking of long-term goals, the time frames discussed are decades, not years. In many ways, the need to make money has made the whole thing more streamlined and, as a result, increased its chances of success. If O'Donohoe has his way, the CPL will be part of the landscape for generations to come.

Peter Miller is a cricket writer and podcaster. @TheCricketGeek