March 5, 2016

'PSL will reach its true potential when it comes to Pakistan'

Shoaib Naveed, PSL's project manager, talks about how the league overcame a lot of scepticism to emerge as a successful brand after its first season

Play 57:51

Tell us about your journey from being a student blogger to becoming PSL's project manager.
When I last came on your podcast, I was blogging for and Dawn. I graduated from college in the USA. I randomly went to Sri Lanka [in 2011], where I sneaked into the press box. That was my first experience of interacting with cricketers live. I interned with the New Zealand Cricket Players' Association. I was also coaching junior cricket in a club in Auckland. From there, I covered the 2011-12 India-Australia series for Dawn.

I enrolled in a Master's programme in sports management at Melbourne but when it comes to sports business, the US is light years ahead of everybody else. I transferred to Georgetown University [in Washington DC] two and half years ago. That was my entry into the world of commercial sports.

Your thesis turned into a position paper for the PCB, in terms of setting up the PSL.
I was working full-time for the NFL Players' Association and for Monumental Sports Entertainment, which owns the Washington Wizards and the Washington Capitals, in the licensing and development department and the sponsorship department. Even though I was working in American sports, the dream was to get into cricket. It was a no-brainer that Pakistan needed a league of its own, but for various reasons, it hadn't been able to so far. So I wrote my position paper. I would like to believe that the position paper is something the PSL built towards.

"Some of the criticism was thought out, but most of it was just, 'This league cannot happen. MCL is a much better product'" © PCB

In the position paper, you had suggested that half the games be played in Pakistan and half in the UAE.
The PCB were hesitant because they did not have experienced personnel to do a mega-event like the PSL. They wanted to outsource the project to a more experienced [operator], a model the Sri Lankan Premier League tried and failed. The Caribbean Premier League has tried that and it has been working for them, or at least till now. We had a strong sense that we should do this ourselves, because it would benefit Pakistan cricket more.

Outsourcing it to a third party might be easier, but it wouldn't serve the larger purpose - not just the commercial game but the growth of cricket as a business in this country and the grassroots development that would eventually come five to ten years down the line.

It took a bit of convincing but we brought on a pretty reputed company in Repucom to serve as global consultants on the project.

When was the decision made regarding the venues?
The first time, in 2012, the PCB decided to keep it completely local. We tried our best to get foreign players to Pakistan, but none were willing to play a single game in Pakistan. That has changed after this edition of the PSL. When I talked to the players or the commentators, there is this change in mindset where they might come for a game or two.

Did that mean that the decision to go outside of Pakistan was made for you?
The PSL and similar leagues are commercial products. It is actually the Gayles, the Watsons, the Pietersens that make the broadcasters and the sponsors go, "This is a project worth supporting" and open their purses. They are not willing to open up their purses to the same extent just for the Pakistani players. The PCB will stand to gain financially, if not in the first, surely in the second or third editions. You first try and convince foreign players to come to Pakistan.

"If you spend so much time in building a brand in the UAE, why not make it into a global league? Why not look at other markets like Sri Lanka or Bangladesh?"

Also, you have to convince your own security within Pakistan. The security given to Zimbabwe was mind-blowing. Lahore was shut down for a week, the main artery, where the Gaddafi Stadium is. You can't afford to do that for a month-long tournament. Financially, it is not possible to sustain for the PCB. The security agencies at that time were like, "Maybe we should reconsider doing the PSL in Pakistan for the first year."

One of the major problems with the PSL was that the brand we were building was from zero. If we had held the tournament in Pakistan and god forbid something had happened, or in its build-up, the entire tournament would have got cancelled.

At the end of the day, the league will reach its true potential when it comes to Pakistan. We are seeing the security situation improve over the past year and a half. The Zimbabwe tour was a testament to that. Given the interactions of the international players with our local players and the PSL team with the commentators, there is this sense that it belongs in Pakistan and we are willing to explore the option next year or from the third year.

A major factor now is the franchises. They built their own relationships with their players. Maybe they can do a better job with the PCB. The PCB has done a decent job with how they handled the international players. It was a major concern for us, about how the player payments were handled in the other leagues. We didn't want any of those issues in the PSL, because that damages the brand. We could see more international tours taking place in Pakistan, which is a possibility in this year itself. There are talks going on that other teams might come.

"There is a certain evolutionary process to sports broadcasting that has not occurred in the Pakistani market yet" © Getty Images

What were the problems you had to deal with as a project manager?
The scepticism within the board. I wouldn't say it was unwarranted. Having worked through the hurdles, you need some crazy people to get this thing through. The PCB were extremely strong in logistics and operational work. The PSL T20 team was able to supplement it in terms of the commercials, whatever the marketing we were allowed to do given the restraints, because we were a board that was not holding games at home.

Plus, there is this massive scepticism around the league. It's a general thing within the country with anything new and trying to reach for something big. It was being engulfed with, "That is not possible, what are you trying to do?"

One of the early criticisms was that you were conducting it in Dubai and the Masters Champions League (MCL) was running parallel to it and they had more visibility. Why wasn't there a push to make it more visible in Dubai?
The board of governors of the PCB - when we tried to get this project approved - provided a guideline that this should not be a loss-making project for the PCB. The financial model was based around that. UAE is extremely expensive in terms of getting the marketing campaign out there, like the MCL was doing. We did not care for what the MCL was doing, because, to us, our product was strong and it was with current cricketers. Pakistan cricketers had been playing in the UAE since the late '70s. This league was awaited by the fans since the IPL was launched.

In the UAE, people work six days a week, and the Dubai stadium is not easily accessible. Were there apprehensions of a lack of local support?
Absolutely. It is a city-based franchise tournament. Some of the crowds on weekdays have been extremely disappointing, more so than even I would have imagined. The turnouts we got in Sharjah have been beyond my imagination. The final in Dubai was great, so was Peshawar Zalmi v Quetta Gladiators. That was a testament to the fact that Pakistan cricket has the strength to lure its fans anywhere in the world.

"The model right now is to refine what we have for the second year. In the third year, the addition of another team, and then maybe cap it at eight"

The major part of the spending comes from the broadcasters. The Pakistani sports broadcasting space is not ideal. We were airing PSL on all three Pakistan sports channels - PTV Sports, Ten Sports and Geo Super, all are local channels - and by leasing it from them and then selling their commercial airtime, bought from those channels, to the media agency. This is an arrangement I have not seen anywhere in the world, but these are the circumstances that we have to work with because the broadcasting space is not as mature as it is in the USA or India.

The BCCI or Team India brand is built by Star Sports, the IPL brand is built by Sony. It is not built by the BCCI. The major spending comes from the broadcasters and the sponsors. Given our broadcasting arrangements, this is not in the PCB's hands. It is a larger battle that needs to be fought in the long term for actual commercial strength to take hold in Pakistan. These are the things that people brush aside and don't realise when they say, "There should have been more exposure in terms of marketing. The PCB should have done more". The governing body's job is to sell the rights to the broadcaster and they and sponsors make the brand.

Some of the criticism was thought out, but most of it was just, "This league cannot happen. MCL is a much better product". Stuff like, "MCL names are based on star signs, what has the PCB done?" My friend told me that he was watching a show and this was one of the things they were discussing. To me, and to most Pakistan fans, it was actually a no-brainer that the PSL would be a success. Cricket is a unifying force. It is a cliché, but it is so in this country.

Given the short amount of time that we had, I am surprised we have been able to pull it off without major hiccup.

It is almost inevitable that there would be comparisons with the IPL on how the PSL is projected as a product. How do you walk the tight line where you have an existing model and you want to make it uniquely Pakistani?
I don't know if I can say "borrow", but you can't help but say that a league like this is not just cricket but also entertainment. The [camera] shots to the owners and the celebrity interviews are going to happen; the commercial strategic time-out, the amount of money a broadcaster is trying to get.

It is Pakistan cricket - it is a no-brainer that you were going to be successful. Why were you then getting low-balled like that?
There is a certain evolutionary process to sports broadcasting that has not occurred in the Pakistani market yet. A lot of that has to do with the state broadcaster and its stronghold. Those sort of controls have been broken in other markets, such as India, where the state broadcaster has come away from the market and the monopoly has subsided.

"The PCB has done a decent job with how they handled the international players and player payments" © Chris Whiteoak

You need the uniquely Pakistani experience in the entertainment.
We tried the milestone truck - it was huge success with the fans. We did the anda [egg]; it wasn't supposed to be a duck, it was supposed to be an anda. I wanted to have more emphasis on music, because Pakistani people like a mix of music and cricket, which hopefully we will see from next season onwards. You can see music taking a prominent position in how the franchises are marketing themselves. Peshawar Zalmi has a whole album out and a lot of the songs are actually good. Lahore has two songs, Quetta has two songs, Islamabad has their own song, so does Karachi. All of them came up with sound tracks and did their own marketing. Kudos to them. I wasn't expecting the amount of marketing they pulled off in the short time. The franchises were sold in mid-December. They had barely a month and a half to get everything organised. Most of them were just getting the whole cricketing team together, let alone their marketing team.

The other criticism of the tournament is the fact that you had five franchises and you went through the entire tournament to eliminate one team.
Why were there five teams? You want to start small. The teams made sense in terms of how it was equally divided with each province getting its representation. We wouldn't have been able to fit in anything bigger than this in the time that was there, from Feb 4 to 23. There was a battle with the MCL, the New Zealand tour and the Asia Cup. The teams that qualified for the finals were the qualifiers for us. The playoffs are there because you need some amount of games that can give you commercial feasibility.

Basically, you have 80% of the teams going into the playoffs. In the NBA, for example, around 50% of the teams go into the playoffs.
It is two teams making it to the playoffs. That is how we look at it. If you just do the regular round and the top two qualifiers, the number of games is not enough for the media agency or the broadcasters.

"We did not care for what the MCL was doing, because to us our product was strong and it was with current cricketers"

Were there other options that you put on the table, where the top team goes to the final, two and three play each other and the qualifier goes to the finals and the best two teams play a best-of-three?
Yes, there were. The regular semi-final option was also considered. The strength of the league was the fact that there were no games that were not competitive or consequential. That was the power of both the format and the draft. The teams were of almost equal standard. You didn't have Karachi or Lahore being the more expensive teams, capable of getting the better players.

Has there been any talk of having more franchises, because cities like Lahore and Karachi can support more than one?
There are a lot of other cities who will want a team and have the population to deserve teams. Commercially, it comes to a point where it makes more sense to build the brand and then to derive commercial gain from it by selling those teams at a higher rate. That eventually helps the league and Pakistan cricket, because the money is coming back in and getting divided in the central pool. Then it goes to the PCB and can be spent on domestic cricket and on the grassroots development. But the model right now is to refine what we have for the second year. In the third year, the addition of another team, and then maybe cap it at eight.

"The security that was given to Zimbabwe was mind-blowing. The PCB cannot afford that for a month-long tournament" © AFP

Why were there no broadcasters in India?
Sony was showing the MCL. Star Sports already had too much on their plate. The values given by the broadcasters would have set a poor precedent for the PSL and would have resulted in setting the bar too low.

Where do you see the league in four to five years? Do you envision the PSL unfolding according to what you wrote in your thesis?
I have a personal bias towards this, but I would like my thesis to kick in. If you spend so much time and effort in building a brand in a foreign country and there is a following for the league and a population willing to consume it, you should take advantage of it. Don't think small, think big. The PSL could potentially be the second-biggest league after the IPL.

If you spend so much time in building a brand in the UAE, why not make it into a global league? Maybe not restrict it to just UAE, why not look at other markets, like Sri Lanka or Bangladesh. It all depends on where cricket goes from here, where the ICC is taking it. We are already seeing certain shifts happening within the ICC with the Big Three. It depends on those things as well.