The Caribbean Premier League, which begins its fourth season on June 29, has been praised for galvanising cricket in the West Indies, and for contributing to the region's victory in the World T20 in April this year. Some have suggested the CPL is the third most prestigious domestic T20 league in the world, after the Indian Premier League and the Big Bash. Over 300,000 fans attended matches last year, a 44% increase from 2014. As a sign of its future ambitions, the CPL this year takes the carnival to the United States for the first time - six matches will be played in Central Broward Stadium, Lauderhill, Florida.
But the CPL also faces significant challenges. Every season so far has made a loss. This year, three days before the tournament began, the hosts of the semi-finals and final were still unknown. In the longer term, the ECB's determination to reform and modernise domestic T20 cricket could create a problem for the CPL if the competitions clash.
Damien O'Donohoe, the league's chief executive, speaks about the challenges and the opportunities the CPL faces in a year in which it will go head to head with West Indies' home series against India.
What's the character of the CPL?
I think when you see the CPL it really is the Caribbean people and the Caribbean flavour - that's what makes it so different. We call it "the biggest party in sport", and that's really what it is. The atmosphere, the party, is like nothing you've ever experienced. That's why for us it's not hard to convince some of the biggest players in the game - like Brendon McCullum, Shane Watson and AB de Villiers - to come and play, because it's six weeks in the Caribbean, playing in packed-out stadiums, with atmospheres that you'd usually expect at a rock concert.
How much of a challenge is the clash with West Indies' Test series against India?
I see it as an advantage. It means the Indian media will be there, Indian players will be there, and that can only be a good thing. People in the Caribbean love their cricket, they love the CPL, and I think the whole of cricket in the region is really on the rise as a result of CPL and as a result of the West Indies' win [at the World T20]. So I think us going side by side, like what the Big Bash do, will work fine.
Are you in competition with the West Indies?
No. The games are being played on different islands, so I never see it as a competition. The West Indies Cricket Board are partners to this. We run our product and they run theirs. I think the success of the CPL can only help West Indies.
What are the main challenges the CPL faces?
You can see the amount of money that we put in, and the level of players, and just how far CPL has come in a short period of time. One thing that's a big part of this working financially is the public-private partnership. That's why working with the governments is so important, because they're the ones who really gain most. Ninety-three million TV viewers last year - what a way to promote the Caribbean. You won't find a better way than through this, and especially into markets that are very important to them, like the UK and the US.
"We've had the guys from Hong Kong, from Singapore, reach out to us about taking some games there, and also even Dubai. That would obviously open us up to the Asian market"
That's why we made the deal with Dave [a British TV channel] to get the CPL onto free-to-air TV in the UK, so that we get more eyeballs as we try to build our brand. Making the books balance is always a challenge, because of the level of event we produce, and some things are completely out of our control.
We tender the finals, and last year it couldn't have been a bigger success than it was in Trinidad. The government there paid a decent sum - US$3.5 million - to get the finals last year. Now we're still in negotiations in relation to the finals, because Trinidad's economy's been badly hit with the oil prices and they're in a deep recession. They don't have that level of money to pay, which is a big challenge for us because that's a very important revenue line for us. What I explained to the government is that the final is one thing, but actually supporting the team is a huge part of making CPL work long term.
What's the time frame for when the CPL will start making money?
We came very close to breaking even last year, and until I get this finals deal settled, I don't know where we're going to stand. At this point, it's so disappointing, because we've been in negotiations with the governments for a long time. But sometimes there's things which are out of our control. Our sponsorship, our TV - it's all moving in the right direction. We're making great progress, but there's been a lot of money invested in this - more than $20 million to date - and it is a very expensive tournament to put on.
How do you assess the conflict between the West Indies players and the board?
I can't make the terms of what Chris Gayle does. The cricket landscape is changing as a result of these T20 leagues. Players have a little more power and a little bit more ability to make their own decisions and create their own schedule. I think that's something that needs to be looked at across the board, not just in the West Indies.
Are you hopeful that the partnership between Kolkata Knight Riders and Trinidad will herald a greater Indian involvement in the tournament?
I think it's going to be very exciting. The people of Trinidad are very excited about it, the KKR people are very excited. What the KKR guys want to look to do now is building a relationship with Trinidad, so that they bring some of the young players and coaches, hopefully, to India next year, so that they can really work at grass-roots level in terms of developing players and coaches and backroom staff. I think it's going to be a really exciting time over the next few years to see exactly what they can do in a market like Trinidad, which is the biggest cricket market of all in the Caribbean.
How do you promote the CPL in the islands that do not have teams?
We are promoting it. It's a very expensive event to run, so we really have to concentrate on our six markets, and getting that right. But we have had other Caribbean islands reach out, because they want to look at possibly even taking a franchise there. We moved the franchise from Antigua to St Kitts & Nevis a couple of years ago. The St Lucia franchise is for sale, and there's some discussions of maybe buying that and possibly moving it. But at the end of the day, that's for the government to come to the table and do a deal to make sure it stays.
What would be a success this season?
Getting packed stadiums; a TV audience grown from 93 million to, I'm hoping, 125 million. It'll be getting the stadiums packed in Fort Lauderdale. And I think it'll be, hopefully, having a few - I can't imagine there's going to be a huge amount of Americans there, but definitely getting some, and getting maybe some of our celebrity names to be there and really raise the profile, to put on a first-class event.
How can you keep ticket prices affordable?
Of course you make money from tickets, and that's what the franchises do. They now run their own franchise, and ticketing is a big part of that. What we urge and work with the franchises to do is keep the tickets very reasonably priced, because some of the markets in the Caribbean are depressed, especially this year. That's why we want to be affordable to everybody. T20 is bringing a whole new audience to cricket - women, children - and we want all of those guys to be able to come and enjoy the CPL.
Is there a tension between playing matches during the day - which is better for overseas TV - and playing them at night, which is better for locals?
That's what we tried in year two. And what we realised is that you can't change the local product to please the international market, because at the end of the day it's a Caribbean product for Caribbean people. And they love to party, they love to come out at night time. It's just not the same sort of adventure in the day that it is at night. That's why we've come back with a few 12 o'clock games this year, but the vast majority of our games are in the evening.
But that's why we're looking at other opportunities. The great thing about this franchise model is that you can take it places. We're taking it to America this year. We've had guys from Hong Kong, from Singapore, reach out to us about taking some games there, and also even Dubai. That would obviously open us up to the Asian market. We'll get through this year, regroup, and have a look at the tournament, have a look at some of those opportunities, hopefully outside of the region as well, so we can help grow and develop the CPL like we planned.
"Working with the governments is so important, because they're the ones who really gain most. Ninety-three million TV viewers last year - what a way to promote the Caribbean"
How important is playing games in the US this year?
It's a first step, so let's see. The ticket sales have been really strong. We've got 60% sold. So let's take it one step at a time, get the US right. It's taken three years to get the Caribbean piece right, so we'll see how that goes. If we make a success of that, there will be some decisions to make post-tournament.
How supportive has the government in Florida been to taking the CPL there?
They have been very receptive to the idea, and love the fact there's a stadium that is the only cricket stadium in the US and doesn't get much use. I think they're delighted to see something like the CPL come. They are getting six games this year. I'm sure they're hoping for more next year.
Where could there be new franchises?
I think ideally, when you look at it - New York and Toronto - you've got to look where the big diaspora markets are. That's why we look at the sales. Over 50% of our sales for Fort Lauderdale this year are from New Yorkers who are flying down. So I think New York and Toronto - if we had a choice, and there were stadia - would be our No. 1 and 2 choices.
I think it's for cricket collectively to look at what football has done and the plans that they've had - like hosting a World Cup there.
Could the new franchises be in place for 2017?
That's definitely possible, but it's only possible if that's in agreement with the ICC. USACA aren't involved in the US anymore. Everything goes through the ICC, so we'll be sitting down with them in September and discussing what the future is with the CPL in the US.
Is six teams optimal?
I think six teams in the Caribbean is optimal. If we had the chance to take a couple of teams into the US or Canada, that would be brilliant. But I think eight, really maximum ten, would be where we get in time.
How do you manage the potential conflict between the CPL and the English domestic T20 competition?
We've had discussions with the ECB, because we have that window that is so important to the ECB. We've spoken with Tom Harrison [the ECB's chief executive], because obviously if they're to do any type of franchise league they would want to have the best players in the world, a lot of which we have attracted. And likewise, we'd love to have the English players play in the Caribbean. There's got to be a way where we can all work together to make sure that we're not crossing over at the same time.
How are you managing the clash at the moment?
We are speaking with ECB, as they ultimately want our window. So we are working with them to find a solution so we can get the players and vice versa, as it makes no sense competing with each other.
Where do you see the CPL being in 2020?
It's already the No. 1 sporting event in the Caribbean. Stadiums are packed out. We're seeing stars come through like Carlos Brathwaite, who was spotted in the CPL and is now a worldwide star. I really want to see more of that. Ideally, as I said, if we're going to have a franchise in the US, or a franchise in Toronto, that would be hugely exciting, and that would be the ultimate dream. But we want to just make sure that we get everything right this year. The eyes of the cricket world are going to be on us in July at Fort Lauderdale. We want to just make sure that those stadiums are packed, that there's real awareness for cricket, and we make a big success of it before we look at anything bigger.