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Cricket's biggest party back in town

"They are looking forward to the party, the music, the sexy ladies coming out to watch the game, the cheerleaders. You have a beer or you have some rum - you can choose which one you want. Everyone will be drinking something for sure and then after the game it's a big party."

Chris Gayle is not inviting you to a party at his favourite bar in Kingston, Jamaica. He is inviting you to the Caribbean Premier League, which starts on Saturday. It is not just the organisers, even the players are hyping up the tournament unabashedly.

That it is no empty hype can be evidenced from the fact that Hollywood and Bollywood actors have started investing in franchises. In the inaugural year, 2013, Mark Wahlberg bought a stake in in defending champions Barbados Tridents, while Scotsman Gerald Butler bought a stake in the Gayle-lead Jamaica Tallawahs.

But the biggest shot in the arm for the CPL came at the outset of this season, when it was revealed that Shah Rukh Khan and his Kolkata Knight Riders co-owners were in the process of owning the entire Trinidad & Tobago Red Steel franchise.

That deal came close on the heels of another big Indian name, Hero Group, deciding to become the title sponsor for this year's tournament. For the upcoming season, the tournament's reach has extended with major global broadcasters beaming the CPL worldwide: Sony in India, BT Sport in the UK, ESPN in the US, Fox Sports in Australia.

Little wonder then that Damien O'Donohoe, the CPL chief executive, is quietly gushing about the popularity of his tournament.

"That is the biggest compliment of all to us that in year three," O'Donohoe said while on a promotional visit to London days before the start of the CPL. "We have one of the biggest brands like KKR, similar to what Man City are doing in football, they want to develop their brand around the world, and, in terms of the first step towards doing that they have come to the CPL."

Learning from mistakes

O'Donohoe, an Irish man, has a background in entertainment and sports, having worked with major concert promoters, and as an agent for some of Ireland's big-name sportsmen, including Brian O'Driscoll, Robbie Keane and Damien Duff. Although he believes the CPL has come a "huge way", O'Donohoe conceded that "we can never compete with the IPL and even with the Big Bash League, but we create and deliver an experience."

As a business venture, the CPL continues to be an investment model. O'Donohoe is open about not having made any money so far. but he is not worried.

"In year three we have the CPL where we hoped to be in year five. So if not this year, definitely next year the CPL will be a profitable organisation. Now, it won't be the IPL. It won't even be the Big Bash in terms of the money they make because of the broadcast issue. However we have changed our model slightly and governments have now seen how important the CPL is and the impact it has."

In 2013, when the tournament started, there were serious question marks over CPL owner Ajmal Khan, a rich businessman passionate about cricket. A Barbados bank had issued a public alert: do business at your own risk with Ajmal's company Verus International, which had bought the ownership of CPL from the WICB in 2012.

Having burnt its hands with businessman Allen Stanford, the WICB was edgy. However, the ownership structure was reshuffled after the first edition and the Irish telecommunications company Digicel bought the rights to run CPL exclusively from the WICB. O'Donohoe said Digicel owner Dennis O'Brien signed a cheque of US $20 million when Ajmal was listed as a founder. Since then, it is O'Donohoe and Peter Russell, the CPL chief operating officer, who have managed the tournament.

"With the history of what has happened, there was a lot of suspicion," O'Donohoe said. "From the franchise owners' perspective people probably wanted to see is this going to work? Is it going to be a success? Is what they are promising going to be delivered? I think it's been delivered and delivered to an extent over and above what we ever promised."

Just like any start-up, with time, the CPL too has learned from its mistakes. Player feedback always stressed on retaining as much of the Caribbean flavour as possible.

"Year one, we played all night-time games. There was a huge buzz, massive excitement. The people in the Caribbean, they absolutely love to party - when they come out they want to stay out for the whole night," O'Donohoe said.

But the organisers understand the single biggest challenge for the CPL is that it is played at a time when the majority of the world is still asleep or just waking up, especially big cricket markets like the Indian subcontinent. "So we said, right, our product has really worked in the first year. It is really important from an international perspective in terms of building our brand so let us play some games in the afternoon which will be prime time in India."

O'Donohoe admitted he made a mistake in the second year by moving some matches to the afternoon slot to please the overseas audience.

"We cannot alter our product to keep other markets happy. At the end of the day it is a Caribbean product"

"We've should have foreseen this. The problem was you just cannot get that same atmosphere at 12'o clock on a Saturday or a Sunday because the Caribbean fans want to party."

Although the challenge to broadcast CPL in overseas markets still remains in terms of the timings, O'Donohoe says the prime factor for him is the Caribbean fan.

"We cannot alter our product to keep other markets happy. At the end of the day it is a Caribbean product. That is what we need to make sure: the fans have the best time, it is an incredible atmosphere, the best experience players can have, fill the stadiums. Once we do that everything else will come."

A good innovation - Sobers

The biggest impact the CPL has had is it has brought the fans back to the grounds. The progressive decline of West Indies in first-class and Test cricket alienated one of the most passionate set of fans, who were deeply hurt and dismayed by the disappointments on the field. But the CPL has once again put smiles back on their face.

The fans are the biggest driving force behind the success. O'Donohoe believes the tickets have been priced at accessible rates and more importantly, 40% of the audience has comprised women and children. "You never see that at a Test match. This is a family package. If you are at the gate you can see granny, grandad, mum, dad, three kids."

Like it or loathe it, O'Donohoe believes the CPL has taken cricket to a "whole new level and a whole new audience." Even Garry Sobers, who remains a critic of the T20 format mainly because it can harm a young cricketer, agreed that the CPL has brought the fan back in the ground.

"It (CPL) has given a lot of people an opportunity to play at that level against or with some of the top players in the world," Sobers, who is an ambassador for CPL, told ESPNCricinfo in an interview last month.

"It is a good innovation for West Indies cricket because not only does it bring new players in but it also goes into various islands so that people in those places can see cricket. And it is bringing people back through the turnstiles who one day might start coming in for Test cricket too."

As a fan, he might have become a convert, but Sobers' biggest concern is the negative impact CPL can have on the region's youngsters, who can easily pick up bad habits. O'Donohoe did not want to contest Sobers, but pointed at the amount of exposure a Caribbean youngster gained from the tournament.

"You look at (Jason) Holder and what it has done for him. You look at the Under-19 players - they have been given an opportunity to hopefully play on a stage, in a packed stadium, with and against some of the best players in the world," O'Donohoe said.

"Sir Garry is much better qualified to speak about that (cricket). But I can only say from a sporting perspective: for you as a 19-year-old, you may not have ever had the opportunity to leave your country and suddenly you are playing at a stadium with thousands of people. You are playing with Jacques Kallis, Kevin Pietersen, with Sir Viv Richards as a mentor.

"If you are a 19-year-old, that is a dream. You just sit there like a sponge and absorb everything. And how can that not benefit cricket in the region?"

Cricket matters, and O'Donohoe believes the CPL can plant the seed of desire in a youngster's mind.

"Cricket, especially in this country and other countries, too, can be seen sometimes as elitist," he said. "We want the tickets to accessible to everybody, so even if you are a kid from a very, very poor region in Kingston, we have those tickets to be accessible to you. You can come as a five or six-year-old, come and see your heroes and that is going to inspire you to say, 'you know what if I work hard, if I train hard, if I eat right if I am disciplined, I can see a future'."

The party goes on

Cricket in the Caribbean has always been a unique experience. The quality of West Indies cricket might have dropped in the last decade, but the desire to sit and lime in the stands at the various famous grounds remains one of most appealing things to do for a global cricket fan.

In 2013, Ajmal sold the CPL as the "ultimate cricket carnival." The party is back in town and will be played between June 20 and July 26. It's not just the fans, even the players seem keen to let their hair down.

Kevin Pietersen, playing for St Lucia Zouks, told O'Donohoe he could not wait to be in the Caribbean. "He told me, 'I cannot wait to get on that plane because I am going to playing consecutive cricket of five weeks. I'm going to be drinking a lot of rum, lying on the beach and playing in atmospheres you cannot create anywhere else because the people come out to absolutely party.' That is what we are trying to deliver. We've always built this as the biggest party in sport."