Watch out cricket, Allen Stanford is here, and he's brought his cheque book along. Hype or the real deal? Neil Manthorp travelled to Antigua to find out
Whatever else was happening around the Caribbean during the World Cup, and however dismal the ICC's rules and regulations and the performance of the West Indies team, the people of Antigua had reason to smile - and not just the cricket-loving people.
Texas billionaire Allen Stanford is the second biggest employer on the island, second behind only the government. But he doesn't just mean jobs and economic prosperity, he means fun, razzmatazz, and "cricket like you've never seen it before" in the form of the Stanford 20/20 tournament, which was an enormous hit in its first season in 2006, involving 19 nations, and is now set for another five-year run with 22 Caribbean countries competing for the US$1 million first prize.
His name was Kerry Packer; his name is Allen Stanford. He was born in Australia; he hails from Texas. He inherited a small fortune from his grandfather and turned it into a colossal fortune; he was born in a vast and prosperous land. He had a ruthless streak in business and a reputation for getting the job done, not just any way, but his way.
Both set out to revolutionise the game. Given their similarities, it comes as no surprise to see marketing and branding of the same fashion. Whereas Packer's World Series billboards screamed, "See the white ball fly!" and "Big Boys play at night!", Stanford's declare: "It's cricket, but it's not. It's a new spin on an old game," and "It's an evolution. It's a revolution. It's the game we love like we have never seen it before."
Stanford Insurance, which is where the fortune started, was founded in the midst of the Great Depression by
Allen's grandfather Lodis in a small Texan town called Mexia in 1932. Lodis, it is said, had a compassionate streak and was genuinely interested in alleviating the suffering of his fellow Texans. Fortunately for him, his philanthropic leanings didn't stop him making piles of money.
Lodis's grandson has clearly inherited the family interest in people as well as money but reacts sharply when it is described as a philanthropic streak. "It is more than a 'streak', it is a Stanford business philosophy," says the bristling but still amiable billionaire. He is 6'5" and barrel-chested, which means it's not hard for him to claim one's attention. He also has piercing eyes which hold your gaze like a vice.
"Participating in and giving back to the communities in which Stanford has a presence is of paramount importance to me," Stanford says. "We have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the Caribbean and we employ over 2000 people in the region. Each investment, whether it is providing financing for an island nation's infrastructure or building a state-of-the-art cricket facility, is done with a long-term view towards stimulating other ventures, providing employment and economic opportunities."
He shows more feistiness when asked what comes first - a good opportunity or the opportunity to do good. They don't occur simultaneously, do they?
"Of course they do. Look at my experience in the Caribbean. It is a major attraction for any investor because of its tax and investment incentives, low labour costs and geography, but over the years it has attracted the wrong type of investor. Many times I've seen poorly negotiated deals where government gives everything to an investor who then doesn't perform, leaving the community worse off," he says. "I have been investing here since the early 1980s, and while we have enjoyed wonderful opportunities, we have also improved the infrastructure of local communities with an eye towards long-lasting economic and social development."
|The implementation of his international vision is straightforward and relies on the establishment of an all-star team, to be known as the Stanford Super Stars, a sort of Harlem Globetrotters of cricket|
So how does the Stanford 20/20 fit in?
"It is a unique opportunity to create a sports brand in the Caribbean which can, in effect, be an exportable commodity, which is rare in this part of the world."
Exportable? Is Stanford's primary ambition to revitalise West Indies cricket or does he want the Stanford brand to become global?
"Both. At this moment my focus is a bit insular as we develop the Stanford 20/20 programme. I have committed to another five years and promised to continue the funding to the participating territories during that period. At this point in time the excitement and interest is here, but as it grows and improves, I anticipate that the emotions and hype surrounding the event will, too. The Twenty20 format is increasing in popularity around the world, so there is a developing market for it."
The implementation of his international vision is straightforward and relies on the establishment of an all-star team, to be known as the Stanford Super Stars, a sort of Harlem Globetrotters of cricket. But their fixtures will not be exhibitions full of trick shots and mirth. Although he doesn't say it, one gathers the impression from Stanford that he finds it outrageous, bizarre, and amusing that the majority of international cricketers get paid what they do, and that they will still need to find gainful employment once their playing days are over. For a sporting career that demands such time and dedication, the rewards - especially when compared to those in American sports - are pitiful.
So he will give a select band of players the chance to earn as much in a single 40-over game as some will make in the rest of their careers. The first Super Stars game would already have taken place in September last year, had it not been for the obstreperous bungling of the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) president Ken Gordon.
"The plan was to choose a team from the Stanford 20/20 tournament and have them undergo very intensive training and preparation, after which they would face an international team in a one-off Twenty20 match. The winner of that game would walk away with US$5 million. Unfortunately the plan did not get off the ground last year," Stanford says, metaphorically biting his lip.
Gordon stymied the match by insisting West Indies start their tour of Pakistan a couple of days before the scheduled date of the planned Stanford game. South Africa, meanwhile, had agreed to travel to Antigua to play the Super Stars, and Pakistan had willingly agreed to host West Indies a couple of days later to allow the fixture to take place. The Pakistan Cricket Board reasoned that co-operating and showing goodwill to Stanford might elicit an invitation to play the Super Stars and compete for five million dollars next.
South Africa were so keen to play, in fact, that the game's administrators in that country and the Players' Association had even agreed how they would split the money if the team won, and cash had already been earmarked for South Africa's development programme. The Stanford 20/20 tournament brochure featured a section on the South Africa team, and previewed the big match. But then the WICB pulled the plug. The South Africans weren't just disappointed, they were furious - an emotion which does nothing to adequately describe how Stanford himself felt.
So what did he do? Sue them? Threaten them? Take the authorities on, and beat them, as Packer did? No. He agreed to work with them, to co-operate.
Nobody should have any doubt that a man who has the power and influence (and money) to persuade 14 of the greatest names in West Indies cricket to be on his board of directors - referred to, rightly, as The Legends - also has the power to demolish a feeble structure like the WICB in a matter of days. But he chose not to.
"It goes against my business philosophy of developing and strengthening each and every community in which I have a presence. The WICB has always been, and should continue to be, the governing body for the game in the region," Stanford says. "However, I do want to assist the WICB where I can, and I think I have the experience and passion to do so. My record as a businessman speaks for itself, and the Stanford 20/20 board members ensure we have the knowledge to promote and develop cricket in the West Indies. I can help them come up with a plan that will put them on the road to improved fiscal accountability." So that takes care of business off the field. But what about on it? After all, if West Indies can't sort things out on the field, there won't be any business off it.
"With the guidance of the Legends we can build a cricketing programme that will help the WICB with many aspects of their regional development. One of our main goals is a professional league which will begin here in Antigua. When that is rolled out around the region, it will provide a talent pool for West Indies cricket with the specific goal of regaining its place at the top of world cricket," Stanford says.
The Stanford complex, which is so close to the VC Bird International airport in Antigua as to be regarded a part of it, comprises two banks, an investment house, the cricket ground, two restaurants, and a substantial health and fitness club with swimming pool, gym, and aerobics studios. A hotel and conference centre will follow soon.
Potential Stanford investors can land their private jets at VC Bird airport and then taxi down a private runway before entering what, to most of us, can only be described as a different world. Texas may not be famous for high-class luxury, but Stanford clearly knows the difference between style and kitsch (although insisting that the floor in his private aircraft hangar be maintained an immaculate, sparkling white might be going a little over the top.)
The cricket ground was never originally designed to host anything more significant than club games and the occasional, low-key tour fixture, but Stanford's Twenty20 vision came after its construction, and although things would undoubtedly have been done differently if it had been purpose-built, everybody seems happy with the way things are. "It has a family atmosphere - it doesn't feel like any other stadium when it's full, because of all the grass banks. Families come and have picnics - it really feels special," says Brianne Schwartz, one of the two full-time staff working in the Stanford 20/20 offices at the ground.
Like a diabetic chocoholic who keeps his candy cupboard locked, Stanford has protected himself from his own excesses, and virtually guaranteed popularity, if not success, by appointing his star-studded board of directors: Curtly Ambrose, Clive Lloyd, Richie Richardson, Sir Viv Richards, Sir Garfield Sobers, Joel Garner, Lance Gibbs, Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Ian Bishop, Sir Everton Weekes, Wes Hall, Andy Roberts, and Courtney Walsh. Anybody prepared to say they got it wrong, whatever it is, will be pushing a very heavy rock up a very steep hill. The board members are well paid, of course, which would incline them towards agreeing with the boss, but while one or two of the greatest players ever to emerge from the Caribbean may be in need of the money, to apply such a view in general would be to take cynicism through the roof.
|In two days spent mixing with and meeting Stanford's people and talking to many other locals, it was hard to find a dissenting voice. Not all Stanford's deals and projects meet with unilateral approval from the Antiguan government, but civil service dissent is hard to maintain when so many citizens are benefiting and prospering|
"A part of the vision for the Stanford 20/20 initiative is to motivate the young cricketers of the Caribbean and give them tangible incentives," says Garner. "The money being put into development projects is just as important as the prize money. One of the reasons we are welcoming these new ideas into West Indies cricket is because the money is going towards development in a big way. In the past a lot of funding went towards paying expenses.
"Yes, the prize money is big and the boys will want to play hard and go after that, but we are also hoping that it creates a desire for success, not just a desire for money."
Richards is similarly enthused: "It's a great concept for cricket. It's a big opportunity for the islands to see what level they are at, and it also means that they get equipment and proper facilities," he says.
As for working with a billionaire, Ian Bishop offers one of his trademark smiles: "Sure, he pretty much gets his way, as you would expect of a man in his position, but he also asks for our opinion and advice, and he listens."
In two days spent mixing with and meeting Stanford's people and talking to many other locals, it was hard to find a dissenting voice. Not all Stanford's deals and projects meet with unilateral approval from the Antiguan government, but civil service dissent is hard to maintain when so many citizens are benefiting and prospering. There may be a little bit of Toy Town about the Stanford village, lots of eager-beaver employees buzzing about their business, but they have smiles on their faces and money in their pockets.
Sure, Stanford aims to make money out of his Twenty20 vision, and sure, he likes to see his name, or "brand", in as many places as possible. It features nearly 40 times in this article! But he also founded Antigua's only independent newspaper, the Antigua Sun, because he believes any country that wants to be taken seriously needs to have a free press. And I couldn't see the Stanford name anywhere in it. The staff confirm they receive no "instructions" or censorship, and that they are encouraged toward genuine journalism.
Traditional cricket administrators may not like him, but they should ask themselves whether their mistrust is a result of their own prejudices and the fact that he is a brash Texan rather than of what he has done, and would like to do, for cricket.
"I plan to implement the Stanford Super Stars programme once again in 2008, but this time on a much grander scale," Stanford says. "I hope to announce all of these plans in the very near future."
Hold on to your seats. He's serious.
Neil Manthorp is a South African broadcaster and journalist, and head of the MWP Sport agency.