View inside the studio ahead of the Hundred draft
© Getty Images

Feature

How many leagues can cricket take?

If all the existing and proposed short-format leagues are to survive, some will have to recalibrate their ambitions

Tim Wigmore  |  

It was an incongruous, and yet very 2019, place to start a new cricket league: the Sky Sports studios in Isleworth, nestled in the outer edges of west London. Here, at prime time on a Sunday night in October - right after Manchester United against Liverpool, no less - the Hundred came to life.

In a custom-made room, representatives from the eight teams huddled around pods. They were there to make their draft selections in this made-for-TV event. Marquee players lounged around in a nearby room, so relaxed that they forgot they were being filmed - as betrayed by Jos Buttler's look of sheer bewilderment when Dane Vilas was selected by his Manchester Originals side as a £125,000 (approximately US$161,000) pick. Within a couple of hours, the franchises of the Hundred had made the leap to becoming fully fledged squads.

The format - 100 balls a side, with 20 overs of five balls each - was new. Little else was. The colours splattered on the team kits resembled those in T20 leagues around the world. The overseas players were recycled from other leagues. Even the choice of city was unoriginal: the Caribbean Premier League now holds its annual player draft in London, and the T20 Global League and the Euro T20 Slam both held their launches in London. Rather awkwardly, the T20 Global League, scheduled to take place in South Africa in 2017, was cancelled before a ball was bowled. In August this year, the inaugural season of the Euro T20 Slam was postponed, and it remains to be seen whether it ever takes place.

Turmoil has not been confined to those two scuppered leagues. The Emirates T20x, a competition that was due to launch at the end of 2018, was also cancelled without a match taking place, after buyers were only found for two of the five franchises. This August, a match in the Global T20 Canada league was delayed after players refused to board the team bus due to delays in payments. The Afghanistan Premier League's second season, scheduled for October, was postponed for a year after the national board cited concerns about the integrity of those associated with Snixer Sports, the tournament partners.

Even ostensibly more secure leagues have encountered problems. Australia's Big Bash was castigated as overly bloated last season, and has floundered in the global war for talent. In September, the Bangladesh Premier League rowed back from its franchise model, with a swathe of teams losing money, and instead entrusted the Bangladesh Cricket Board to run the teams and try and make the competition economically viable. Later that month the Pakistan Cricket Board announced a 20% reduction in the total salary cap in the Pakistan Super League, from $1.38 million to $1.1 million, and a reduction in squad sizes from 21 to 18 players, to try and reduce the losses that franchises were incurring.

All of these leagues suffer from very narrow, specific problems. Their issues, however, are better understood not separately but together. It remains true that most leagues and teams are losing money, as explored in a piece for the Cricket Monthly two years ago. The central question, underpinning all of the strife to hit leagues from Australia to Afghanistan, is simply: how many leagues can cricket take?

Cricket loves to think of itself as a unique sport. One of the ways in which this is true is the focus on international matches. In most sports, a significant majority of money is generated by club v club matches. In cricket, with the growth of the international game, only a minute proportion of its total wealth has come from domestic games, which have required huge subsidies from international matches.

The advent of T20 - and especially the IPL in 2008 - instantly transformed the relationship between club and international cricket. Before the IPL, only around 2% of the Indian board's total broadcasting rights came from domestic games; today, 71% of India's broadcasting revenue comes from the IPL.

In this way, T20 has brought cricket more into line with other sports. But in doing so, it has opened up new fissures, putting unprecedented strain on the global calendar, as boards have tried to mine as much cash as possible from their leagues. This motivation is part gluttony, part necessity. In recent years the value for bilateral series has stagnated throughout the world; strikingly, a number of boards have found that their most recent contracts with Indian broadcasters to show India's away matches have declined in value, eroding an essential source of revenue. Sometimes, more in hope than expectation, boards have resorted to T20 leagues to try and fill the revenue gap.

"It will be the most exciting event of the year, far more exciting than any FTP [Future Tours Programme event] could ever be," declared the Pakistan Cricket Board when launching the Pakistan Super League in 2016. Consistent financial losses for owners, necessitating cutbacks in spending, were presumably not part of the envisaged fun.

Leagues the world over have understandably been guilty of a shared vice: too much ambition. In a rush to create their very own IPLs, they have engaged in an arms race they can't afford, splurging cash to entice the best players and coaches. The upshot has been an increase in salaries to levels completely out of sync with revenues.

The IPL's success has spurred others to form similar leagues, but the very success of the IPL is a barrier to entry for these new leagues

The IPL's success has spurred others to form similar leagues, but the very success of the IPL is a barrier to entry for these new leagues © AFP

In the Bangladesh Premier League, salaries of $200,000 a season were not uncommon for the best overseas players; little wonder that many chose to play there rather than in Australia's more thrifty Big Bash. But in paying the second biggest wages on the T20 circuit without generating the second highest income, the BPL created a league that was glitzy without being economically viable. Eventually, for all the reflected glory of owning a team, owners were not prepared to justify making a regular loss. It is a microcosm of a wider story.

"One of the most common situations we see is the cart-before-the-horse nature of developing a league," explains Tony Irish, the executive chairman of FICA, the global players' association. "The league is announced, there is big publicity around a launch, player drafts may be held. But at the same time the financial model may not have been secured, franchises may not have been sold, there may be no or a limited broadcast deal in place. In these cases the launch is effectively fanfare to attract interest in the league without the fundamentals, which make it viable, being in place. The market research component and due diligence may not have been completed."

While incipient leagues envy the IPL, they seem oblivious to the reality that it took until 2018, and the start of the IPL's $2.55 billion five-year broadcasting contract, for all its franchises to be able to record consistent profits.

Insurgent leagues have often needed to pay more cash to convince players to choose them over more established leagues - but the very extravagance of such contracts has jeopardised these new competitions. This year a swathe of top talent - including Rashid Khan, Chris Lynn, Shane Watson and Babar Azam - chose the Euro Slam over the concurrent Caribbean Premier League.

Spending with the shackles off has even extended to off-the-field. The rationale for the Euro Slam to fork out big sums for foreign coaches was not entirely clear - whoever watched a cricket game for the coaches?

The Euro Slam's launch - an event brimming with Indian celebrities, generally B- or C-listers - embodied leagues' preoccupation with India. Enticing millions of Indians to watch a foreign league is a seductive notion but also a deceptive one, given the scant appetite in India to watch overseas cricket. The Indian market is "something you should factor in when developing your league", Haroon Lorgat declared while developing the T20 Global League in South Africa. But perhaps his words should be inverted: you shouldn't factor in the Indian market when developing your league. If you have to, it probably means that the sums don't add up. Cricket South Africa's desire to create an IPL-lite ended up costing the board an estimated $13.5 million - and Lorgat his job.

Girish TS / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

When the sums don't add up, it compromises the integrity of the leagues. It was revealing, perhaps, that the Afghanistan Cricket Board noted this threat when announcing the postponement of the 2019 season. When there are big wage discrepancies, or players are paid late and unreliably, they are more likely to engage in corrupt activity, says David Forrest, a sports-corruption expert from the University of Liverpool. Many T20 leagues fulfil both these conditions; indeed, 34% of all players worldwide have experienced late payment or non-payment, FICA found this year. And a league already losing money is unlikely to invest extra cash in a more robust anti-corruption framework. Indeed, there are dark rumours of corruption coming from the very top: from some owners themselves, who are alleged to recruit players to underperform when they are told to do so. "Some of these owners are dodgy as f**k," one player who played in multiple T20 World Cups told me for the book Cricket 2.0: Inside the T20 Revolution.

In football, Forrest notes, there have been instances of owners deliberately missing wage payments, pressuring players to lose. In this way, the hazardous economics of leagues serve to heighten the threat of corruption.

One of the themes of sport so far this century has been that the biggest - leagues, matches, games - get bigger while the space left for the also-rans becomes ever more crowded.

David Goldblatt's book The Age of Football shows how crowds at domestic football matches in Africa have plummeted in recent years. It is not that the sport has become any less popular in Nigeria or Ghana; it is that the fans who would have gone to local matches - enduring, even if not always enjoying, them - now flock to bars to watch the English Premier League and the UEFA Champions League instead. This is a salutary lesson for new leagues. An Indian expat in Dublin may go to the odd game between Dublin Chiefs and Rotterdam Rhinos - but will he bother watching the twists and turns of the competition on TV when he already follows the best T20 players in the world for two months a year in the IPL? This problem will only become more acute in the years ahead, if the IPL expands, as it might do from the next broadcasting cycle, which begins in 2022.

The growth of women's leagues may have a similar effect. While a women's IPL has yet to be created, it is highly likely to be in place within five years. Both the Big Bash and the Hundred have men's and women's teams alike. As women's leagues grow in cricket's biggest economies, the time that fans may once have spent watching a foreign league will be spent on watching the women's league of their national tournament.

All these forces mean that the temptation to invest more in glamorous leagues will increase. Yet recent years have highlighted the dangers of such an arms race. Short-format cricket - above all T20, but also T10 and, speculatively, the Hundred - has increased the overall demand for watching the sport. It's just that the demand for watching isn't quite enough for tier-two and tier-three leagues to justify huge outlays on player salaries.

Steven Smith and David Warner headlined the Global T20 in Canada during their ball-tampering bans

Steven Smith and David Warner headlined the Global T20 in Canada during their ball-tampering bans © Getty Images

Cricket may well be able to sustain its current number of leagues around the world, or even add more - but there is scant evidence to suggest that it can sustain all leagues in their current form.

Indeed, beyond the IPL, the behemoth of cricket leagues, almost no league is immune to risks. Even in Australia, there are questions about whether the Big Bash has overextended itself, and in England about whether the game can sustain both the Hundred and the T20 Blast. In Bangladesh and Pakistan, a combination of relatively weak domestic broadcasting markets, political wrangling, and in the case of Pakistan, security issues, means that the huge popularity of the leagues among domestic fans hasn't translated into reliable profits.

It all adds up to the sense that the current ecosystem cannot hold. As more broadcasting cash is concentrated on the biggest leagues, others will effectively need to decide if they are comfortable paring back their operations and running de facto feeder leagues to nurture young talent - not dissimilar to how the Dutch football league operates, providing talent to the Premier League and La Liga. In this scenario, leagues may position themselves as nurseries for the next generation of IPL talent. Perhaps - if the recruitment rules of leagues change - IPL teams will even be able to send young players to other leagues, effectively loaning them out. This extends the principles of how Kolkata Knight Riders have used the Trinbago Knight Riders franchise.

If, instead, the smaller economies gamble on creating a competition that can compete with the heavyweights, they risk their entire future on the bet.

Perhaps the turbulence of recent months provides an opportunity for a reset. It is instructive that one of the few leagues to avoid financial turmoil this year has been the Caribbean Premier League, which - after unsuccessfully experimenting with India-friendly start times in the tournament's early years - has enhanced its local flavour, reducing the number of overseas players permitted in each XI in 2019 from five to four. Effectively, the calculation was that fans and sponsors would sooner watch an exciting young local player than, say, George Worker.

"What I have learnt is that your international players are the support - not the main pillars," explains Pete Russell, the chief operating officer of the CPL. "Of course they have a role to play, but the fixation on getting big-name players is a red herring - they just don't move the commercial needle. We know that local players are the key, and even better if you can uncover new young talent - that is what excites the fans… People tire of the same players doing the circuit."

Go local: the Caribbean Premier League has switched from trying to appeal to an Indian audience to now being wholly focused on its domestic fan base and talent

Go local: the Caribbean Premier League has switched from trying to appeal to an Indian audience to now being wholly focused on its domestic fan base and talent © Getty Images

This year the CPL refused to try and outbid the Euro Slam for overseas talent by paying sums that it could not afford. The nature of the market it serves means that the CPL will never be a particularly lucrative league. But its formula - a genuinely local product, aimed unabashedly at its local market and thus distinguishable from the identikit mush of T20 leagues elsewhere - points to a template for other T20 leagues that don't have the benefit of serving a huge economy.

"People just assume that they can set up a league and the money will flow," Russell says. "We are only just at break-even and that is with pretty competitive team budgets and a very solid commercial slate. We know the economics of these leagues and there was no way in the world that the fees and team budgets were viable for the European thing - especially in the markets they were launching into, with all the travel logistics on top."

Of the 12 ICC Full Members, including Zimbabwe and Ireland, only one has stubbornly refused to create a glitzy competition built around new teams: New Zealand. The low-key nature of its T20 tournament, a competition lacking in overseas stars and struggling to attract attention in cricket's global marketplace, suggests that it is a failure.

And yet, by refusing to play this game, New Zealand have avoided splurging cash in pursuit of a fantastical dream. If the competition is unusual for its lack of razzmatazz, it is also unusual for avoiding financial risk.

"It's true the commercial aspects of the competition are limited by New Zealand's economies of scale but we're still able to attract strong partner support," explains David White, the chief executive of New Zealand Cricket. "Financially, New Zealand Cricket is one of the ICC's smallest Full Members, which means we have to cut our cloth to suit, spend our money wisely and try to ensure our competitions are sustainable and fit for purpose."

As a template for how to run a T20 league in a smaller economy it is hardly rousing stuff. Yet, for all bar the biggest markets, perhaps this is what success looks like: an undemonstrative and un-flashy league based upon local players and local fan interest, and which does not haemorrhage cash.

New Zealand Cricket has chosen to play safe and stick to its domestic T20 tournament instead of going franchise

New Zealand Cricket has chosen to play safe and stick to its domestic T20 tournament instead of going franchise © Getty Images

Indeed, the irony of the IPL's stunning success is that it became an unwitting catalyst in undermining the viability of T20 leagues the world over. Lower-key leagues that previously enjoyed strong local support and maintained low costs - like Pakistan's domestic T20 competition, which did not need overseas players to drive local interest and sponsorship - were replaced by extravagant offerings in which the extra costs far outweighed the extra revenue.

"There is a finite amount of money in the game - broadcasting, sponsorship and commercial money - and everyone in the game is competing for it," Irish says. "New Zealand is a good example of where having realistic and sustainable models for growth and focusing on efficiency can result in a good cricket system."

Just as basketball and football can sustain dozens of domestic leagues around the world, so T20 cricket, as the format globalises and widens its reach, may eventually be able to do the same. But if cricket is to follow this template, its leagues must belatedly accept that not all can be equal, and pragmatically accept their place in the sport's hierarchy.

Tim Wigmore is a sports writer for the Daily Telegraph and the co-author of Cricket 2.0: Inside the T20 Revolution

 

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