A league that now begins to rival the highly successful Indian Premier League and Australia’s Big Bash for the quality of cricket and entertainment on offer, enthralled the Caribbean islands at exactly the time that the shambolic WICB would learn that West Indies will not qualify for the 2017 Champions Trophy.
The CPL is the hottest ticket the region has seen for some time. Scalpers were openly selling tickets for the final outside the Queen’s Park Savannah in Port-of-Spain for a minimum of US$300, and tickets for the two qualifiers before that weren’t much cheaper.
The CPL is not owned or run by the WICB. A group backed by the Irish-owned Caribbean mobile network Digicel pays an undisclosed annual stipend, understood to be no more than a few million dollars, to the board for the rights to stage the event and earn revenues from it. The CPL’s CEO, Damien O’Donohoe, a law graduate who shared the field with West Indies greats at his Dublin club Clontarf in 1995 and has a background in concert promotion across Europe, was instumental in assembling six teams through a combination of private and public investment. Three years down the line he says the gamble has paid off and the league is breaking even.
“It will never be worth even a tiny fraction of the likes of the IPL as this is a small economic region going through hard times, but we will move into profitable territory from next year,” O’Donohoe said.
“The airlines were full, restaurants booked out, heads on beds in hotels – you can see for yourself the spinoffs. Last year we created 27,000 jobs”
“We have already invested US$20 million or so and this will never be a highly profitable league – probably two or three million a year is a realistic goal, even taking a long-term view.
“With a few weeks to go before the inaugural match in 2013 we weren’t sure we could put it all together – it was real shit or bust time. Even on the day of the opening match we had only sold a couple of hundred tickets and given away 1600 more comps for a 16,000 capacity stadium. We had invested $15 million in a very difficult production and had sleepless nights. It was nerve-racking, but when the gates opened the people poured in in their thousands and we had a full house.”
With the help of Indian investment the CPL has moved on from humble beginnings, when the marquee sponsors besides Digicel were an electronics store called Courts and a skin tonic called Limacol. The tournament has now attracted much juicier endorsement from Hero Motocorp, the world’s largest manufacturer of motorcycles. That the 2015 trophy was lifted by the Trinidad & Tobago Red Steel was convenient for organisers as that franchise was recently acquired by the owners (Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan among them) of Kolkata Knight Riders, one of the IPL sides that is as yet unaffected by the current corruption saga hampering that league. Khan didn’t make it to the final as promised but his incessant updates to 15 million Twitter followers are extremely powerful marketing in the holy land of cricket’s cash cow.
“We are certainly open to more investment from India. KKR, one of the biggest brands in cricket, turned us down in year one, at a time that we were getting laughed out of such meetings, but then they actually approached us in year three – that was the biggest compliment. People thought it was a pipe dream when we told them we were mixing Hollywood [stars Mark Wahlberg and Gerard Butler are respective shareholders in the Barbados and Jamaica franchises] and Bollywood but now the door is open to India. A couple of IPL franchise owners are coming for this year’s final to have a look for themselves.”
Damien O’Donohoe (far left): “We are certainly open to more investment from India” © Caribbean Premier League
The WICB had begun picking their squad for the cancelled Zimbabwe tour later this year and had let Test captain Denesh Ramdin, whose ODI average over the past year is 40, know that he was no longer part of their plans – a delayed consequence for how Ramdin, as one of the senior players, managed the pull out from India last year. Red Steel’s winning captain, Dwayne Bravo, is also on that not-so-short list. The WICB is at the risk of bankruptcy if India is not kind to them with regard to a pending and potentially crippling compensation deal; to add to it, the board is punishing many of its best players – perhaps the only ones capable of making the team competitive again.
These actions only serve to weaken the West Indies team and increase players’ incentives to choose lucrative freelance T20 cricket over the hard slog of the domestic game while hoping to be picked by the erratic WICB selectors. Foreign investment in an ever bigger and better CPL does not necessarily translate into better results for the hapless West Indies, especially in the short term.
I went from covering the disappointing Test thrashing at the hands of Australia to the CPL, and it was remarkable how the atmosphere of pessimism gave way to packed houses and exciting games.
“In a group game here we had three hours of constant rain but not a single member of the crowd went home,” O’Donohoe says. And it wasn’t just the stadiums that were full. “Think of the extra economic impact. The airlines were full, restaurants booked out, heads on beds in hotels – you can see for yourself the spinoffs. Last year we created 27,000 jobs and this year was greater as it attracted more than the 20,000 international travellers attending the CPL last year.
“KKR turned us down in year one at a time that we were getting laughed out of such meetings, but then they actually approached us in year three – that was the biggest compliment”
“I get some backlash from the governments,” he says. The CPL has managed to persuade almost all the host franchise countries to pay large fees in exchange for hosting games, with the knowledge that they bring an economic and international PR boost. “The backbone is the local TV rights,” O’Donohoe says, and this is where the CPL can profit in the future if its popularity continues to thrive.
“In year two we got a little too smart too soon and made the mistake of playing earlier games to try and attract the UK and Indian markets, but it didn’t work in the midday sun – we nearly destroyed the tournament. We realised that the people who matter are the ones in the stands, who like to party at night. The World Cup got it wrong here in the same way by messing with match times and stopping people from bringing in their coolers of rum and their horns.
“We know now what our product is and have decided to stay true to our Caribbean USP. When the product is good enough, people in other time zones will stay up and watch games more and more. The CPL is now broadcast in 15 countries and is available to 208 million homes.”
O’Donohoe confirmed that a long-mooted foray into America for at least a handful of CPL games, probably in Florida next year, is likely to happen, and also indicated that he is working on the idea of a triangular CPL all-star series, involving a NatWest T20 combination side, given the relevance of the UK as such a large target market through the widely available BT Sport channel.
He dismissed talk that the tournament might increase the number of franchises from six, citing the need to “keep things tight and do it right”. If a new side were to be formed – there is word that an American-based group of Indians with deep pockets wants a new team – it would therefore come at the expense of an existing side. Antigua is a possible venue.
The Barbados franchise is reported to be the only side losing a significant amount of money, as that government is struggling with increasing fiscal deficits and has not come on board to help the team’s private sector owners. It is however almost impossible to imagine a CPL without fixtures at the region’s highly popular and premier ground, and in an island widely regarded as the jewel of the Caribbean. A senior a Barbados board member told me this week that they hope to host next year’s final.
“We realised that the people who matter are the ones in the stands, who like to party at night” © Caribbean Premier League
O’Donohoe confirmed that CPL 4 will take place in the same period, after the every-three-year player pool reshuffle of the deck, and that they will not look to move the tournament to the window left behind by the now-defunct Champions League T20 in September and October.
Shortly before our meeting ended, O’Donohoe received a message on his phone. It was the great Brian Lara thanking him for rejuvenating cricket in the West Indies: the highest praise available.
“‘Renaissance’ is a strong word but we have reignited cricket for sure. When I first visited these shores it struck me that kids were wearing LeBron James basketball shirts, but now I see CPL jerseys everywhere. A new tribalism now exists that has broken down the former political stigma of playing for another island’s franchise, and cricket stars are once again kings to the Caribbean fans.”
The biggest party in sport is living up to its tagline but there are critics who strongly believe the WICB has sold out its potentially most profitable revenue stream too cheaply, and to a handful of Irishmen who have business and not the sport at heart -though the deal with the WICB is only three years into a 50-year contract, and the WICB certainly couldn’t have established such a successful tournament on its own in the same period.
There is no doubt that at the current rate of growth of spectator and investor interest in the tournament, the CPL could become highly valuable. A look back to when ESPN Star Sports paid US$975 million for the ten-year TV rights to the Champions League T20, a tournament that flopped, says that O’Donohoe may be speaking a little too modestly when he says he aims to make only “a couple million a year”.
“People think we are running off with this thing,” says O’Donohoe, “but every decision we make is in tandem with the WICB. And Digicel, the primary backer of the league, has always given its all to West Indies cricket. We also have a committee that is working together to develop young players in the region.
“Every single kid in this country [Trinidad and Tobago] wants to grow up to play for the Red Steel.”
Let’s just hope that they still want to play for West Indies as well.