Can Caribbean Premier League capitalise on blooming T20 cricket culture in West Indies?
There is plenty to be downhearted about in Caribbean cricket; Sammy himself expressed his disappointment and sadness at the treatment he and other members of that World T20 side have received
The Caribbean Premier League (CPL) has sold off the last of its six franchises to a private investor. The St Lucia Zouks was the last of the teams that was centrally owned, and now that too has been bought by Philadelphia-based businessman Jignesh Pandya, whose "arrival into the CPL family" was announced in a swanky private club in London’s Soho.
This isn't Indian-born Pandya's first foray into cricket, however. At the end of September, it was announced that he had signed a licencing agreement with the United States of America Cricket Association (USACA) to create and promote an American T20 tournament. Whether this will happen is heavily dependent on if and when USACA is reinstated by the International Cricket Council (ICC), which suspended the organisation in June 2015.
While a T20 league in the USA is still a long way from reality, the CPL has the appearance of going from strength to strength. It's heading into its fifth year and estimates state that 1,30,000 people attended the matches in 2016, over 80 percent occupancy at the grounds. Meanwhile, global TV audience rose by 40 percent, with the tournament now being shown in 101 countries.
Six league matches were played in the USA this season, and while the facilities at the Fort Lauderhill Stadium in Florida are a little homespun, the cricket was of a decent standard and the tickets sold well. USACA may be struggling to make the most of the American market, but with the ICC's help as stand-in administrators of the sport, the CPL is making headway.
Pandya is the third US-based investor to buy into the CPL; now, the Jamaica Tallawahs, St Kitts & Nevis Patriots and the Zouks all in American hands. The dream is to have a team based in the US, but that is a long way from becoming a reality.
Secondly, sale of the last of the franchises is another positive in the evolution of the tournament. Questions still exist over the CPL, first and foremost about whether anyone can turn a profit — either the tournament itself or the franchisees who have bought teams.
There are now some big hitters involved in CPL team ownership. An IPL franchise, Kolkata Knight Riders, owns the Trinidad and Tobago team. Embattled Indian businessman Vijay Mallya has purchased the Barbados team, having had a stake in the Royal Challengers Bangalore as well. Clearly those who have made money out of cricket in the past see the CPL as a potential revenue stream for the future.
Pandya is the latest investor with an Indian connection to be drawn to the CPL, and the Indian market presents both its biggest opportunity and its biggest challenge. Finding a way to get Indian TV viewers engaged in the CPL and also have the games on at a time that suits Caribbean fans and entice them to come to the matches will always be a challenge. The CPL needs both, but night time games are on in the early morning in India and day games on weekdays are poorly attended.
The other issue that the CPL will face in the not too distant future is the spectre of the rebranded and streamlined English T20 competition happening at the same time. As St Lucia Zouks coach Stuart Williams pointed out, one of the strengths of the tournament has been the quality of overseas signings. If the new English competition happens at the same time, that dilutes the star quality available.
"I think this year (the standard at the CPL) was excellent," Williams said. "I think the CPL has done well in terms of attracting the best possible players, apart from the Indian players and obviously the English players because of the county season. I think we get the best possible players that are available to us."
Pete Russell, the chief operating officer of the tournament, is aware of these issues and is open to negotiations with the England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB) about scheduling. "There is absolutely no point us playing our tournament at the same time as the ECB does," Russell said. "Look, we are obviously in conversation with the ECB and it is a long way out. They are not slated to start their tournament until 2020. For us it is all about making sure each brand has its own window and has its own identity. What you don't want to do is play these T20 tournaments back to back, you have to give them a little bit of oxygen. We understand the pressure that the ECB is under in terms of the window in which they can actually play the games. We are slightly more flexible than they are. Those are ongoing conversations, but we don't envisage a problem there."
While overseas players are great, the biggest selling point for the CPL is the superstar names of the World T20 championship winning West Indies team, who are evenly distributed among the six franchises. Daren Sammy, captain of the St Lucia Zouks and the man who led that West Indies triumph in India, was keen to point out the strength of the West Indies brand in this format.
"When we dominated Test cricket, the amount of players who were playing cricket in the UK, in county cricket, that made our international team very strong," Sammy said. "And if you look at our T20 format, which is our strongest format, the number of players playing in other leagues all over the world there is no secret why T20 is our best format, and we have our own Premier League that creates (more of) that opportunity."
There is plenty to be downhearted about in Caribbean cricket; Sammy himself expressed his disappointment and sadness at the treatment he and other members of that World T20 side have received. But the CPL, while still having plenty of room for improvement, appears to be moving in the right direction.
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