The Lankan Premier League challenge

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The Lankan Premier League

One of the bright spots for Sri Lankan cricket in 2018 has been the re-introduction of provincial cricket. For years, the entire Sri Lankan cricket loving society wanted a first-class tournament in this mould. And, to the relief of everyone, the recently concluded SLC Super-Four tournament has been a modest success. Similarly, the 50-over version of the league has shown some positive signs.

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Both tournaments are supposed to expand into Super-Six tournaments if everything goes according to the proposals handed out to the former Sports Minister by a committee including the likes of Aravinda De Silva, Mahela Jayawardena, and Kumar Sangakkara.

Another tournament Sri Lankan cricket enthusiasts were craving for was a popular T20 league featuring foreign stars. To the delight of those fans, Sri Lankan Cricket(SLC) has announced the dates for the inaugural edition of its Lankan Premier League(LPL) which will be held later this year. Russel Arnold, the highly respected former Sri Lankan batsman and commentator, had been appointed as the director of the LPL, giving fans some hopes of it being well organized.

Nevertheless, this isn’t the first occasion SLC had attempted to formulate a T20 league on Sri Lankan soil. Sri Lankan Premier League(SLPL) was held back in 2012 but unfortunately it received very little support from the fans, mainly due to poor scheduling, marketing and also due to the bad weather. The tournament failed to survive for more than one edition, causing financial losses to SLC.

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Franchise based leagues were popular in the sports world for a long time even before the Indian Premier League(or the banned ICL) – the first franchise based cricket league – was born. However, despite the popularity of these leagues, creating a new franchise based tournament remains a high-risk project. Many have attempted it. Only a few have succeeded and boosted their incomes massively. Others had failed and lost massive sums of funds.

Therefore, one of the priorities of SLC must be to keep the tournament budget in a range which the cricket board could afford without facing a financial crisis even if the tournament turns out to be not as successful as expected. That way, Sri Lankan Cricket, in general, won’t have to suffer because of a one failed attempt at a risky franchise-based league business.

When sports broadcasting began in early days of the 20th century, TV became one of the most influential factors in sports. Today, most of the sports’ governing bodies earn their income via contracts for broadcasting rights.

Without a doubt, soccer is the most popular sport in the world. Still, even a highly popular soccer league like the English Premier League(EPL) could only generate one-third of their total earnings from coverage outside home soil. In cricket, the Caribbean Premier League(CPL) produces the highest percentage(one-third) of the total revenue from coverage outside the Caribbean.

Likewise, in the LPL, Sri Lankan crowd and the television audience will be the deciding factor (regardless of the participation of second string Indian players). And, if you remember the below-par attendance at the SLPL, there is no doubt that LPL’s administrators have a mountain of challenges ahead of them to climb in the coming months.

Yes, Sri Lankans love their cricket. But, Russel and Co. needs to find innovative ideas to bring those cricket loving Sri Lankans into the stadiums.

Appointing legends of the game as ambassadors, employing local favourites as coaches, and hiring beautiful cheerleaders are common marketing strategies used in these T20 leagues. However, SLC had failed to secure a decent crowd or a television audience, even after employing most of these tactics in the SLPL. Hence, it will be crucial to identify the exact reasons which will lead an average Sri Lankan fan to a stadium.

In the IPL, fans don’t need a second invitation because of the rivalry among the main cities in India. Similarly, Cricket Australia has given all the freedom necessary for such rivalries to develop, like ”Melbourne vs Sydney” encounter, in the Big Bash League(BBL). CPL is having thoughts about expanding the tournament with a couple of teams from Canada and USA. Likewise, Sri Lanka should look to create and build on the strong points that we have (not India or Australia), whether it is the rivalry between cities(Colombo vs Kandy), schools, provinces or even if it is new and innovative.

Another downside of SLPL was poor marketing of the tournament, the Live YouTube streaming had many continuous issues. Campaigns, live updates, interviews, discussions, or small highlight clips on social media were non-existent. Facilities at the stadiums for entertainment and gloomy weather conditions didn’t help.

Even the publicity given to SLPL around the country through billboards and commercials were minimal. The venues weren’t spread around the country to attract bigger crowds. Some of the stadiums seemed like they were too big for the product itself. There were no plans to encourage school kids, families and young fans to come to the ground. There were no plans to attract new fans to the stadium as it is meant to happen in T20s.

However, fortunately for Sri Lanka, as a cricketer & commentator who as htravelled around the world, Russel Arnold must have some good ideas up his sleeve.

Looking at today’s restless cricketing calendar, it seems impossible to introduce a new tournament without overlapping another.

Therefore, according to SLC, this year’s LPL will be held from 18th of August to 10th of September, clashing with the CPL and England’s T20 Blast. As a result, the very first challenge LPL faces will be a ferocious competition from both of those tournaments to attract players as well as the tv audiences.

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While it is true that it is impossible to find another window – the only other window could be during April New Year’s break clashing with the IPL – due to two annual rainy seasons in the country, Sri Lankan Cricket must keep a close eye on the dynamic weather at this time of the year. Especially keeping it in the mind that SLPL had failed to attract any crowds at all on gloomy and dark days regardless of the actual rain.  

Above all those factors, creating a sustainable structure will be the key to tournament’s longevity. There are a lot of successful examples around the world to take a leaf out of. Leagues such as NFL, NBA, and EPL built on various business models which works for respective business environments, and their needs. In cricket, sans BBL, other leagues use a similar structure. In these, the country’s cricket board usually owns the tournament. Franchise owners are private investors.

However, out of all these leagues, it’s only in IPL that some franchises gain an annual profit(this has gotten better after the 2.55 billion deal IPL got last year for the TV rights and the Digital rights of the next five years). Other leagues have failed to provide that insurance to the investors so far. Hence, in this business model, there is a massive continuous challenge to keep these investors intact until the tournament turns into a profit.

At the same time, it is wrong to think that all the cricket’s governing bodies are gaining annual profits through these leagues. Expenses are endless when it comes to organizing such T20 leagues. Hence, the budget of a T20 league in this mould is massive. Because of that, many tournaments have failed to turn in profits to both parties, the cricket board and the private investors. IPL, of course, does generate profits. CPL doesn’t. In fact, CPL had been causing an annual financial loss to the West Indian Cricket Board all these years. And, according to the experts, the tournament is still a few years away from turning into a profitable project.

Pakistan Super League(PSL) annually produces over $2 million in profits for the Pakistan Cricket Board, but, all six franchises lose over a million dollars per year from their pocket. In Bangladesh Premier League, franchises annually lose a little bit more while the Cricket Board profits a little less. To make matters worse for the organizers, unlike in the past, modern day sports investors are a lot more focused on earning a profit. Hence, these leagues are facing a consistent challenge to switch to a benefitting model for investors. And, if not, investors could pull out from the contracts like how it happened in the buried SLPL.

That has to be the main reason why Cricket Australia decided to own the tournament as well as the teams, to absorb any financial loses by itself, in the Big Bash League. Also, the wealth of the cricket board certainly had helped them do so. And, after Cricket Australia’s billion-dollar deal for the TV and digital rights from Seven Network and Fox Sports earlier this year, BBL is expected to generate a healthy annual profit for the cricket board.

Considering all these aspects, it is not a secret that the LPL administration headed by Russel Arnold has a gruelling challenge ahead of them. There is no doubt that Russel Arnold – a gentleman and a cricketer who had won harder battles for Sri Lanka on the field – will do his best to create a successful LPL using all his experience. Also, Sri Lankan fans must not forget that they also have a responsibility to buy a ticket and watch an LPL match, if you care about your LPL as much as Russel Arnold.

*Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of ThePapare.com