CSA gambles on T20 pot of gold

Bums on seats: A cheering crowd is key to CSA’s attempt to turn a T20 league into a major money-spinner. (Carl Fourie/Gallo Images)

Bums on seats: A cheering crowd is key to CSA’s attempt to turn a T20 league into a major money-spinner. (Carl Fourie/Gallo Images)

It is hard to imagine now but English football was in sharp decline in the late 1980s and, following a five-year ban from European competition in the aftermath of the Heysel disaster, stadiums were half-full and interest was fading fast.

But, based on the regional, tribal following in a league formed in 1888, some smart marketeers knew they had enough substance with which to rebuild the game. They started with a simple premise: fill the stadiums.

Broadcasters love working with capacity crowds and television advertisers will happily spend their budgets on events that feature large, live, enthusiastic crowds. It may be an illusion, at least at first, but isn’t that the point of advertising?

So the crowds were enticed back, Sky pumped hundreds of millions of pounds into a multiyear broadcast deal, the clubs were able to attract many of the world’s best players and, within half-a-dozen years, the sick old man of world football was not just back on his feet but sprinting away from the youngsters.

Cricket South Africa (CSA) is attempting something similarly ambitious, but within a fraction of the timeframe, with their plan to launch their “Global Destination” T20 league in November.

India’s Premier League (IPL), now in its 10th season, will never be matched for revenue generation and Australia’s Big Bash, having been carefully built and nurtured for its first five years as an exclusively “in-house” commercial operation with no independent team owners, is now about to capitalise enormously with revenue of more than A$100-million (about R1-billion) forecast for the next five years.

Even the Caribbean and Bangla­deshi Premier Leagues have transformed the way the game is played and administered in those regions with television revenue providing a level of income previously unimagined for the region’s players — and even more for the international, bums-on-seats marquee cricketers who pop up in most, if not all, these tournaments.

But the most important common denominator is bums on seats.
Large, atmospheric crowds are a feature of all four of the biggest T20 jamborees — from a commercial point of view, everything else (even the quality of the cricket, unfortunately) is secondary. Dancing girls represent almost everything that is cheesy, passé and peripheral about sportainment, but still they remain because they provide “hype”, which big brands pay big bucks to be associated with.

CSA hasn’t yet sold its eight teams, which will be privately owned. Deadlines close at the end of the month. Chris Gayle and Kevin Pietersen will, once again, be among the overseas headline acts and a “marquee” Protea will be assigned to each team before a “controlled” auction takes place to complete the 15-man squads.

There is so much still to organise and yet, for obvious reasons, nothing has been done to galvanise the people to attend. CSA ruled out the possibility of venue or even city-sharing by franchises keen to maximise the densest population areas.

All 11 provincial capitals are now available as host centres for teams. Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban, Centurion and Port Elizabeth are certainties, which means three out of Bloemfontein, Kimberley, East London, Paarl, Benoni and Potchefstroom will also be part of the new future.

Talk in the Western Cape is of a consortium of wine producers and exporters forming a franchise in Paarl named “The Winelanders”, which could work. It appeals strongly to locals and visitors alike, has a strong regional context and, in theory, provides commercial opportunities outside of cricket.

The England Cricket Board has been in discussions for almost four years about the best way to revamp their T20 competition and have only just reached consensus that it should be played in a single block at the height of summer, between nine city-based teams instead of 18 counties. That will start in 2019 so they have another two years to build support (and supporters) for the event. CSA has six months.

If the seats are empty and the tournament does not make a flying start, advertisers and sponsors will not pay the big bucks and broadcasters won’t either. It could be an embarrassing flop. On the other hand, innovative owners, meaningful interaction with local supporters harnessing regional pride, improved services and facilities at stadiums, clever scheduling … the result could see pots of gold at the end of the rainbow.

(“Goldminers” — how about that for the Jo’burg franchise?)

The extent of CSA’s ambition is undeniably admirable. Eye-wateringly admirable.

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