Festival of Cricket: How the UAE’s new Twenty20 league is aiming to create a lasting legacy

Salman Sarwar Butt, chief executive of the new Twenty20 league being launched in partnership with the Emirates Cricket Board (ECB), discusses what the competition will bring to the UAE and looks ahead at what the tournament could mean for cricket.

Festival of Cricket: How the UAE’s new Twenty20 league is aiming to create a lasting legacy

A new elite international Twenty20 cricket league is being launched in partnership with the Emirates Cricket Board (ECB), the governing body for the sport in the UAE.

The competition aims to drive the growth of cricket in the Middle East, to foster young talent from around the world, and to bring new elements of innovation to the game.

Having received a sanctioning agreement from the International Cricket Council (ICC) for ten years, the new T20 league is set to take place for the first time from December 2018 to January 2019, and will feature five new franchise teams competing for the inaugural title in a 22-match format played over 24 days.

The five franchises will comprise a squad of 16, including six international star players, two emerging players from ICC full member countries, three players from ICC associate member nations, and three UAE cricketers, with the aim of allowing young players to develop their skills alongside top talent.

With cricket already the second most-followed sport in the UAE, Salman Sarwar Butt, chief executive of the UAE-owned competition, sees the league as an opportunity to create a lasting legacy for the sport in the region, and discusses how the venture, through establishing itself as a ‘festival of sport’, aims to occupy a niche position in the international cricket calendar.

What were the factors behind your decision to launch the new T20 league?

The ECB has been wanting to do something like this for a while and a couple of years ago they looked for proposals and we were one of the parties that they liked— they liked what we had to show and therefore we went ahead.

We believe that the UAE is one of the key markets that can augment the popularity of cricket in this part of the world, the Middle East, because it already has international cricket played here. It already has infrastructure and it has cricket-playing countries that come here from across the world.

What do you see the event bringing to cricket?

This is something that we are building as a UAE national asset and will help the UAE in its desire to become a sports entertainment and sports tourism destination.

One of the things that this event will differentiate itself on is the fact that it will actually have a key development agenda within itself. We want players to come and use this platform and project themselves and we will give them this platform as a board to take off from.

The other USP for this event is it’s primarily for innovation and development. We are, probably for one of the first times in cricket, introducing a scouting system. Before the Players Draft we will have an event to showcase young players in front of the franchises because they will probably never have seen them before. Then we’re looking at some technological innovation around the game. We want to technologically advance the game and experiment with new ideas.

Also, most events in the UAE are from other countries and taking place here, but this is different because it’s the UAE’s own event. So we are looking to position this event unlike an event of a subcontinent.

How important is the UAE as a market for cricket?

There are international standard grounds here, and a seven star ground as well in the Dubai Stadium. It has a fairly large population of people who come from cricket-playing countries. Many locations around the UAE are also playing cricket as associate nations— the Saudis, Oman, Qatar, and countries around here— and an event like this will encourage cricket in those countries as well and eventually will encourage economic participation by those countries into this league, and sponsors, franchise-owners, broadcasters.

The event will be showcasing the UAE through the lens of cricket, and will have international players, and we are looking to get eyeballs around the world and broaden from five franchises to maybe seven and so on in the future. We are already seeing interest from other Emirates that want to be a part of this.

What is your commercial strategy looking ahead?

Our first endeavour is to get players registered to play. Right now we have close to 300 players and 20 countries or more represented in this league. We want to get top quality players in. We’ve selected icons for five teams representing different parts of the world, including Australia, Africa, the UK and adjoining countries.

We will be announcing the global ambassadors and the five icons; this will allow broadcasters to see that there is obviously representation from their part of the world.

Our broadcasting strategy is that we want to optimise the first couple of years, so we are looking to land deals with key broadcasters around the world. We are not looking to sell by bulk, we are looking to sell case by case, separately to different markets so that we can get maximum visibility.

Even on the digital side, primarily we want to build our own streams so that we can ensure that the tournament is available for viewing to anyone who wants to. The idea is very clear: to initially build visibility we have to get the right players and then be able to sell broadcasting rights separately to the different markets as opposed to selling in bulk to one big buyer.

We are looking at the big spenders, primarily in the UAE market, and we have three categories of sponsorship. We are looking at companies who have a large local business but also do business globally as well, and these include all the way from telcos to financial services companies, to airlines, so there’s a fairly large target market that we’ve already started working on.

We want to close broadcast deals and title sponsors and then we will go to the franchises. People are interested, those who have been involved in cricket in the UAE, as well as high net worth individuals globally and local high net worth individuals.

Imam-ul-Haq of Pakistan celebrates reacing his century during the third ODI between Pakistan and Sri Lanka at Zayed Cricket Stadium Abu Dhabi

You’ve described the competition as a ‘festival of cricket’— do you think there is a risk of it being taken less seriously as a competition?

We want to ensure that the quality of cricket played is very high and that will be emphasised through the way we build the tournament from an owners', coaches' and players’ perspective. The festival of cricket is primarily because of the fact that people in the UAE want to go and entertain themselves. The festival of cricket therefore engages families, young audiences and people from different economic sectors in a way that isn’t just for the cricket. So there will be fan villages around it, activities two weeks beforehand, engaging people, competitions, things like that. And during the event as well, these will be happening to further the event.

What other programmes will you be putting into place to ensure the sustainable development of cricket in the UAE?

We’re working with the ECB and the four Cricket Councils in the UAE to put in place a programme where the franchise holders will work with the ECB to develop grassroots events. So it helps them commercially, and it helps them from a brand perspective to make them more visible. So this development activity will go to schools, clubs, under-13s, under-16s, under-19s over a period of time, so it starts to form a pathway. Since the UAE is an international destination, we are envisioning that this will also attract talent from around the world to be part of development projects here and franchises here.

Are there any other new markets you’re looking to target?

Right now I think we are first looking to establish a strong product in the UAE.

Once we feel we have a strong, sustainable product that is hitting all the KPIs then we want to move ahead and expand this product beyond the UAE with the UAE being the centre.

How would you like to see the event in five years’ time?

In five to seven years’ time, we want to position ourselves as one of the most competitive leagues for quality of cricket played, for development, and for inclusion.