UAE T20x chief executive Salman Butt discusses how the new cricket league is aiming to plant deep cricket roots in the emirates that will benefit both community and sponsors.
It has been a long time coming but this November the UAE is set for its biggest ever domestic cricket launch. With recently retired South African star AB De Villiers the global ambassador and the likes of Eoin Morgan and Shahid Afridi slated to take part, UAE T20x will enter the marketplace looking for a piece of franchise cricket’s lucrative pie.
The UAET20x league will see five teams compete – representing five emirates – but beyond the fanfare of big international players, the new competition is aiming to take a more holistic approach than blockbuster competitions like India’s IPL and Australia’s Big Bash.
Cricket executive Salman Butt oversaw the launch of the Pakistan Super League (PSL) in 2016 and has watched the tournament explode into a money-making behemoth in just a few short years. Now at the helm of another ‘start-up’ as CEO of UAE T20x, Butt believes a clear identity will hold the key to success.
“The UAE T20x is the first of its kind in many ways,” Butt tells Sport Industry Insider. “It the first tournament that is representative of the emirate. It is the first tournament to give UAE cricketers a major domestic platform.
“This T20 is being built with the intention of it being a national asset – projecting the emirate through the eyes of cricket.”
To realise that ambition, UAE T20x will be competing with a number of other cricket properties. The new Afghanistan Premier League, the returning PSL, T10 leagues, as well as bilateral series means that standing out from the crowd is key.
And Butt is convinced that the desire to create strong roots in the UAE and a focus on youth development will make the UAE T20x a unique offering.
“It has a very different flavour to the other leagues, which will slowly come and go. The PSL, for example, happens in the UAE but is positioning to move back to Pakistan.
“Our key selling point is our diversity. We have more than 30 countries participating through players and coaches. Each franchise will have six international players, three players from associate countries, three UAE national players, and four emerging players from anywhere around the world.
“It’s a great chance for young upcoming players to play alongside international players; it doesn’t discriminate against you if your country doesn’t have a T20 league.”
As well as encouraging young players from around the world to play, development of UAE cricket is obviously an crucial part of a competition that has been sanctioned by the Emirates Cricket Board. The UAE T20x is promising to create franchises that will not just disappear when the tournament finishes but become focal points of communities in the emirates.
“We have five big clubs forming all of a sudden and the intention is to make clearer pathways for UAE cricketers to play for these clubs. Each of the franchises will be forming close links with their respective emirate’s cricket council, with a development officer working on grassroots development.
“Some of the potential franchise owners we’ve talked to have a great desire to come and develop the sport, to put sport academies in place within the geographies that they represent. This matches exactly what we are looking for with the UAE T20x.”
In development terms, Butt sees the PSL as providing a good blueprint with a number of the Pakistani outfits becoming cricketing beacons in their regions. But he insists that there is potential for the UAE franchises to go a step further and create a deeper infrastructure and better business offering.
“There are many franchises in Pakistan who play a key community role and you see the likes of Pehawar Zalmi doing a great job in engaging young cricket fans and players. What I have yet to see, however, is business development.
“When you own a franchise, you own the right to develop various basic streams because you have a following of the community. I have yet to see that happen like it is done in the West.
“You look at North American sports teams or big football clubs – Manchester United has 250 different product streams other than football. That’s something we want the franchises to work towards. We are forming an advisory board and brand development is one of the key objectives.
“Of course we know that creating sports properties from scratch isn’t a walk in the park but we can use those more mature brands overseas as a model for best practice and we hope to capitalise on their expertise by bringing people over to share their experiences.”
— UAE T20X (@UAET20X) September 22, 2018
This potential for deep integration into UAE cricket offers potential sponsors a richer proposition, according to Butt. Franchise ownership is still being negotiated but there seems to be no fear that UAE T20x will be adversely affected by a seemingly saturated market.
“A lot of different leagues means there is a lot of competition but we’re offering a year-round opportunity to engage with the community through the franchises.
“This has sparked a lot of interest and we have both UAE-based companies and international brands that are doing business with UAE speaking to us. We’ve got franchise collectors and we’ve got people who are enthusiastic about cricket, about the business of sport, also at the table.”
TV rights are integral to the success of any burgeoning cricket competition and the UAE T20x has opted not to put all of its eggs in one basket – a model that is more challenging to manage but could yield better benefits.
“It’s easier to go and sell to one bulk buyer and then let them do everything but we feel that kind of approach wouldn’t align with our objectives. We want to place the product with separate broadcasters in separate markets.
“What is more important in the first two to three years of a competition is visibility. So rather than maximising television revenue, we need to maximise eyeballs and then optimise revenue at a later date.”
“When you trigger the sports economy it has benefits for sponsors, for players, for fans and for society as a whole.”
Whether the UAE T20x can become a long-term fixture on the UAE sporting calendar remains to be seen. However Butt insists that the key ingredients of players, good governance and vision, will ensure that the product can flourish.
“The questions here were exactly the same when we launched the Pakistan Super League. That feeling of ‘can this really happen?’ But I believe logic is a great pillar to have and this is a product that makes sense,
“Generally, I think the sports economy is still not effectively tapped so that it engages the large spenders to come in. UAE I think is a market that presents a big opportunity; it is a very enabling environment here and that encourages investors.
“I saw in Pakistan what can happen when the sports economy really starts to trigger and I hope to see the same here. It converts into benefits for sponsors, for players, for fans and for society as a whole. That is what we want for the UAE T20x.”