“We want the Afghanistan Premier League to be in the top three T20 cricket leagues in the world. That is our aim.”
You can’t fault the ambition of Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) chief executive Shafiq Stanikzai. Despite only becoming a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) a year ago, the ACB are all set to join the global – and bankable – T20 party. And it is aiming high.
Afghanistan already has a T20 competition, with the Shpageeza Cricket League gaining somewhat of a cult following in recent years. Characterised by bold, aggressive batting, it has proved a breeding ground for talented, short-form Afghan players.
Keen to capitalise on Shpageeza’s growing popularity, the ACB has opted to add a new competition to its portfolio: the Afghanistan Premier League (APL). Hosted in Sharjah from October 5-21, the country’s cricketing board is hoping that its new T20 property can become a lucrative annual addition to its balance sheet.
AFGHANISTAN PREMIER LEAGUE: STARS SIGN UP
It certainly appears to be backed by some star power, with players like Chris Gayle, Brendon McCullum, Misbah-ul-Haq, Kumar Sangakkara and Shahid Afridi all pencilled in to take part. They will be picked at a draft next month by each of the five teams who will vie for the inaugural APL T20 title.
“This will be a cricket extravaganza taking place in one of the world’s most dramatic cricket grounds in Sharjah,” ACB CEO Stanikzai explains. “I have to thank the ICC, Emirates Cricket Board and Sharjah Cricket Club for their role in helping this happen. It could be one of the biggest cricketing events in the world.
“The Afghan style is very popular – we have hard-hitting batters who play with no fear. That has led to us having our own audience thanks to this brand of cricket we have built. T20 stars from across the globe will also be taking part and I believe there will be a substantial television audience.
“In India, the Afghanistan cricket team is the most watched after India and we will use this to our advantage. We want to be in the top three T20 cricket leagues in the world. That is our aim.”
The local leagues have been pivotal in encouraging both the players and fans, ahead of the grand APL T20. #StayTuned #ACB @ACBofficials #T20 #Cricket #Afghanistan #APL @Sharjah #Dubai #UAE #Comingsoon pic.twitter.com/foBkW8zJ0C
— Afghanistan Premier League (@APLT20official) August 29, 2018
The Afghan regions of Kabul, Kandahar, Nangarhar, Paktia and Balkh will all be represented by teams at the tournament, with naming rights being sold to franchise owners from the UAE, India and Afghanistan.
Two deals have been announced already, with phone manufacturer and distributor Vertu Mobile India purchasing Paktia, while Indian film production company Legendary Man Entertainment now controls Balkh.
“Some teams are still open as some of the biggest franchise names in cricket are interested in coming on board,” Stanikzai explains. “We are in the final stages of negotiations and we are very selective in terms of our owners.”
SHARJAH A SECOND HOME FOR AFGHANS
The T20 market is becoming increasingly saturated and in the UAE alone over the next six months there are plans to host its own inaugural T20 League, the return of T10 and the Pakistan Super League, as well as Pakistan hosting both New Zealand and Australia in bilateral series. And that is before you throw in rumours of the IPL returning to the country in 2019. However, ACB marketing director Lutfullah Stanikzai is still expecting the APL to attract substantial footfall.
“With a lot of T20 cricket being played across the world it is going to be challenging of course, but we are optimistic,” he tells Sport Industry Insider. “We have played a lot of cricket in Sharjah, it has been our home ground since 2010 and the support that we get is amazing every time we play there – we often have a full house.
“We are also giving opportunities to fans from neighbouring countries to watch some of their own. Players from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have registered for the league so the Bangladeshi and Sir Lankan diaspora will have the opportunity to watch their stars play T20 here as well.”
Should the APL prove as successful as its organisers hope, the financial remuneration for a smaller cricketing nation like Afghanistan would be significant. Despite the increased ICC funding that comes with full member status, Afghanistan is still some way off reaping the riches reserved for powerhouses England, India and Australia.
“Beyond ticket sales, sponsorship and TV rights are obviously very important,” marketing chief Stanikzai continues. “We are in advanced stages of talks with a number of broadcasters and we hope to close those deals in the next few days.
“We have seen a lot of interest from companies and individuals who want to invest in the league, either by buying a franchise or through sponsorship. The response has been quite positive so far and that is encouraging.
“Afghanistan cricket has been mainly self-reliant financially over the years but we are obviously hopeful that this is going to add some important funds to the ACB.”
AN ‘INNOVATIVE’ BUSINESS MODEL
How those funds will be collected is a little unusual. The ACB put the organisation of the tournament out to tender last year and it was Indian company Snixer Sports that won the contract. But Snixer is not just the organiser, it is also the key investor behind the Afghanistan Premier League. It now owns 49% of the Afghanistan Premier League, handles all key commercial matters, and will share future revenue with the ACB.
Taking on such liability is a big commitment from Snixer Sports but the company’s CEO Ashish Sethi is hoping that high risk will bring high reward.
“It’s an innovative model and one we believe works well,” Sethi tells Sport Industry Insider. “We have done this with other domestic leagues in India and believe it shows how committed we are to the Afghanistan Premier League. We want to put our heart and soul into this project.
“We have taken on the commercial and investment side, rather than charging a fee. We are investment partners and if the league does well we’ll take our cut as part of the profit share. In this situation, everyone understands that the execution company is invested, quite literally, in the success of the tournament.”
For Sethi, a major appeal was the opportunity to tap into three separate markets.
“Afghanistan is the home market, UAE is a second home market because Sharjah is their home ground and India is a third market because they also play home matches there some times.
“We have investors and sponsors from all three countries – this is real value, having three countries in one tournament. It’s a world T20 which makes it more interesting, and of course more profitable.”
That profitability will depend on the APL’s ability to hit the ground running. And despite the competition from T20 leagues both in the UAE and around the world, Sethi feels that the Afghanistan Premier League product will be able to hold its own.
“The APL can definitely be in the top three leagues in the world but beyond that we also want to explore and nourish the grassroots talent of Afghanistan. We have an initial five-year vision with the ACG but this is a long-term partnership.
“There are lots of competitions but I think the fittest will survive – quality will survive over entertainment. We are here for serious cricket. It’s not about novelty or bright lights, the quality of the cricket will be front and centre.
“The UAE will welcome us and I’m sure we will give them a serious T20 league for at least the next decade.”