Exclusive interview with Najam Sethi: PSL will be biggest thing to hit Pakistan cricket

Eight years after it was first discussed at the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), the Pakistan Super League (PSL) is as close to fruition as it has ever been. Pakistan watchers may be surprised that the man behind this last push is Najam Sethi, hitherto a well-known journalist. He spoke to The National in an an exclusive interview in Dubai earlier this week, just before the league’s two-day player draft took place in Lahore.
Pakistan Cricket Board's Najam Sethi is gung-ho about the impact the Pakistan Super League will have on the sport's landscape and the country. Arif Ali / AFP
Pakistan Cricket Board's Najam Sethi is gung-ho about the impact the Pakistan Super League will have on the sport's landscape and the country. Arif Ali / AFP

Eight years after it was first discussed at the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), the Pakistan Super League (PSL) is as close to fruition as it has ever been. Pakistan watchers may be surprised that the man behind this last push is Najam Sethi, hitherto a well-known journalist.

He spoke with The National in an exclusive interview in Dubai this week, just before the league’s two-day player draft took place in Lahore.

What are your expectations from the first season of the PSL, both from a financial sense as well as a brand-building exercise?

We have very realistic expectations. This is our first time and we want it to take off. Doesn’t mean we will move at supersonic speed but we certainly want it to take off. In years to come we feel the product and brand will improve, we’re absolutely confident of that.

Have you set specific financial targets out of the first year?

The model is very clear. It is a 10-year model. I don’t think anybody makes a profit in the first year. But I think on the whole, we are well within our range of reserves, and prices and targets, and revenues and costs.

Were you happy with the prices the franchises fetched?

Yes. Better than our expectations.

The incredible thing was that apart from one franchise, all of them bid for all five teams. [28 parties picked up the documents in all]. We demonstrate this year was good, if the franchises all go back and say we are fine, then see the interest that the other three teams will invoke.

I think there will be pressure on us to add another team immediately. But maybe we won’t. That is the plan, we want to demonstrate incredible success so that the asset value goes up. The sixth team we will want to sell for much more than we sold the five teams. But if we do it next year, we will not get the same sort of money we could get two years down the line. It’s not fixed in yet but the model has eight teams. It is expected that after the third year there will be another team coming in, but there are views that say we will see at that time.

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Looking ahead 10 years is difficult because of the inherent instability of the PCB. How do you work against that?

The PSL is a private sector model. The PCB is semi-public, semi-private sector. We are hoping to establish a foreign entity for PSL as well, possibly a Dubai-based company. So we’ve already approached the State Bank of Pakistan to allow us to set up a joint venture in the UAE, in which the PCB and franchises will be partners.

The PCB will have a stake in the PSL and then the franchises, because the model of five franchises, we’re trying to get it to 6, 7, 8. So this will become completely independent in that sense from the day-to-day business of the board.

No 2: under the new [PCB] constitution, there is going to be stability in the board now. You need to read that constitution in the spirit in which it was written. That constitution, the patron [usually the head of state] has a minimal role to play, so government interference becomes minimal. The patron appoints two out of 10 people in the board and there is no compulsion to elect any one of the two to the board. What could be more democratic than this?

So that political interference that used to happen, all that is coming to an end?

Also, very important, this constitution, this stability is backed by a supreme court decision, which is unprecedented. That has never happened before, that a constitution and a modus operandi of a transfer of power and stability is guaranteed by the supreme court.

It’s been guaranteed by the supreme court?

The supreme court judgment is such that, to give you some examples: There were some pending cases in Islamabad against me, for contempt of court that I didn’t do this, do that, vis-a-vis the last year’s instability, the challenges. On the 17th, they were all thrown out of court. All the lawyer said, here’s the supreme court judgment, it overrides everything else and all this is finished now. Judge said yes, that’s right.

So I’m saying, on second point, this is very important, for the first time, the PCB board of governors has acquired a legitimacy and importance it has never had before. The earlier constitution gave the patron the right to appoint the board chairman and the chairman the right to nominate anybody on the board, so basically it was rigged completely.

Now, because it has become completely independent and autonomous, the top corporations are sending in their top people. Originally they would just send somebody like Iqbal Qasim [Qasim, a former Test spinner, was usually one representative for all departments in the game]. Now the chairman of National Bank of Pakistan is on the board. The president of United Bank is also in. Top guys from the State Bank will also come.

They think now that this is a prestigious place to be where people will be listened to and have an independent say. So now what is happening is, in a strange way, the departments all want to come in at top level, which brings in exposure. Chairman of Wapda (Water and Power Development Authority) is sitting in our board, you can imagine the questions he asks, the questions Mansoor Khan asks from the United Bank, on budgets, audits ... and he does, breathing down everybody’s necks.

So accountability and responsibility and certainty, and stability and institutionalisation is all getting built into system. Honestly I really think Shaharyar [Khan] and I will not be an issue anymore. We will do what we have to do and one day move off and then there will be others coming in.

Do you think the scheduling clash of nine days with the Masters Champions League (MCL) will dilute the product?

Do you think so? Apparently there are three to four players [there are actually six] who will not be free before 14th February. Now, under the rules, these players can also be selected by our people, and they may not play in first few matches but they can play later and be paid on a pro-rata basis. I don’t think there will be [dilution], the pool is big enough.

But do you think as a product, having the MCL at the same time, is that ideal?

I don’t know whether we should really be going there or not. Ideally it should’ve been us but since the MCL is happening and there is a little bit of an overlap, they could say they are being affected adversely instead of us saying. In fact, they were supposed to play matches in Abu Dhabi and Dubai and they cancelled Abu Dhabi and, in a sense, stepped on us. We’ve accommodated it – that’s been our generosity, we’ve said it’s OK, it doesn’t matter. They were impinging on us, the Abu Dhabi market would’ve been theirs. Now the use of these two markets for some time may be affected, but whether it will affect them or us, I don’t know. My sense is that it will affect them rather than us.

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Has there been too much scepticism about the league?

People like yourself [media] have raised serious concerns that it’s tried once, it didn’t work. They backed off. Second time, there was heavy instability within the PCB. People in the media have raised concerns, whether or not it will happen, they’ve been ‘Doubting Thomases’. Perhaps there was some basis for doubting, but the fact is it’s now a going concern. The good news is that if you talk to anybody in Pakistan it’s just a thumbs up.

But we’ve been through a difficult time getting everything stitched up, there’s no doubt about that.

Would you agree there has been a certain degree of inertia within the board to the league?

I think what’s happened is there was a feeling that we in the PCB have our hands full and we should outsource this. Especially since the time of [previous chairman] Zaka Ashraf, that’s what they tried to do. So there was, shall we say, a momentum of thinking from the last regime.

So we said OK, let’s ask Repucom [a leading global advisor on sports] should we outsource it, should we do it ourselves? Repucom said do it ourselves and this is the way to do it. So I took that to the board and board said OK.

We got the approval and we started and that’s what we’ve been doing. If there was any inertia, or thinking that carried over from the past – there may have been reasons for it – after the board decision and the Repucom thing, then I think we settled the Governing Council and have been working day and night to get it done.

Before Repucom was involved you were in the board, did you have a particular preference of the kind of model you wanted?

No. For the simple reason, I am not an expert in these things. Neither in cricket or things like this. When I came in, I was briefed and the people who briefed me had been part of it. So I said ‘OK, if you want to outsource it, outsource it’. So we went to the board and said the prevailing opinion of the past regime is that there is a good reason for outsourcing it then and the reason remains. So the board said OK and my view was that if, ‘OK, if this is what you guys think, you guys are the board, you must know’.

But then what happened was when we went out to outsource it, we ran into certain difficulties. So then willy-nilly we had to cancel that. So then we said now what’s the option? Either we cancel it altogether or we do it ourselves. So we said let’s ask Repucom and they said you can do it ourselves and this is how you do it.

What kind of timeline are you looking at bringing the league back to Pakistan?

We are signing up for three years, so we are committing ourselves to three years, subject to government approval, of course. We have to take approval from government not to play in Dubai and go to Sri Lanka to play the India series if it happened. Tomorrow we’ll have to seek government approval to play in India for the World T20. So every time we go and play somewhere, we need government approval. Subject to that approval we are committed to playing here.

Is it realistic that maybe in fourth year?

I think the feeling is that we are halfway down the road to clearing up the terrorist mess. There has been substantial, significant progress – there hasn’t been an incident in Lahore for the whole year. There was a bit of a cracker [explosion] in the Zimbabwe [ODI in May] game, but it didn’t disrupt anything. We had a trouble-free series.

We have now worked out incredible SOPs [standard operating procedure] for security with Punjab government. And let me tell you, Rangers [a paramilitary force] in Sindh have given us formal assurances that you bring people here and we will guarantee you security like the Punjab government.

But the prime minister’s point of view is very interesting. He says any foreigner who comes to Pakistan has to be treated like a guest. Their security is paramount. We cannot risk it. So until we get a green light from government to bring cricket back, we will continue to play outside.

How much of a difference will it make to have the league in Pakistan?

Look, all cricket must come back to Pakistan. When is up to the government to decide. If tomorrow a foreign team is ready to play in Lahore, we still need permission of the government.

With so many Twenty20 leagues around, has the PCB lost out on first-mover advantage by coming in so late?

You know the answer to this and I don’t want to disparage other leagues, but the thing is, clearly this is going to be a big league, for the big boys. The fact that our franchises have coughed up tells you there is juice in the market and that the market is going to get better. This is going to be a big league, no two ways about it.

Were you surprised or disappointed that the broadcaster didn’t come up with bigger money [under the arrangement, the PCB buy airtime from the broadcaster and sell it through a media buying agency]?

The broadcaster cited two reasons [for their low offer]: First of all, the India series in December will take some juice out of the market. And then they said the World Twenty20 will take some juice. They said next year, 2017, will be very good from broadcaster’s point of view but this year, because of these two things happening so close and us being sandwiched in between, the broadcaster felt it was diminishing his enthusiasm.

Another reason: since the broadcasters were all Indian, other broadcasters showed an interest but backed off after the Shiv Sena thing [when the Hindu-nationalist political party in India protested in the BCCI office against a potential move to host the Pakistan cricket team for a bilateral series in the country]. It’s a fact. We were in talks with them, they came and picked up bid documents, but after Shiv Sena they backed off.

My sense is that the India-Pakistan equation will get better and therefore all these issues will be resolved. And if the India-Pakistan series doesn’t happen this year, then presumably whatever juice was missing will come back. So when broadcaster said yes this year is tough, we said look, we have the right to find other ways.

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It would be great to have to local options as a broadcaster.

The problem is all the options are based elsewhere. Nothing succeeds like success itself and failure is its own worst enemy. So let us demonstrate a modicum of success this year and it will get better. All systems will be go, go, go! We’ll have a whole year in which to plan things.

Pakistan Television (PTV) as a state broadcaster which retains inalienable rights to broadcast cricket locally, has that been an impediment to sports broadcasting growth in Pakistan?

It retains terrestrial right. The thing is, some new things are about to take place. No 1: more sports broadcasting licenses will come. ARY, Dunya and Dawn [Pakistani news channels] have applied for it and the likelihood is that in the next six months they will get licenses. No 2: Direct-To-Home [subscription-based satellite TV] is coming to Pakistan, that will happen. My sense is that the monopolistic hold of any particular state enterprise will be diminished.

There has been very little marketing of the league so far in the UAE.

As we speak, this is exactly what we’re discussing with our event management company. You will appreciate we have had a very short window to operate in. If we had a whole year, there would have been much more hype about it. It was only two months ago we were able to stitch up this place.

So after that the running for broadcasters, getting the budgets done, its been helter-skelter. Under the circumstances, it’s nothing short of an incredible and wonderful miracle that we were able to put together the financial part of it with franchises at home. That was the turning point. If they had not come in, if we had not been able to sell teams then the whole model would have failed. But the franchises showed both a spirit of nationalism and a spirit of enterprise and the excitement that has generated will now carry this through.

How difficult will it be to get crowds in for matches here?

I think we will fill the stadiums. You are right, the hype has not been created here.

Five years down the line, what will the PSL be?

Five years down the line the PSL will be galloping along. It will be the biggest thing that has hit Pakistan cricket. And if five years down the line if it is all happening in Pakistan, it will be the most exciting event of the year, far more exciting than any FTP [engagement] could ever be. This is my guarantee to you.


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Published: December 22, 2015 04:00 AM


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