James Sutherland speaks to the media ahead of the BBL

James Sutherland was among those on the CA management who were not bullish on private investment in the BBL

© Getty Images
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Feature

The big argument before the Big Bash

The inside story of how the BBL very nearly wasn't an all-Australian product

Daniel Brettig |

There's always free cheese in a mousetrap.

Dan Christian recently described his incredulity at watching his own price shoot up and up at the IPL auction in 2011. "It got to US$400,000, then it stopped for a minute," he told Gideon Haigh in an interview for the Australian. "Then it came back at $800,000 [he was ultimately sold for $900,000]. It was literally like winning the lottery."

For cricket's governors, a similar moment had arrived three years earlier. On January 24, 2008, a gleaming Lalit Modi unveiled the inaugural owners of eight IPL franchises, all of whom had paid enormous sums to the league and, by extension, the BCCI.

Mukesh Ambani's Reliance Industries parted with $111.9 million for Mumbai Indians, United Breweries and Vijay Mallya stumped up $111.6 million for Royal Challengers Bangalore; at the low end of the scale, Shah Rukh Khan and Red Chillies Entertainment paid $75 million for Kolkata Knight Riders, and a conglomerate picked up Rajasthan Royals for $67 million. India Cements, of which then BCCI secretary N Srinivasan was managing director, paid $91 million for Chennai Super Kings. Not that Modi seemed to mind. "Mr Srinivasan is just a stakeholder there, he is not the owner. So there is no conflict of interests."

Overall, the eight teams fetched $723.59 million. Allied to a television rights deal worth nearly $1 billion, it appeared the BCCI had conjured up billionaire status out of little more than a wave of Modi's handkerchief.

In 2010 the Australian system was cracking, and the BBL privatisation debate showed how badly

For state administrators in Australia used to subsisting on Cricket Australia dividends, these figures were enough to cause coffee cups to drop, like Chazz Palminteri's had in that lightbulb moment in The Usual Suspects. Unlike Palminteri's agent Dave Kujan, the likes of Western Australia (WACA) chairman David Williams, New South Wales (NSW) chairman Harry Harinath, and Victoria's Geoff Tamblyn were not about to let the opportunity for private investment get away.

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Australian sport has long endured a fraught relationship with private ownership. In the 2000s, Nathan Tinkler, Clive Palmer, Don Matheson and Eddy Groves flew high briefly as sugar daddies of rugby, football and basketball clubs, before crashing ignominiously and leaving the leagues' administrators to sort out the mess. Two decades before, Christopher Skase and Geoffrey Edelsten had done more or less the same for Australian Rules Football clubs, albeit even more spectacularly.

Despite these precedents, by 2010 there remained sufficient fervour for private investment in Australian T20 cricket (then played between the six state-based teams). It had grown in strength, egged on in particular by Neil Maxwell, the former NSW seamer, player manager and first chief executive of Kings XI Punjab. Maxwell had initially opposed the idea of T20 franchises in Australia, arguing in 2008 that the market could not sustain it. But by 2010 he was in the ears of numerous state associations, promising capital injections of between A$30 million and $50 million for the partial sale of teams to private investors. The change of heart was largely down to the Indian market, where many IPL teams were looking to expand their cricket and commercial footprints beyond the IPL season itself.

At one point, the Daily Telegraph quoted an "unnamed NSW official" in an article deifying Maxwell and the numbers he was reporting back to from India. "How could we ignore that sort of money?" the official said. "It's not as if there's a bottomless pit at Cricket Australia. They're hardly flush with funds. At state level we have to think about our own grass roots because we're in serious competition with all the other sports."

This year's BBL is expected to be the tipping point where overall income outstrips cost

This year's BBL is expected to be the tipping point where overall income outstrips cost © Cricket Australia

WACA's David Williams, a commercial lawyer who had been instrumental in staging the first T20 fixture in Australia, between WA and Victoria at a sold-out WACA in 2004-05, was a similarly bolshie advocate. In his association's 2009-10 annual report, he wrote:

"It is essential that we continue to generate significant funds to serve the needs of game development […] We need to ensure in a successful development that we have new and improved facilities for Members and a significant war chest so that we are not at the mercy of downturns in the fortunes of Cricket Australia and state revenue distributions."

By the time a broad cross section of custodians, from the CA board to mid-level staffers from each state, assembled for the Australian Cricket Conference (ACC) in August 2010, there was not a state association that had not flirted with private investment in a city-based T20 team. In the case of NSW and Victoria, multiple suitors were lining up.

"We had to work out what these offers really meant," recalled Mike McKenna, then CA's head of commercial. "The numbers being discussed around the states sounded exciting but we didn't really know what the terms were, and it turned out no one did. There was a feeling that these were altruistic investors who just wanted to be involved in cricket and would put tens of millions of dollars into acquiring less than 50% just to get closer to the game.

"There were people in the room who had a responsibility to vote on behalf of CA and Australian cricket, but at the same time were also pursuing opportunities as members of state boards. There were clear conflicts there and management were the ones who were truly independent" James Sutherland

"That defied logic, and we didn't think it was credible. It sounds naive now, and at the time people hadn't really worked out what people were investing in the IPL for… they thought it was corporations and individuals who just loved the game."

As these delusions grew, CA's management put together a plan for a city-based Big Bash League (BBL) with eight teams, marketed aggressively towards children and women. McKenna, along with head of strategy, Andrew Jones, head of legal, Dean Kino, and the chief executive, James Sutherland, had clear ideas about the BBL and private investment was some way down their list. Principally, the competition was geared at reversing troubling figures for children, who were deserting the game, and also at generating a second television property for CA.

To that end, the cultural commentator, academic and cricket lover Waleed Aly had been asked to address CA's board in 2010. "Cricket needs to ensure that Australians of all nationalities, cultures and backgrounds can see themselves reflected in the game," he told them. "If our fellow countrymen can't see that reflection, cricket can't lay a claim to being a sport for all Australians. And if we don't, cricket will lose its treasured place in the national imagination - and the magnificent history, tradition and culture of Australian cricket will have no meaning to our grandchildren and their children." In short, a new T20 competition could better reflect Australian diversity.

"The strategy behind that was to bring new people to the game, and that's still the strategy today," Sutherland said. "There was a strong concern that the strategy would be compromised as soon as you had private investors somehow involved in the competition… who want something different from it."

Attracting new demographic groups - not least children - to the sport was a key aim for CA; not one that private investors would share, it was felt

Attracting new demographic groups - not least children - to the sport was a key aim for CA; not one that private investors would share, it was felt © Getty Images

Even so, the ACC concluded with the board's decision to push forward the BBL's launch to the summer of 2011-12, two years before the expiry of the existing television deal with Fox Sports. The necessity to move fast had been generated largely out of CA management, but board directors still representing their states won a sort of quid pro quo in line with their own desires for capital - the notion of private investment was to be explored. The float was on.

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Cricket boards dictate policy and strategy, management acts upon it. But in 2010, the Australian system was cracking, and the privatisation debate showed how badly. Jones, McKenna and Sutherland, in particular, were convinced that private investment in the BBL was a bad idea. Yet duty bound them to pursue the concept at the behest of directors who were thinking about their states' bank balances as much as Australian cricket.

"It was a frustrating time," Sutherland said, "but in hindsight it was where we saw the worst of the potential conflicts that could arise inside the boardroom. In many ways it gave extra oxygen to the prospect of an independent board.

"It highlighted there were people in the room who had a responsibility to vote on behalf of CA and Australian cricket, but at the same time were also pursuing opportunities as members and even chairmen of state boards. I'm not saying anyone was managing that inappropriately, except there were clear conflicts there and management were the ones who were truly independent."

"There was a feeling that these were altruistic investors who just wanted to be involved in cricket and would put tens of millions of dollars into acquiring less than 50% just to get closer to the game. That defied logic, and we didn't think it was credible" Mike McKenna, CA's head of commercial

It did not take long for management to push back, led most stridently by Jones. In September 2010, not long after the ACC, he put together a memo entitled "There's Always Free Cheese In A Mousetrap". In it, he went through the pros and cons of privatisation, arguing that there was no need to sell off BBL clubs in perpetuity.

In his eyes, the pre-conditions for private investment were a lack of start-up capital (which CA and states already had in comfortable quantities), a belief that investors would overpay out of the goodness of their hearts (which the proposals did not suggest), or a desire to bring outside expertise to the game (which the IPL had done for the BCCI, but CA had done years earlier, after World Series Cricket).

Equally, Jones had always questioned the numbers thrown around the IPL's launch. The much-trumpeted figure of US$2 billion, cobbled together from franchise ownership fees, television rights and commercial sponsorships, was largely smoke and mirrors. "The model the investors had in mind was the IPL model, and it always annoyed me how this is portrayed. The IPL/BCCI hadn't made anywhere near as much money as it appeared. They'd simply capitalised the future value of half the TV rights and folded in other revenue-sharing or sponsorship. The life of those payments were spread over ten years - the clubs were paying their license fees as they got their TV-rights revenue, so they were really being financed by the BCCI/TV rights holders. It was taking from one hand to another.

The BBL attracted potential investors from India, many of whom were involved in the IPL, but their objectives did not align with CA's requirements

The BBL attracted potential investors from India, many of whom were involved in the IPL, but their objectives did not align with CA's requirements © AFP

"The push from the state associations who were interested was to give teams half the TV rights and then sell the teams with their share of the TV rights embedded. I thought that was a crazy thing to do. Also the argument was, 'We can raise all this money.' You're not actually raising all this money, you're simply capitalising future value, like selling your house now for cash while sacrificing what future value it will gain."

State associations also seemed motivated as much by scepticism as faith in the money the BBL could earn. "There were people who… thought [the BBL] was a flash in the pan and it wouldn't turn a profit," McKenna recalled. "It was not unreasonable in their minds if someone was going to offer them A$30 million over a period of time, just take it. It's not real cricket, it'll fail, and we'll get some money and be happier for it.

"Having done the research and the background we were very confident it would work. We didn't think it was worth giving away, even on reasonable terms, half of your team's profits in perpetuity, in exchange for a reasonably small sum of money - A$30 million with a $7 million upfront payment and a few years of $5 million and that was it."

Always skilled at forging a middle path, Sutherland elected to engage an outside agent to pursue the concept: Credit Suisse and its head of investment banking, John Knox (who now sits on the NSW board). "I was saying to James this is really, really dumb, so we need to stop this," Jones said. "He did enough to go down the middle and say, 'It's probably not the best idea but we've got to go through the process.'"

Some paralleled the BBL with another CA flight of fancy that crashed soon after take-off - the concept of split-innings limited-overs matches

As part of that, some ground rules were outlined - potential owners were allowed a minority stake up to 49%, their terms limited to ten years, and no sharing of TV revenue. Effectively, management had put together a package highly favourable to CA. If investors were as generous as some state associations claimed, they would still go for it.

"The offers seemed too good to be true, so the logical extension was: let's offer terms that are too good to be true for cricket and see what would-be investors say," Jones said. "It was a very difficult professional situation to be in because I felt it was a terrible idea, but I was put in charge from a CA point of view to run it in good faith. I was very open about saying it was a bad idea but said, 'I will do my best.'"

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For no one was the conflict more vexing than for Jack Clarke, then CA chairman, and his deputy, Wally Edwards, also a director at WACA. As a member of the SACA board, Clarke was aware of the association's debts from the Adelaide Oval's redevelopment, and cash upfront from private investment seemed attractive. Equally, Edwards was thrust into conflict with Williams, the WACA chairman, and the president - one Dennis Lillee - over the possibility of selling a percentage of the nascent Perth Scorchers. As CA office bearers, Clarke and Edwards spent more time with management, and came to favour their ideas.

At one point in the 2010-11 summer Edwards was so far in disagreement with Williams and Lillee that legal advice was sought on how WACA could axe Edwards from the CA board. In his place would be installed a director in favour of private investment.

Should market forces ultimately prevail, the BBL remains an asset that can grow and change shape

Should market forces ultimately prevail, the BBL remains an asset that can grow and change shape © Getty Images

As a WACA board director since 1987 and a CA delegate since 1996, Edwards had survived his fair share of political scraps. "There was significant tension and they made a concerted effort to get rid of Wally," one former CA official said. "Thank goodness for Australian cricket that Wally is a cagey old bugger, and he demonstrated that…. Thank goodness Wally was too smart for those guys and he continued to be an influential part of the BBL privatisation debate and the wider governance debate."

Sutherland was grateful that Edwards emerged on the other side still a CA director, in line to replace Clarke as chairman in October 2011. "My sense was that David Williams and Wally saw things a different way," Sutherland said. "I'm not sure the WA board saw it too much differently to Wally, but ultimately Wally stayed in that role as one of the two WA nominees on the board and went on to the independent board as well.

"But there were definitely flash points, strong differences of opinion, and to be fair both Wally and Jack Clarke were very strong in their positions and not necessarily aligned with the respective chairmen of their state boards. They had the benefit of having a more national view."

A significant voice in shaping the debate was Don Argus, the former BHP Billiton chairman who in mid-2011 was engaged by CA to run its team performance review. While Jones and others had repeatedly pushed their views, Argus, while providing an update on the progress of the review, was particularly resonant. How forceful could he be? His nickname in corporate circles is instructive: Don't Argue.

"Cricket needs to ensure that Australians of all nationalities, cultures and backgrounds can see themselves reflected in the game" Waleed Aly to CA's board in 2010

"Don's views were pretty clear," Sutherland said. "He saw the potential for conflict of allowing private investors in. He even drew the analogy of owning a mine and allowing someone else to come in and share the royalties and doing that in perpetuity. He had a genuine view that T20 was an opportunity that you didn't want to share with anyone else.

Argus' intervention was useful when Sutherland and Kino engaged in heated discussions with board members over the private investment terms put to market. Their aim was to reach a point where the terms would remain favourable to Australian cricket and surrender a minimum amount of control in return for capital. Privately, they hoped those terms dissuaded more potential investors than they attracted.

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By May 2011, Credit Suisse had put together its prospectus and CA was ready to go to market for investors in two teams, in Sydney and Melbourne. In putting word out, Sutherland described private ownership as "the dance floor". The sales delegation that travelled to India soon afterwards would find it more a nightclub than a ballroom.

Four representatives of Australian cricket - Jones, McKenna, Harinath and Tamblyn - flew out for four days of meetings with potential suitors in Delhi and Mumbai, at Credit Suisse offices. Perhaps surprisingly, given their divergent views, the trip was a cordial one.

Andrew Jones, CA's former head of strategy:

Andrew Jones, CA's former head of strategy: "The argument was 'We can raise all this money.' You're not actually raising all this money, you're simply capitalising future value, like selling your house now for cash while sacrificing what future value it will gain" © Getty Images

They met between five and nine potential investors, most of whom were either involved in the IPL or had missed out on franchises. They were almost all, according to McKenna, credible organisations.

"They didn't agree with all our numbers, a lot of the figures we put to them about audiences and TV attendances were well short of what even we had in the first year of the BBL. But there were a lot of people who didn't believe we'd have those numbers and they were being advised by some media agencies in Australia. There was scepticism from their side about that but they all wanted to be involved and saw value."

Value for what was the question. While CA remained committed to the BBL as a way to grow the game's audience, Indian investors were seeking ways to build on the IPL's start. Much as has occurred with English Premier League clubs and their satellite teams in the US and elsewhere, thoughts turned to Australian offshoots of IPL franchises. This is not what McKenna, Jones or even Harinath and Tamblyn had in mind.

"What became very clear to all of us, including Geoff and Harry, who had been proponents of the process, was that the strategies of the potential buyers and the strategies of Australian cricket were not aligned," McKenna said. "They had a cost base, their investment in the IPL was tens of millions, and they were able to operate it for about seven to eight weeks a year.

Sutherland speaks with uncharacteristic passion for preserving international cricket through the strategic use of T20 alongside it.

"They couldn't even promote outside that period - that was a very restrictive agreement they were happy to be in, but they wanted to find other ways of mitigating that cost or getting value from the coaches, the management and marketing teams.

"We didn't entertain specific offers in the end because it became so clear that there was too big a disconnect between what we were seeing and what our strategy was. But the offers we'd seen were in the region of A$30 to 35 million, paid over a five- to seven-year period. It seemed like good money, but if you look at the lifetime value of the BBL now that's just chicken feed."

The closest CA got to a bid was strong interest in a 49% stake in one of the Sydney teams from representatives of Delhi Daredevils. Talks continued at a lower level after the delegation returned from India, before quietly fading away. The delegation had gone to the dance floor on its own, left on its own, but in contravention of Morrissey's lyrics to "How Soon Is Now", it was not about to go home, cry or want to die.

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When Neil Maxwell re-emerged to speak boldly once more about private investment, in August 2011, the float was effectively sunk. But scepticism about the BBL's core purpose had been widespread among state teams and players. Many wondered why the BBL was being pushed through at a moment when the national team was at a low ebb, and some paralleled it with another CA flight of fancy that crashed soon after take-off - the concept of split-innings limited-overs matches.

High nine: Dan Christian recalled his incredulity at watching his price shoot up at the 2011 IPL auction, all the way to $ 900,000

High nine: Dan Christian recalled his incredulity at watching his price shoot up at the 2011 IPL auction, all the way to $ 900,000 © Associated Press

McKenna, who had led that particular brainstorm, remembers pointed questioning by the national team at their pre-season camp, weeks before the Argus review was released. "I took them through what the plans for the BBL were, the strategy behind it and why we were doing it. That was the longest conversation I ever had with the Australian team, it went on for about 90 minutes, and it was very vigorous debate, put it that way.

"Shane Watson, Ricky Ponting, Tim Nielsen [then head coach], all had plenty to say. In the end what got through to them was that like the rest of us they were responsible for leaving a legacy, and they bought into the concept that kids weren't going to support cricket unless we could find a way to engage them a different way."

The states were troubled by chunks of their projected budgets being diverted away into the BBL, while the unveiling of a schedule that pushed the Sheffield Shield to the fringes left many to question what CA's priorities were. In fact, these decisions were dictated largely by the lack of a private-investment voice to muddy waters - strategy was clear, even if the tactics of states, selectors, coaches and players were affected.

"BBL is still a means to an end in Australian cricket… it needs to fit in with our international programme and our pathway programmes," McKenna said. "I suspect private owners would have had a very different view of CA leaving out players, resting them from BBL matches for international duty. They might have been much more demanding from a selection point of view. Who knows what other impacts we could have had if we'd ended up with management teams from the subcontinent running BBL sides?"

Nine years on from the start of the IPL and six from the BBL, the implications of private ownership are far clearer than they once were

The grumbles continue but without private owners involved, the board has a much clearer line of sight. Grumbles are one thing, open opposition quite another.

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Nine years on from the start of the IPL and six from the BBL, the implications of private ownership are far clearer than they once were. The notion of altruistic cricket lovers spending their money simply to be involved is not one that has lasted, nor that of administrators owning stakes in teams without being made to look decidedly compromised - much as Srinivasan tried.

And yet, globally franchise cricket is becoming almost interchangeable with domestic T20, with numerous cricket boards continuing to agitate for their own T20 window, mimicking the IPL. Among the chief reasons for the present push towards league- or conference-style international structures at the ICC is to prevent such a scenario, but with private investment already central to the IPL, Caribbean Premier League and the Pakistan Super League, the genie may well be out of the bottle.

McKenna acknowledges that CA's way was framed largely by the fact the board was in decent enough health in the first place. "We didn't need to get private money to make it work. Other countries that don't have the same revenue base are not as fortunate.

A number of players were suspicious of the BBL's purpose and wondered why it was being pushed through just when the national team was struggling

A number of players were suspicious of the BBL's purpose and wondered why it was being pushed through just when the national team was struggling © PA Photos

"If you don't have that, the only way to get money is through a TV deal or private investment. I can see why they would go that way. We've been lucky the business has been prudently managed at CA and state levels for a number of years. Even though things were tight when we started to develop the BBL, it was definitely the right decision."

How tight? The second season of the BBL in 2012-13 - the last under the old domestic television rights deal with Fox Sports - was run by CA and the states at a loss of more than $10 million. State associations were compelled to cut significant amounts of money from their existing team performance programmes to help fund the nascent BBL sides. When the BBL moved to free-to-air television with Ten in 2013, the network agreed to pay $100 million over five years, a deal that significantly reduced the gap between cost and income. As a recent CA submission to the players stated: "From BBL01 to BBL05, expenditure to grow the league was $187m. In the same period, the BBL has generated income of $154m, ­resulting in a net investment of $33m."

This season is expected to be the tipping point at which overall income will outstrip cost - and the only way from there will be up. That much is quantified by the money projected to be flowing into Australian cricket for the next round of broadcast rights. Having enjoyed enormous ratings success, Ten, or another network, is expected to pay somewhere between $250 to $300 million for the next five-year deal.

Sutherland speaks with uncharacteristic passion for preserving international cricket through the strategic use of T20 alongside it. "The conversations we're having about a new structure for international cricket is a bit about limiting the amount of cricket, and for some countries increasing the amount, so we find an appropriate equilibrium where international players are available and want to play. International cricket should be about the best playing the best. We've created a notional window for the IPL, I believe it is an exception.

With private investment already central to the IPL, Caribbean Premier League and the Pakistan Super League, the genie may well be out of the bottle

"Some countries are still trying to create windows for their own domestic leagues but I've said at ICC level and will continue to say that to try to have the calendar full of cricket and have players moving from one to the next is shortening their international careers. I continue to be concerned about that."

There is one blind spot to Sutherland's argument. While Australian players have not been needed to make the BBL a success, nor any from India, much of the rest of the world's finest talent has been. West Indies, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, England and Pakistan have all provided considerable pulling power through players made available for the competition. CA has not allowed its game to be cannibalised by privatisation, but it has relied on the generosity of other nations to generate the current success. Intriguingly, CA opposed the recent efforts of the WICB to request a fee for the use of their players, even if the BCCI pays a fee to respective boards for each overseas player taking part in the IPL.

Of course, should the present effort to sandbag international cricket against T20's market forces fail, the BBL remains an asset that can grow and change shape. "If the way we play international cricket changes as a result of what is going on elsewhere, that might mean we need to do something similar to protect the game in Australia," McKenna said.

Jones' view on the 2011 float, meanwhile, has not changed. "It was," he said, "the stupidest idea in the history of Australian cricket." The free cheese remains, but so too the mousetrap.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig

 

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  • POSTED BY the_silent_observer on | January 14, 2017, 17:46 GMT

    a very interesting article about the BBL as a business. Good material for management students engaged in investment strategy as a subject and planning to take up a career in sports finance