It was a day before the ‘big day’ that I met Najam Sethi at the Marriott. It is going on to 1 in the afternoon but NS, as he is known among his team members, is still dressed in a track suit. For the next 40 minutes or so, he is forced to juggle between my queries and his cell phone. “I’ve been up since 7 but the phone hasn’t given me a single minute to do anything else,” he tells me with a smile.
It’s been like this for days, maybe weeks for NS and his team. The HBL Pakistan Super League Season 3 will, thankfully for them, conclude with the grand finale at Karachi’s iconic National Stadium tonight with defending champions Peshawar Zalmi taking on Islamabad United.
“It’s been some very tough months and we are all tired,” says the chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB).
“But it’s all been worth it.”
It certainly is. A T20 league which was launched back in 2016 with a lot of apprehensions has quickly grown into one of the biggest professional cricket leagues in the world.
“It’s national news now. It’s no more just for the sports pages,” says NS with a lot of pride as he looks towards Naila Bhatti and Sohaib Sheikh, the duo who are at the helm of PSL affairs.
There is little doubt about it.
Even when the PSL was being played overseas in front of empty Dubai stands, it was big news at home. The moment it arrived in Lahore it became even bigger. Right now it is the talk of every Pakistani town. And that’s an achievement its founders can take pride in.
The PSL has certainly emerged as a force to be reckoned with in the world of T20 leagues. Despite its immediate success PSL is still far, far away from realising its full potential and the people running the league are fully aware of it.
From where NS sees it, PSL has so far only realized about 30 to 40 percent of its potential.
“Imagine eight teams playing at multiple venues of Pakistan. It is going to be a different league. It is going to be a huge thing, much bigger than it is right now.”
But despite its exponential growth, PSL pales when you compare it with its bigger, richer and much more glamorous cousin, the Indian Premier League. This year, according to an estimate, the brand value of the IPL will be around 5.6 billion dollars. That means it will not only be the number one cricket league, financially, by a long margin but will also be one of the richest leagues in the world of sports.
So how healthy is PSL, financially speaking?
It’s still too early to have facts and figures of the business side of the PSL but a conservative estimate will put its brand value between 600-800 million dollars. You add PCB’s plans to have half of next year’s season in Pakistan to the equation and you can have a league that is worth a billion dollars.
“We are almost there,” says NS. “I mean when we initiated the league there were so many fears. There were people who thought we couldn’t do it. But now in its third year everybody is talking about it. It has grown and will continue to grow.”
But NS and his team are fully aware that for the PSL to grow, it will have to leave the UAE and set up permanent shop at home. The full potential of the PSL will only be realized if an entire season with eight franchises featuring in it is played at multiple venues like Karachi, Lahore, Multan etc.
“All of us will now be working towards that goal,” says NS. “It’s a big challenge but we will get there.”
It’s easier said than done.
For the Lahore final in 2017, the city had to be closed down to ensure that a T20 game takes place smoothly. Thousands of security personnel were deployed, hundreds of millions of rupees were spent. That effort had to be multiplied manyfold this year with three PSL matches taking place in Pakistan.
The question one needs to ask is that whether Pakistan is ready for a full season of PSL matches at home. Or perhaps, whether foreign players will be willing to spend a month here?
NS is the sort of man who has an answer, even a solution, to every problem.
“Of course it isn’t easy (to have matches in Pakistan). When we were bringing the final to Lahore last year, everybody (within the PSL fraternity) was against the idea. There were people who were begging me not to do it. They thought that a single untoward incident will spoil the entire league. Those were their fears. But I told them to think long-term. For it to have a bright future, we have to have the PSL in Pakistan,” he says.
His risk and reward strategy has paid off. The final in Lahore last year was a big hit. This week’s playoffs in Lahore were a huge success. Tonight’s final in Karachi is being seen as the country’s sporting event of the year.
But not everybody is happy,
Some franchises like Quetta Gladiators think they are getting a raw deal. The Gladiators reached last year’s final in Lahore but were thrashed by Peshawar Zalmi. The biggest reason for their defeat was that their key foreign stars refused to play in Pakistan. Once again this year, they suffered because of player absence and lost in the playoffs, again to Zalmi. Later, Quetta’s coach Moin Khan took a swipe at PCB for its inability to ensure participation of foreign players in PSL matches played in Pakistan.
“There is as much as we can do,” says NS. “I mean we really want all foreign players to come and play in Pakistan. Some of them we can convince but others are different. We do try to bind them through contracts but there is always an exit clause, a force majeure as you call it.
“It’s something that we have to continue working on because we should have foreign stars taking part in PSL matches in Pakistan in full force,” he says.
While Karachi is buzzing ahead of the final, it was a different story in Dubai where the PSL failed to create much of a ripple. Some thought, the league’s novelty factor might be wearing off.
“Where did that come from,” asks Naila Bhatti, PSL’s Project Director. “I mean everything is going up. The sales are up, the TV ratings are up. How can anybody say that there is a loss of interest in PSL?”
Her colleague, Sohaib Sheikh, stresses that this year the PSL has even attracted international brands like Uber and Oppo. “PSL is now an established brand and companies are now allocating separate budgets for it. International companies are also showing interest. We are headed in the right direction.”
NS, meanwhile, is focused on successfully hosting the PSL final in Karachi. He believes that an incident-free final in Pakistan’s biggest, most chaotic city, could serve as a game-changer.
“The PSL final in Karachi will send the right message to the cricket world. It will greatly help us to convince foreign players to come and play in Pakistan without any fears,” he says.