It was a heartening sight. Hundreds of fans could be seen queuing up for tickets at various booths around the Dubai International Stadium on Friday afternoon. With less than an hour to go before the opening game of the HBL PSL double-header featuring table-toppers Multan Sultans and bottom-placed Lahore Qalandars, there was quite a buzz in and around the stadium.
It was a heartening sight because the crowds had generally shunned the Dubai leg of the PSL because of a variety of reasons. During a weekday game, I saw, first hand, that there were hardly a few hundred people in the stadium before the start of what was a potentially explosive match. By the time the game was in full swing, there were just a few thousand people at the venue. And in a stadium which has a capacity of 22,000, such a low turnout made it seemed as if the place was virtually empty.
But Friday evening was a different story. As one entered the venue, one could see traffic jams here and there with many fans walking the long walk to the stadium to be there before the start of the match.
Later, Sohaib Sheikh, Senior General Manager (Marketing and Sales) of PSL and PCB, told me that the official crowd attendance for Friday’s double-header exceeded 17,000.
It was the biggest turnout in Dubai since the impressive opening ceremony on February 22, which was sold out.
But despite Friday’s substantial turnout, attendance remains one of the key challenges for PSL which is now looking to expand in the coming years.
PSL was hailed as a big success when it was launched back in 2016. It survived a corruption scandal last year and is now racing at full throttle with a bigger six-team format following the addition of Multan Sultans.
This year, one of PCB’s biggest tasks has been to attract crowds. Twenty20 is, in its essence, made-for-TV cricket where atmosphere is one of the vital ingredients. The state-of-the-art Dubai International Stadium at the Sports City provides a perfect backdrop. But the missing part is fans at the venues, especially in Dubai.
I asked Sohaib, who left a lucrative job in the telecom sector to help establish PSL back in 2016, and he said that all possible efforts are being made to make sure that the attendance is strong for PSL games.
But he admitted that the odds are heavily stacked against the PSL management when it comes to filling the venues.
“The PCB has made all possible arrangements for bringing the crowds to the PSL venues. For the first time RTA (Road and Transport Authority) is running buses from six designated spots to bring people to the stadium as it is quite far from the city,” Sohaib told the TNS.
He rejected the impression that ticket sales are lower than the previous two editions of the T20 league.
“The ticket sales for Dubai and Sharjah are in line with the last PSL season, in fact in Sharjah, the sales figures for the first leg are better than last year. Our opening day in Dubai was sold-out,” he said.
But despite such efforts, there are hardly any fans in Dubai for weekday matches. That has prompted some to suggest that PCB should distribute free passes.
“In Dubai, the ticket sales are in compliance with the DTCM rules which don’t allow more than a certain percentage of complimentary to be given out,” explained Sohaib.”
“After the imposition of VAT there is a strict compliance to this rule. Getting in people without tickets is a serious offence. On the other hand giving them free tickets with prices printed on them is an audit objection.
“No complimentary ticket sales can be allowed outside the allocated quota.
“In Sharjah tickets were distributed for free on the opening two days to facilitate the labour that had gathered outside the venue. However, this leads to sales being impacted as then people will wait around for free tickets instead of buying, as we witnessed on the third day,” he said.
Sohaib stressed that the PSL management has tried all ways and means to ensure bigger crowds for PSL games.
“The labour camps have also been contacted, however it is difficult to get them to come as people are putting in long shifts and missing a day means losing money.”
The Board could have added a third venue – Abu Dhabi – but the cost was too high.
“Holding PSL matches at Abu Dhabi, as a third venue, would have cost an extra half-a-million dollars due to extra cost of broadcast and event management, hence it was decided not to incur this extra cost.
“We have seven extra matches in the UAE this year, and other than weekends, it is very difficult for people to come every day.”
Inevitably, PSL draws comparisons with its richer cousin the cash-rich Indian Premier League (IPL).
But Sohaib underlined the fact that it was like comparing apples and oranges.
“There are a lot of differences between PSL and IPL,” he said.
“IPL doesn’t even have a double-header at the same venue. They rotate matches between eight cities and do not have consecutive matches at one venue.
“IPL awards a maximum of eight matches per city over a period of 50 days. They have a total of 56 matches plus three playoffs and final. It’s much easier for them to get the crowds.”
The numbers are not in favour of PSL in the UAE.
“The Pakistani expat population in the UAE is approximately 1 million as compared to 20 million in Lahore alone. However, even in Lahore it was a challenge to fill the Gaddafi Stadium for three consecutive matches,” he said.
That said, experts believe that the PCB could still do more to not just keep the PSL brand alive but to make it more attractive for fans and sponsors.
Zaheer Abbas, the former Pakistan Test cricketer, who headed the International Cricket Council as its President, believes that the standard of PSL needs to go a notch up as well.
“The thing is that if you have big stars and the standard of your local talent is high then it is easier to attract the crowds,” he told TNS.
“PSL is certainly a good product but I think there is room for improvement. We can see that T20 is a batsman’s game but this season there haven’t been many great performances with the bat. The fans come to watch sixes and fours and only naturally aggressive and technically sound batsmen can deliver that consistently,” said Zaheer, who is in Dubai to witness the PSL as President of Peshawar Zalmi, the defending champions.
Ramiz Raja, the former Pakistan captain, agrees.
“We should understand that PSL is Pakistan’s biggest brand abroad. It’s the thing. We should invest more in it to make it bigger and better. You have to find ways and means to do it.”
One sure shot way to provide a boost to the PSL is to take it to Pakistan as a multiple-venue event.
It takes no rocket science to reach the conclusion that if home-and-away games are played in venues like Karachi, Lahore, Pindi, Peshawar and Multan then it won’t be a big challenge for PCB sales teams to fill the venues.
But the biggest hurdle for a PSL edition in Pakistan is that many of the league’s foreign stars won’t come.
“PSL has to go to Pakistan sooner rather than later,” says Zaheer. “I know that many foreign players are reluctant to play in Pakistan. My message to them is that ‘you are safe in Pakistan’. As a former Test cricketer, I urge them to come to my country and play here. They will not just be playing their role in lifting the PSL but lifting cricket itself.”