In Pakistan, cricket league becomes symbol of a brash, emerging nation

In Pakistan, cricket league becomes symbol of a brash, emerging nation
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Players of Peshawar Zalmi celebrate their victory against Islamabad United, during the Pakistan Super League playoff at National Stadium in Karachi, Pakistan, on March 15, 2019. (AP)
In Pakistan, cricket league becomes symbol of a brash, emerging nation
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Pakistani cricket fans celebrate the victory of Islamabad United against Karachi Kings, in the Pakistan Super League playoff at National Stadium in Karachi, Pakistan, on March 14, 2019. (AP)
In Pakistan, cricket league becomes symbol of a brash, emerging nation
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Pakistani ground staff prepare the field for upcoming matches in the National Stadium, in Karachi, Pakistan, on March 7, 2019. (AP)
Updated 17 March 2019

In Pakistan, cricket league becomes symbol of a brash, emerging nation

In Pakistan, cricket league becomes symbol of a brash, emerging nation
  • 80 million viewers, roughly 70 percent of Pakistan’s TV-viewing public, will tune in to watch the Super League final today
  • Phenomenal popularity of PSL a major win for country trying to end years of isolation due to security threats and terrorist attacks

ISLAMABAD/LAHORE: Over 80 million people, roughly 70 percent of Pakistan’s TV-viewing public, will tune in on Sunday evening to watch the final game of Pakistan’s national cricket league, media and cricket board officials said, making the tournament the biggest sporting event in the country’s history.
The South Asian nation has been largely starved of international cricket since a 2009 attack on Sri Lankan cricketers in Lahore killed eight Pakistanis and wounded six players and a British coach. The incident forced Pakistan to play home matches in the United Arab Emirates and led foreign players to refuse to play on Pakistani soil.
But the unprecedented popularity of Pakistan Super League, which has brought 40 foreign players to the country this year, is seen not just as pivotal in changing the global cricket community’s opinion of Pakistan’s ability to host international matches but also become a symbol of a brash, emerging nation trying to end years of isolation due to security threats and terrorist attacks.
The rising interest in the league, which features the fast and furious brand of cricket called Twenty20, has surprised even the tournament’s broadcasters who staked their bet on the format’s powerful display of made-for-TV batsmanship. The star cachet of international players has also pulled audiences beyond the fans of traditional cricket.
Over 28 million Pakistanis watched the PSL final in 2016 and 66 million tuned in last year.
“We are expecting that over 80 million people will watch today’s final on TV,” said Muaaz Ahsan, director programming and brands for Geo TV, whose sports channel Geo Super is broadcasting the tournament. “Just in this sense, PSL is bigger than any other sporting event in Pakistan’s history.”
Indeed, the TV ratings are part of a broader pattern of rising interest in the six-team PSL, launched in 2016. Over the 34 games played in this season, television viewership has increased by hundreds of thousands of viewers per match, and tickets for all eight games played in Karachi, including Sunday’s final, were sold out, according to the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), the governing body of the sport in the country.
A combination of fan loyalty towards teams from different cities -- the league’s six teams come from Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad, Peshawar, Quetta and Multan -- and the lack of entertainment opportunities and big-scale sporting events in a country plagued by security threats have translated into a “huge following” for PSL, Ahsan said.
“PSL is not just about cricket fans; it’s about families and children and the entire public coming together. It has become a festival for Pakistan,” Ahsan said. “And all this frenzy then turns into rising TV viewership.”
Television rights for the 2019 tournament were sold for $36 million, “358 percent higher than the previous three years,” Sami ul Hassan, the cricket board’s spokesman told Arab News.
“PSL is a profitable activity for cricketers, PCB, franchise owners, TV broadcasters and above all Pakistan,” he said.
The popularity of the league can also be gauged by the fact that it is being broadcast in India, Pakistan’s arch-rival and neighbour with whom it almost went to war last month.
“Indian channels had stopped showing PSL matches for a while in the wake of Pakistan India tensions last month, but even they have resumed the broadcasting now,” said Aalia Rasheed, a veteran cricket analyst.
The cricket league is also a coming of age for the business of sports in Pakistan. When the tournament was announced in September 2015, the cricket board sold five franchises for $93 million. A sixth franchise, the Multan Sultans, was added in 2017 and its rights for seven years were sold for over $40 million, earning the cricket board almost half of what it had earned from the five teams combined four years ago.
“This sharp rise in the price of the team shows that the buyers knew that the tournament would financially benefit them,” cricket commentator Rasheed said.
The title sponsorship from Habib Bank Limited, Pakistan’s biggest bank, has brought the PCB $14.35 million dollars for 2019-21, while the league has drawn corporate sponsorships from multiple multinational firms selling everything from hand sanitisers to carbonated drinks.
If all goes according to plan, PSL will generate approximately $36 million this year, said Najam Sethi, who was chairman of the PCB during the first three editions of the league.
“We designed PSL as a three-year-financial model and earned nearly $12 million in the first three years,” Sethi said. An analysis of PSL’s financial status by an international firm had concluded that the PCB could earn three times more this year, he said. A 10-year forecast sees the board making profits of up to $60 million.
But cricket experts say the biggest upside of the league is that it has become a turning-point for young Pakistani cricketers who have missed out on opportunities to learn from leading international players. The league has also changed how much players can earn from domestic cricket.
“In four years PSL has had a huge impact on discovering new stars, diversifying the popularity of the sport and offering new opportunities to a wider group of players,” said Ahmer Naqvi, a cricket writer who contributes to ESPNcricinfo. “And PSL offers a lot more money and exposes players to scouts from other leagues, leading to further league contracts.”
But despite the success of PSL’s first four seasons, the real test for the cricket board will be if it can fully bring the game home. The first 26 matches of PSL were played in United Arab Emirates and only the last eight in Pakistan’s seaside metropolis of Karachi.
Pakistan Cricket Board officials said before the first season of the league in 2016, over a hundred international players approach by the board to play on Pakistani soil refused, citing security concerns. This year’s edition comprises over 40 foreign players including former Australian all-rounder Shane Watson and current New Zealand opener Colin Munro.
“The successful hosting of both cricket matches as well as international stars in Pakistan has been used by the state to project how the country is now peaceful and overcoming its battle with terrorism,” Naqvi said. “It's clear that the symbolic value of the league goes well beyond sports.”