Hollywood appeal may help to sell Twenty20 cricket franchises in US


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The Independent Online

Hollywood stars such as Australians Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman are among the celebrities targeted by organizers of a new US-based Twenty20 cricket competition to help sell six $40 million franchises.

Cricket Holdings America, backed by the New Zealand and US cricket bodies and Indian investors, is copying the approach of the celebrity-endorsed Indian Premier League as it builds toward the June 2013 start of the UST20 League.

"We want to combine Hollywood and Bollywood and integrate celebrities into this entertainment product that we're building," the company's Chief Executive Officer Neil Maxwell said in an interview. "There are many celebrities who understand the benefit of being aligned with a franchise in the U.S. market but also something that has a huge emotional connect to audiences outside America."

The Indian Premier League, or IPL, started in 2008, and competes with soap operas during prime time in the world's second-most populous nation. The eight-franchise competition, which counts Bollywood actors Shahrukh Khan and Preity Zinta among its ownership group, has a brand value of $2.92 billion, according to market researcher Brand Finance India. It agreed a 10-year broadcasting rights contract worth $1.6 billion with Sony Entertainment Television and World Sports Group.

Twenty20 is the newest and shortest form of cricket, with three-hour games punctuated by big hits, thumping music and cheerleaders attracting larger crowds than the traditionally longer forms, including Test cricket which can last five days. West Indies won the latest edition of the World Twenty20 championship, beating host Sri Lanka in the Oct. 7 final. The Twenty20 format was established in England in 2003.

While cricket is the most popular sport in India, its appeal in the U.S., where a mature sports market is dominated by football, baseball and basketball, is limited to expats from traditional cricket nations including India, Pakistan, Australia and the West Indies.

"Cricket is the second-biggest sport in the world and it doesn't have a presence in the biggest broadcast, sponsorship, franchise market in the world, so it's a pretty compelling argument from that perspective," Maxwell said.

Organizers aim to play the matches at temporary venues in New York before setting the six franchises up in different U.S. cities. Maxwell said investors would typically be expected to pay $40 million over 10 years to secure a team that could compete for as little as one month in a year. An official tender process begins this month.

American companies including PepsiCo and Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN unit are some of the sport's biggest partners, and the US accounts for 15 percent of cricket's income, according to the International Cricket Council's Global Development Manager Tim Anderson. That compares with India's 70 percent.

The US also draws the second-highest number of visitors to the organization's website behind India. The sport is followed by 15 million people in the US, according to the ICC.

An earlier attempt to start a competition in the US stalled when the ICC warned countries not to release players for the event because it hadn't been sanctioned by the US board.

The month-long league will have a salary budget of $1 million for 15-member squads, of mainly foreign players. They'll each be able to secure two additional "superstar" players, Maxwell said. The Times of India reported that England batsman Kevin Pietersen earned $2 million for playing about half of the Delhi Daredevils' 16 games during the fifth season of the IPL this year.

Four of the top five run-scorers from the World Twenty20 are among 196 who have endorsed the US competition, said Maxwell, an Australian who's a board member of the Sydney Cricket Club and was the first CEO of the IPL's Kings XI Punjab. Some players from England and Australia are unlikely to be included in the competition because its start date clashes with the 2013 Ashes series between the two nations.

"There's lots of brand equity for the players," Maxwell said. "When you're offering three weeks for them and their families in New York it carries a lot weight."

Attracting Hollywood, and even some Bollywood performers, may help the league attract women and children, a key demographic for the startup, according to Maxwell.

"The IPL has challenged the soap operas in India in that 4:30 time slot when a lot of women sit down and watch," he said. "It did that by integrating Bollywood into the cricket product. From that learning we're very keen to build a similar structure."