Discover more from Unofficial Partner
What the IPL will do next; The Harry Brook Question; Franchise v Country; What Sangakkara knows; How premium is the Premier League; Six sponsor errors to avoid; Big Gambling bets on convergence
Overthinking the sports business, for money
Kumar Sangakkara is asking good questions that go way beyond cricket
We could spend time discussing what’s the most important and influential sports property of the last twenty years.
But let’s save time: It’s the Indian Premier League.
As research for our podcast with Kumar Sangakkara this week, I went back to the first player auction in 2008, itself a copy of the NFL draft.
How it started
It’s all in there: The thrill of disruption; Sport as entertainment; new audience v traditional values; private money v public funded monopoly; player as brand; instinct v data.
How it’s going
Now jump to this next film, which is a fascinating glimpse in to this year’s bidding process, featuring Sangakkara, the director of cricket for Rajasthan Royals.
Note the sport-as-consultancy language and demeanour of the C-Suite, the desperation to sign Harry Brook and how the whole thing could be a scene from Moneyball.
Now put yourself in Harry Brook’s shoes for a moment, watching this.
You’re the hottest young player in the world.
Very rich men are thirsting to acquire you.
And unlike your predecessors, you have real leverage.
A whole different career presents itself.
Am I an England player who plays franchise cricket, or a franchise player who’s hired by England?
And then think of the implications of those decisions on your current employer, the ECB.
Think of how little control the board now has over its most valuable product - the England team.
Extend this question to the people making decisions as to whether to invest in England cricket - Sky and the other broadcasters, who pay millions for the implied promise that Harry Brook will turn up fit and eager, in all three forms of the game.
Starts to look a bit shaky doesn’t it.
That’s what the IPL has done.
It has radically altered the power balance in one of the world’s major sports.
Given that backdrop, what now?
This is where we started in this week’s pod.
The Harry Brook Question has a broader relevance.
It relates to the more fundamental issue of professional sport’s relationship with money, and the IPL is the definitive case study.
The Cream v The Slog
CVC, Bridgepoint, Bain, Clearlake, 777…all of ‘em… they’re only here for the money.
They’re here for Harry Brook, media rights sales estimates and medium term franchise valuations.
They ain’t here for the hard graft of building value in sport over the long term.
The massive physical, human and financial infrastructure required to build the next Harry Brook.
Let’s call it The Slog.
The Slog is left to governing bodies, backed by tax money and volunteers.
This is why the IPL is so important.
It’s not about competition format, fan engagement or the Bollywood event experience: That’s just sports industry noise.
It’s because the IPL is further ahead in the big question: how do we get the best of all worlds? The Cream and The Slog.
I’ve not heard someone articulate the challenge of the next phase quite so eloquently as Sangakkara did this week.
This first part is a good framing of where we are:
Sangakkara: The IPL has broken the monopoly hold that home boards have had with their central contracts in terms of really restraining and restricting the player's ability to go and play in franchise cricket. (Even though still they require an N O C or a no objection certificate from their home boards to participate).
Then he goes further.
Sangakkara: There could also be the opportunity for home boards, even the ICC, to bring these big franchise owners into the fold to really also be part of the solution. Is there a way to get rid of central contracts and to actually pass that on to franchises? Will that allow a partnership to form where franchises are brought into support grassroots cricket and counties and clubs and not just take the profits off the top of the franchise tournaments, but actually commit to supporting grassroot cricket.
Sangakkara was one of the all time great players.
He was the first non-British president of the MCC.
His Cowdrey Lecture remains one of the bravest and most important speeches in recent years.
Now he’s director of cricket for an IPL franchise.
He is exactly the person cricket needs to listen to right now.
He knows how fragile sport is.
He knows that everyone wants The Cream, from the national boards to the ICC, the franchises with their multi club ambitions.
Something’s going to have to change. And fast.
What Sangakkara’s proposing is both obvious and very radical.
It will move the game from the Victorian-era model of bilateral tours to a FIFA-like system of international tournament windows.
I think he’s right.
Because the status quo is chaos.
Sangakkara: The situation a lot of home boards have taken now, and the ICC, is that they sanction the various T20 tournaments. Most countries have them, they help earn money into the coffers of the home boards, but at the same time they've looked at trying to balance out commitments where players are allowed to play in franchises - especially in the IPL where there is almost a definite window now - and still have your best players available to play for country.
Now, when you use the word balance, it doesn't mean that it's a perfect balance. It means that something has to take centre stage at a certain time and take priority over another.
But the fact remains it is a very, very delicate balance and with more and more franchise tournaments, more and more common ownership in those franchise tournaments itself will mean that scheduling becomes really important.
Is it something where there are two or three definite windows for franchise cricket that allows players to play in whichever ones they do choose and then have the rest of the year to play for their country?
And if franchise cricket is going to be even more prolific, franchises themselves will move to ring fence their talent to play it through kind of their commonly owned franchises throughout the year, on an annual contract.
Perhaps move to the English Premier League way, and then every few years the players get together under the national flag to play benchmark tournaments.
It's not something that is currently viable because of the fact that ODI Cricket Test cricket and T20 cricket are important for home boards to be played bilaterally.
There are of course, the benchmark tournaments that ICC runs in terms of the World Cups. So it's, it's not an easy problem to solve. But I think at this very time the players themselves have a lot of power and a lot of say, and how they use that power is going to be very important.
See also: our conversation with the ECB’s Mo Bobat and Omar Chaudhuri of Twenty First Group, which is referenced in our Sanga pod.
Premier League shirts as a premium brand platform. Discuss.
Good graphic from The Athletic.
Designed to show the prevalence of betting brands in the league.
But it’s revealing as much for who’s missing as who’s on the list.
None of Interbrand’s top 20 global brands are present on the shirts of Premier League teams. Apart from Nike, which makes some of them.
Betting ban fudge
Premier League clubs have voted for a landmark ban on gambling companies sponsoring the front of shirts.
The vote was passed at a meeting with all 20 clubs in the league on Thursday morning, with gambling sponsorships the only item on the agenda.
The ban on betting firms will cover the front of shirts but sleeve sponsorships and LED pitchside advertising will still be permitted. It will also give clubs three years to enact the change, meaning those affected will have until the start of the 2026-27 campaign to find alternative sponsors.
What does this mean?
Don’t look at their arms!
It is thought that the clubs supported the move in order to avoid government legislation banning it completely. Gambling companies will still be allowed as shirt sleeve sponsors, with just front of shirt adverts banned.
Where’s it going?
There are two seemingly conflicting threads to football’s relationship with betting.
Betting as tobacco: The slow grind of legislation outlaws shirt sponsorship by 2027.
Betting as Sky Sports: Full convergence of sport, media and gambling content.
The first is a political signal. The second is where the market wants to go.
Two horse race.
Meanwhile, life continues.