By Amir Husain
The CEO and president of Pakistan's successful ARY Digital Network, Salman Iqbal also decided to venture into the world of Twenty20 league cricket when he purchased ownership rights for the Karachi Kings franchise of the Pakistan Super League (PSL) in 2015.
In an exclusive interview with pakpassion.net, Salman explains the rationale behind his decision to acquire Karachi Kings, why despite media reports there is a cordial relationship between the PSL franchises and PCB, the reasons behind Head Coach Mickey Arthur's departure and what new Head Coach Dean Jones brings to the table, the choice of Imad Wasim as Kings’ captain despite the presence of Babar Azam and his plans of eventually investing in The Hundred competition in England.
It's been five years since you purchased Karachi Kings. How do you feel it's gone for you?
The decision to take on Karachi Kings and support the PSL has been an excellent decision not just for us but for the sake of cricket in Pakistan as well. Quite a few players who are now part of the Pakistan side today owe their career progress to what they have achieved via the PSL route. From a personal point of view, there are a few success stories that I am proud of and a good example of that is Babar Azam who started playing for Islamabad United in 2016 and showed a lot of promise, and then I picked him up for Karachi Kings in 2017 and he remains with us until now. And today, not only is he one of the world’s top-class batsmen with comparisons being made with the very best, but he is also the captain of both the T20I and ODI sides which is a testament to what this tournament has done for Pakistan and also the role that Karachi Kings have played in the improvement and well-being of the game in Pakistan.
The ARY Media Group bought Karachi Kings for US$26 million for a ten-year period making it the most expensive PSL franchise (at the time), do you think it's been a good acquisition?
I will be totally honest here and say that the decision to purchase the Karachi Kings franchise was a decision that came from the heart and wasn’t really based on some deep financial assessment of the business at that point. The fact was that PSL was a new venture at a time where cricket in Pakistan was in very dire straits with not a single top-quality game was being played in Pakistan. You can only talk about the financial aspects of purchase such as this when there are metrics you can depend upon such as gate monies or where you have an expectation of attracting sponsors for such an event. In our case with the PSL in 2016, we had little or no knowledge of what to expect in terms of returns from this tournament.
This was similar to having a new-born with just a promise of the future and not much else, and we were tasked to bring him up and nurture him to become a competent young man. I can confidently say today that the PSL as a product has grown by leaps and bounds and can be considered as one of the top T20 Leagues in the world for which we are thankful to the Almighty. Of course, I will be the first to accept that that first 2 years of our association with PSL were a burden on us in financial terms, but we started to see some better results from the 3rd year and I am glad to say that this year was a turning out to be a great one but unfortunately the crisis brought upon the Coronavirus Pandemic put a halt to the proceedings. All in all, it was the 3rd year of PSL which started to show us that Karachi Kings was a great investment in financial terms but given the hype which was created by the tournament in the first year, we always knew that better times were ahead for all of us.
At times, the media reports that the relationship between PSL franchises and PCB is a strained one, can you elaborate on this?
Let me put it this way; it’s a natural thing at times when owners of franchises are sitting together in a board meeting, there can be some difference of opinion which can lead to arguments. But in such scenarios, these are not serious issues as the main decisions are taken after everyone’s point of view has been considered. It appears that the media picks up on the discussions during the initial phase and they are reported as serious differences of opinions. The fact is that we live in a democratic society and we all have our opinions and of course there won't be 100% agreement amongst all parties, on all issues. So, for example, this year the scheduling of the PSL games became an issue and both Quetta Gladiators and Karachi Kings had grave reservations about it but the matter was resolved and such disagreements do happen when we talk about a massive event like the PSL. In fact, Mr. Ehsan Mani himself stated that hosting the PSL in Pakistan was a bigger challenge than the World Cup in 1996 if we consider the magnitude of the events so one can draw their own conclusion about the effort needed to make PSL a success which it has been.
Whilst participating in the PSL was more of a leap of faith for you, are you still disappointed that this has not been as lucrative a venture as you probably thought it would be?
There is no doubt that taking on Karachi Kings was a leap of faith, but then if you look at my investment history, this is pretty much in line with how I have taken my business decisions in the past and the driving force for me is my strong belief in The Almighty. When we started the ARY TV channel in 2004, there was no other channel in Pakistan apart from PTV and my critics were deriding me for that decision. They felt that this was madness and that no one would watch another TV channel, especially at a time when Indian TV channels such as Sony and Zee were ruling the roost in Pakistan. We heard similar sentiments about us when we branched out into the film industry in Pakistan. but we proved them wrong too.
Coming back to the topic of PSL, the decision to take on a franchise was based on the fact that sports after TV is the most-watched event in the world and so the tournament was expected to do well, and it seems that we weren’t wrong in our assessment. As far as financial returns are concerned, the fact is that all businesses have to take some sort of risk at the beginning and it does take time for any venture to reach its true potential. In our case, the fact that our franchise, Karachi Kings, had a TV station backing it made it much easier to make Karachi Kings gain in popularity quicker than other franchises. What also helped us was that Karachi being the largest and most commercialized city in Pakistan, never had something so big to call their own. But when they got this opportunity, they immediately adopted it as their own and made it probably the most well-loved side in the whole country.
How important was it to get the PSL entirely back to Pakistan?
Bringing the PSL in its entirety to Pakistan was a challenge that we were facing for a very long time and to see it happen this year was an absolute pleasure for all of us. It was organized in the best possible manner by the PCB for which they deserve immense credit. As do our Armed Forces and the security personnel who have made this happen in a way that there were hardly any problems faced by the franchises at all. To be honest, we didn’t feel things would go so smoothly but the love of the game from our security services and all concerned was such that they helped in organizing the tournament to perfection.
What was the experience of playing PSL games in Pakistan?
We played part of last year’s PSL in UAE and whilst we had a lot of people attending games in Sharjah, it was clear that the crowd there were supporting Pakistan cricket as a whole, rather than a particular side. But when we walked on to the National Stadium in Karachi for our first home game which was against Quetta Gladiators, we felt the true power of home support. The noise in the ground that day was such that we couldn’t hear each other speak on the ground. It is at that time that I fully understood what it meant to have a home ground advantage. The atmosphere was truly incredible and all our foreign players who had also played in other parts of the world were of the same opinion that the feeling of playing in such an atmosphere was something even they hadn’t felt before.
Despite having some big-name players over the years, Karachi Kings are yet to reach a final of the PSL, has that been disappointing for you?
Looking at the current season which still hasn’t officially ended, I am pretty satisfied that we have done really well to reach the second position in terms of points behind Multan Sultans. In our history of participation in this tournament, this is the first time we have reached such a high position. Having said that, we must also acknowledge that we have played at the knockout stages in the past as well, so I feel we have done well in PSL in each season. This year, I was very confident that we would reach the final and that may well be the case if the tournament is restarted again by the PCB. However, by the looks of how the COVID-19 situation is progressing, this somehow looks unlikely.
Do you think six teams is just the right number for the PSL, or should the tournament look to further expand the roster to match the size of other leagues such as the IPL?
If we look at the IPL, they have eight teams and the total tournament takes around 50 days which is somewhat long. In my view though, Pakistan is not ready to add more teams in the PSL and I say that not just because of the long length of the tournament but also due to the fact that our market lacks the financial maturity to handle this scenario. If six teams are finding it so hard to survive in financial terms at the moment, then the problems will only compound if more teams are added to the mix. And I don’t think we can blindly follow the IPL model as in their case, a lion’s share of revenue is given to the team on whose home ground the game is being played on, whereas in the PSL all teams equally share the proceeds for every game. So, for the moment, in my view, six teams should suffice in PSL until a better mechanism of sharing revenues is found for all concerned.
What was the thinking behind removing Mickey Arthur as coach?
To start with, Mickey Arthur was not removed from his position but his contract which was for four years came to an end. When the contract expired, we opted for a change and Mickey left us on good terms and we really appreciated the work he had done for us. Change is an important part of the evolution of any organization and in this regard, we felt that Dean Jones who had left Islamabad United at that point was the perfect choice for us and we took that opportunity with both hands.
What has Dean Jones brought to the table at Karachi Kings as Head Coach?
Dean Jones had an amazing reputation as a top-notch coach who had won 2 PSL titles with Islamabad United in 2016 and 2018. So, when the opportunity presented itself, we took him on immediately as we felt that he was in a unique position as a foreign coach whose knowledge of the abilities of Pakistani players was as good anyone else, and he hasn’t disappointed in his debut season with us.
Why is Babar Azam not Karachi Kings’ captain, given that he is leading the national T20I and ODI sides?
There is no doubt in our minds that Babar Azam is an excellent player who continues to excel for the national side, and we have had him on our team for almost 4 years now where he has put in some excellent performances for our side and is now our vice-captain too. The fact is that in terms of captaincy for Karachi Kings, we were in dire need of continuity and that is why we chose to stay with Imad Wasim as captain of the side. For the first 3 years, we were changing captains at the rate at which a batsman changes his gloves! We had Shoaib Malik, Ravi Bopara, Shahid Afridi, Kumar Sangakkara with Mohammad Amir even captaining the side at one point. So, the need was for some form of continuity in this respect and we decided to stick and stay with Imad Wasim as captain. We even mentioned this to Babar, and he agreed that this was the right way to move forward.
Do you feel that PSL has the potential to go on and become an even better product?
There is no doubt in my mind that PSL is by far the largest and most well-known product that Pakistan has to offer to its own people and the world. And to me, we are yet to see the true potential of this product and we are all convinced that it can go beyond its position as the second-best league behind the IPL.
What changes are necessary for the PSL to improve itself in future editions?
I feel that the PCB is doing a great job in running the PSL but what I would like to see is more involvement of the franchises in decision making for this league. In addition, in line with Ehsan Mani’s wishes that the PSL should have ‘home and away’ games, I would like to see franchises adopting stadiums as their home grounds. So, Karachi Kings should ideally adopt the National Stadium as their own and so on, but this can only happen once Quetta Gladiators and Peshawar Zalmi can do the same. If this change can be brought in the future, then PSL’s rise to the very best will only be a matter of time.
Would you be interested in buying an overseas franchise, such as one in The Hundred, in future?
Let me say that I would love to take a stake in a team if it becomes the case that The Hundred allows franchise ownership in the same way as in the IPL or PSL. To me, The Hundred is the next big thing, a great option to have in terms of franchise ownership. In the past, there was a time when I was really interested in purchasing a franchise in the CPL and had almost signed a contract but the timing of games in the Caribbean was a huge issue for us. In terms of TV viewership in cricket viewing parts of the world, the timezone was a problem and we, therefore, decided to leave that opportunity. But England is something special as it’s the home of cricket and the timings of games for most viewers around the world would be ideal. I will be very interested in the ownership of a team in The Hundred but at the moment, I do not believe that option is open for overseas buyers.