South African Graeme Smith On Creating The Biggest T20 Domestic Competition Outside Of The IPL

Published 17 days ago
By Forbes Africa | Nick Said
South Africa v Afghanistan – ICC U19 Cricket World Cup 2020
Former South African cricketer Graeme Smith talks to the South African U19 team ahead of the ICC U19 Cricket World Cup Group D match between South Africa and Afghanistan at De Beers Diamond Oval on January 17, 2020 in Kimberley, South Africa. (Photo by Matthew Lewis-ICC/ICC via Getty Images)

SA20 Commissioner and former South African cricketer Graeme Smith on the ambition to create the biggest league outside of India, and why putting on a show off the pitch is as important to attract a new audience.

South Africa has the potential to create the biggest Twenty20 domestic competition outside of the Indian Premier League (IPL), says a confident SA20 Commissioner Graeme Smith, who also has an eye on shaking up the local entertainment industry.

Former South Africa opening batter Smith, the most successful captain in Test history, is leading what he believes will be a cricket revolution in the country to attract a new generation of fans to the game.

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He helped to launch the six-team SA20 (a Twenty20 franchise cricket tournament in South Africa) in 2023 having had only three months to pull together the competition, and while there were some grumbles around the scheduling, the cricket itself was top draw and spectators responded by packing out venues.

The six franchises share owners – and in some instances players – with the teams in the IPL, and this has opened up the massive, lucrative Indian market, which has a seemingly insatiable appetite for the game.

A 10-year deal with Indian broadcaster Viacom18 worth $10 million (R190 million) a season is in place, and including other sponsors, there is already $400 million (R7.5 billion) in committed income over the next decade. That is likely to grow substantially too.

“Closing our broadcasters was important. If we have ambitions to be the biggest league outside of India, to have the SA20 beamed into homes all around the world is crucial to that,” Smith tells FORBES AFRICA.

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“Last year we built this product in three months, it was a mad rush. So since then, we have focussed on

where we can improve the fan experience and making sure we are consistent and delivering at the same level. “When I look at the teams, I think we have delivered across the board. They look stronger and the balance is better with incredible international talent and good rookie players. Making sure the cricket gets better and better will always be the core.”

The Mumbai Indians Cape Town, Durban Super Giants and Sunrisers Eastern Cape may seem like odd names to many for a South African domestic league, but Smith admits that tapping into the expertise of IPL franchises has been crucial to the fast development of SA20.

“It’s very difficult to compete with the IPL, I don’t think it’s even possible. But certainly, outside India, we have the opportunity to put this competition on the map with players and fans around the world in the months of January and February,” Smith says.

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“Traveling overseas and talking to people, the two things that came out (from year one) were the quality of the cricket in SA20, but also the vibrancy of the people in the stadiums and how that looked on TV.”

Smith concedes that in this day and age, putting on a show off the pitch is as important as what fans see on it.

“Our other big ambition is to be the number one sports entertainment brand in South Africa. We invest heavily in music (at the venues), the look and feel of the stadiums, the activations at games and through the big screens.

“We want something for everyone and for people to come to the stadium for a number of reasons (not just the cricket).”

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Figures supplied by SA20 suggest the inaugural year contributed R4.1 billion ($216.5 million) to South Africa’s Gross Domestic Product and was played in front of 380,000 spectators, but the impact on the game of cricket in the country, which has perhaps stagnated in recent years, is potentially equally huge.

“We’ve been open about our ambition to revive the cricket fan in South Africa. It’s been a tough few years,” Smith says. “I think we managed to do that last year, but we also want to attract a new audience to the game and introduce cricket to them at a level where they can come and love the opportunity to be a part of something big.”

Smith says there is an aspirational element to the league. Getting youngsters to play the game is proving ever more challenging around the world and South Africa is no different. Leagues like the SA20 provide a lucrative career opportunity beyond the love of the game.

“It is important for youngsters to see that there is not only the dream of playing for the national team one day, but that there is a domestic competition of serious value, and a career can be built on it,” he says.

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“There were a number of players that were picked up from season one (of SA20) and got IPL contracts as well. There is a proper career for youngsters coming through.”

More kids playing the game and a better standard of competition should also have a positive influence on the potential of the national team to compete in World Cups.

“We saw the IPL benefit Indian cricket hugely, the amount of talent they now have at their disposal is enormous,” Smith says.

“We want to be exposing South Africa’s top 70 or 75 players every season to the pressure of playing in front of huge crowds with an international broadcast, playing against the best players in the world and being exposed to some of the best coaches.”

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The cricket world has changed dramatically since the introduction of T20 cricket in the early 2000s, the shorter, action-packed format more appealing for fans and broadcasters.

So where does that leave the purest form of the game, Test cricket, once very much the elite level for players, but now an after-thought for many fans?

“I still believe Test cricket has a place and will be strong,” Smith says. “It’s never going to be a 20-nation format, it’s going to be maybe your top six or seven nations in the world competing against each other.“But T20 cricket offers so much growth from an entertainment perspective and to bring new audiences into the game. That is why it is so important