Graeme Smith the businessman: Betway SA20 surges in IPL jet stream

One of South Africa’s most successful cricketers, long-time Proteas captain Graeme Smith, has transformed into one of his sport’s leading businessmen. Smith is the League Commissioner of Betway SA20, whose second season kicks off on January 10, after a successful debut at the beginning of 2023. Smith is looking forward to significant growth in the coming season. The six SA franchises are owned by IPL giants, providing the commercial nouse and financial muscle to attract some of the world’s best players to the event. That’s after the first edition attracted the crowds back into cricket stadiums, generating R1.4 billion direct expenditure into South Africa, creating 8223 annualised employment opportunities and contributing R4.1bn to South Africa’s GDP. Smith shares the inside story of the most exciting development for SA cricket in decades with BizNews editor Alec Hogg.

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An edited transcript of the interview by Alec Hogg with Graeme Smith

Alec Hogg: Well, in 2008, the Indian cricket operation introduced the world to a new superstar factory – the Indian Premier League (IPL). It has since become one of the most popular and lucrative sports leagues globally. Here in South Africa, Graeme Smith, the League Commissioner of Betway SA20, joins us. Graeme, great to talk to you. Your athletic prowess has made you well-known worldwide, but it’s your success as a businessman, particularly with the IPL, that’s gaining attention. Let’s delve into the significance of the IPL, considering its viewership and financial impact, which rivals major sports leagues globally.

Graeme Smith: Thanks for having me. I recall being part of the inaugural IPL in ’08, selected at the first-ever auction for the Rajasthan Royals, and we went on to win the first year. None of us could have predicted its explosive growth over the years. Now entering its 16th season, the IPL’s broadcast deal per game fee rivals that of the NFL, highlighting its incredible success. The massive fan and commercial base in cricket-crazed India has transformed the cricketing landscape over the past 16 years.

Alec Hogg: As a former test cricketer and Proteas captain, who’s played all formats of the game, how do you feel about T20’s meteoric rise?

Graeme Smith: Initially, T20 was seen as a fun element in the international schedule – a platform for trials and expressions. However, it has evolved into the game’s premier product, not just commercially but also as a means to attract a new audience to cricket. The difficulty of growing the traditional five-day format in new cricketing regions makes T20 a key growth element, especially with its inclusion in the Olympics.

Alec Hogg: Exciting developments are underway in South Africa. Why did it take so long for T20, and specifically your January initiative, to gain traction?

Graeme Smith: Determining the past failures is challenging. Previous attempts by CSA to set up such competitions independently faced financial challenges. This time, we collaborated with CSA, with SuperSport as a shareholder, leveraging their support in terms of production and rights fees. This strong foundation allowed us to attract bids from major entities globally. Thirty prospectus conversations resulted in 14 bids, with six from IPL teams, bringing significant experience and commercial strength.

Alec Hogg: You couldn’t have scripted it any better. It’s like having the Man United, Barcelona, or Real Madrid of the cricket world involved in developing a franchise here in South Africa. How much have you learned, both commercially and structurally, from the IPL since 2008?

Graeme Smith: You can certainly learn a lot. The IPL, being the behemoth it is, sets a high standard. Other leagues, like the Big Bash in Australia and the UK’s Hundred, also provide different models. The franchise model is rapidly evolving, aiming for global change. Importantly, attracting six competitive and commercially strong teams is our goal. We want a balanced and competitive league, ensuring no team dominates for a decade.

Alec Hogg: In the IPL, franchises can have 25 player squads, but only four international players can play in a starting XI. How does the split work in South Africa?

Graeme Smith: Similar to the IPL, our playing 11 must have a minimum of seven South African players, allowing for an 8-3 or 7-4 split. Attracting international talent is crucial for success, and Season 2 sees outstanding players returning. We’ve also introduced a rookie player, with our franchises picking up four 17-year-olds. Our aim is to expose our top 70-80 players to global best practices, enhancing their skills and competitiveness.

Alec Hogg: The IPL has injected economic resources into Indian cricket. From a South African perspective, is this the injection Cricket South Africa needs?

Graeme Smith: From a cricket perspective, bringing this tournament to South Africa benefits our players, exposing them to top-level competition. We hope this exposure will develop players ready for World Cups and T20 events. On a commercial level, it’s crucial for Cricket South Africa to have a product it can own and build commercially. Franchise cricket is growing, and having a stake in it ensures we are part of the evolving global cricket landscape.

Alec Hogg: The sponsorship from Betway is an interesting addition. Many may not know it’s owned by South Africans, though it’s now a massive multinational. Were they easy to get on board?

Graeme Smith: Building the product was challenging due to the negativity in South African cricket. Convincing players, partners, and broadcasters of our ambitious vision wasn’t easy. Signing 30-odd international players on risk in the beginning was incredible. Then, attracting broadcasters like Sky, Viacom, SuperSport, Willow, Fox, and others within our first year was a significant achievement. Betway, our title partner, played a crucial role, bringing experience and support, making them a valuable asset.

Alec Hogg: Regarding players, are there crossovers from IPL franchises, or are South African teams fielding a different group of players?

Graeme Smith: There is some crossover. Players like Moeen Ali with the JoBurg Super Kings and Chennai Super Kings and Naveen-ul-Haq with the Super Giants. However, there are unique instances, like Rashid Khan playing for MI Cape Town in South Africa and the Gujarat Titans in India whose franchise is not in our league. Availability is key, especially with international schedules. While attracting the best international talent is a goal, ensuring the availability of top South African players remains crucial for the growth and success of the competition.

Alec Hogg: If you could go back in time and start your career today, do you think participating in something like this would have made you a better player?

Graeme Smith: It’s all cyclical. This concept was far off our radar during my early years. The commercial entities and franchise leagues, along with the earnings players have today, are incredible. My career path was different – school, under 19, domestic cricket for Transvaal, then the Proteas. Franchise cricket has changed the landscape, offering a strong career parallel to playing for South Africa. It’s a different mindset for young players now.

Alec Hogg: Moms might be happy that cricket is now an alternative to rugby for talented youngsters.

Graeme Smith: True. The old adage holds – moms worry about physicality in rugby and time commitment on a Saturday with cricket. T20 cricket eases the time concerns.

Alec Hogg: After a successful start last year, entering your second year, what were your focuses and goals for the 2024 series?

Graeme Smith: Cricket remains the core objective – a highly competitive league with the best players in South African stadiums. We aimed to revive the cricket fan base and attract a new audience. Our ambition is to be the top sports and entertainment brand in South Africa, investing heavily in the in-stadium experience. Season 1’s success in fan engagement, music, and entertainment exceeded expectations. Brand affinity developed rapidly, surprising us.

Alec Hogg: Reflecting on the broader impact, what has been the effect on South Africa’s economy?

Graeme Smith: An economic impact assessment post-Season 1 revealed over R200 million in taxes paid, contributing over R4 billion to the GDP. More than eight thousand employment opportunities were created, providing relief to those struggling post-COVID in the sports and events industry. Direct expenditure exceeded a billion rand, and tourism is expected to grow with our global market presence, especially in India.

Alec Hogg: Graeme Smith, former Proteas captain, now leading a R4 billion enterprise. Looking forward to Betway SA20.

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