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Heavyweight backers say mass migration has created opportunity for “Champions League” of cricket in Europe

Left to right: Roger Feiner, Thomas Klooz, Frank Leenders and Daniel Weston

  • New league will feature champion cricket clubs from across Europe
  • Mass migration has created micro-communities of underserved cricket fans
  • Former Fifa director of broadcasting Roger Feiner to be chief executive of new event

An Australian hedge fund manager joins forces with a Dutch basketball executive, a Swiss attorney and a German media expert to create a new cricket competition featuring the top club sides from continental Europe.

On paper, the origins of the European Cricket League read more like the elaborate set-up for a politically incorrect joke rather than the blueprint for a successful new sports property. Unsurprisingly, that was exactly how the Dutchman in question, Frank Leenders – better known for his association with Fiba and Team Marketing – treated the idea when it was first pitched to him in 2017.

The person doing the pitching was former Western Australia cricketer turned hedge fund manager, Daniel Weston who had been introduced to Leenders after a chance meeting with a mutual friend – former Fifa director of broadcasting Roger Feiner – at an event in St Moritz.

“I said you’re wasting your time, I’m not going to waste my time, this is a ridiculous idea – it is an absolute niche,” Leenders tells SportBusiness.

That industry heavyweights Feiner, Leenders and his Swiss colleague Thomas Klooz – also once of Team Marketing – would eventually decide to invest in the idea, suggests the Australian had hit upon an opportunity that withstood more serious scrutiny.

To appreciate exactly what the opportunity was, you first have to understand how this native of Perth found himself in St Moritz at all. Seeing his path into the Western Australia team blocked by future Australian captain Tim Paine, Weston opted to take his chances in business instead. After some success as a tech entrepreneur he sold his business and elected to go on a world tour in 2007. He put down roots in Munich after being offered a job by Australian investment bank Macquarie, and would subsequently go on to start his own hedge fund in the region.

It was at this stage that the talented cricketer was surprised to discover there was a club cricket scene in Germany. He joined a team in Munich where his ability quickly earned him a call-up to the German national team. Before long he was appointed its captain.

“The short version of the story is we had some success and we won a world T20 division two competition in 2016,” remembers Weston. “Everyone was saying ‘we’re so good, we should be getting sponsors’, and I thought we were never going to get sponsors unless people could watch it.”

He raised €1,400 through a crowdfunding campaign to organise a practice match between Germany A and Germany B in order to create an opportunity to film the team. On Facebook, the admittedly low-quality highlights garnered 482,000 views. Two further experiments filming an indoor match in Frankfurt and a match in Hamburg generated 526,000 and 1.8 million views respectively.

Micro communities

“We noticed throughout pretty much the whole of Germany there were these micro-communities of cricket lovers, but none of them knew each other existed and they weren’t connected in any way at all,” he says.

Weston did some further research and deduced that the unexpected appetite for the sport could be attributed to mass migration from the sub-continent.

“Angela Merkel had a huge role to play in our project,” says Weston. “The immigration borders were left open, whether for Indian students or Afghan refugees, and it meant there was a huge number of cricketers that came to Germany.”

Spotting an opportunity, the Australian approached the national federation, the Deutscher Cricket Bund, to buy the exclusive rights for cricket in the country. The organisation, which is largely staffed by volunteers, was so unaccustomed to thinking of itself as a commercial enterprise that the Australian had to persuade it that the rights even existed. A two-page document granted him the rights to every match played in Germany, and a new media company, German Cricket TV, was born.

Screen grab of the German Cricket TV YouTube page

Facing a choice between finance and the new cricket venture, Weston liquidated his hedge fund and scaled up the media operation. In 2017 he decided to cover all of the T20 and regional 50-over matches in Germany. The low-budget videos, typically filmed on Go-Pro cameras and then posted on Facebook, generated an even more astonishing 52 million views across the course of the year.

It was with his German Cricket TV hat on that Weston travelled to the unlikely destination of St Moritz in early 2018 to film an equally improbable game of Ice Cricket, a 20-year-old novelty competition organised by Swiss entrepreneurs. He met Feiner at a gala dinner organised alongside the event and piqued the former Fifa executive’s interest in his media operation. Feiner promised to introduce Weston to the initially sceptical Leenders and Klooz and the Australian’s project received the sort of input other sports start-ups can only dream of.

“Roger said: ‘I want to introduce you to my two colleagues Frank and Thomas,’” remembers Weston. “I asked him what those guys did, and he said these were the guys behind the Uefa Champions League. That was the moment where I thought something could be happening.”

Data

Feiner scheduled a meeting between the four in Zurich, giving Weston a month to pore over some social media data and develop his understanding of the current European cricket federation and domestic league landscape.

“I came up with a number that there are 23 million cricket fans in continental Europe, excluding the UK,” he says. “When I put together that number, I thought it was crazy, but that equates to about four per cent of the population. Then, if you look at the demographics, just over four per cent of the European population comes from cricket-loving countries, either first or second generations or as ex-pats.”

Inspired by Klooz and Leenders’ association with the Champions League, Weston developed a proposal to create a continental club cricket competition along the same lines.

“I really don’t agree with franchise cricket; I’m certainly not a believer in franchise sports in Europe, and I’m meeting the guys who are involved in Uefa club-based sport and that’s been successful. Why can’t we use the club model for football in Europe, and replicate that for cricket in Europe?

“In each of the countries there’s already a champion club every year for the last 20 years, now what we need to do is say: here is the Champions League that sits on top.”

The three executives were sufficiently impressed with the idea to take a minority stake in the project, with Feiner agreeing to be its chief executive. Together they worked up a format for a European Cricket League that would feature the club champions from eight of the most significant cricket markets in the continent, excluding Great Britain and Ireland.

Weston was tasked with securing the media and data rights for each of the eight national federations. The former would effectively license him to broadcast any club match in each of the federations – including domestic club matches and matches in the putative Champions League-style tournament.

The fact that he was a well-known European cricketer helped to open doors and speed up the process. The fruit of his not inconsiderable efforts is that the leading sides from Denmark, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Spain, Romania, Russia and Spain will face each other in a T10 competition over three days at the end of July this year at the La Manga resort in Spain.

The cricket club sides taking part in the inaugural European Cricket League

“We’re talking about a nominal fee,” says Leenders of the negotiations, which secured each of the federation’s media and data rights for at least 25 years. “Don’t forget that, at the moment, these leagues have hardly any income, but more importantly they have hardly any visibility. Once they get visibility and eyeballs and interaction, it will be much easier for them to find their sponsors.”

Digital hub

To provide that audience, and move away from the reliance on Facebook, Leenders and Klooz encouraged Weston to develop a digital hub for cricket on the continent called the European Cricket Network (ECN) – which also explains why it was also necessary to secure the data rights for each of the national federations. The platform will launch in the second quarter of this year and bring all the club results, news and streaming of certain matches together in one place to connect the micro communities identified by Weston.

“The ambition for ECL and the ECN is not to be top-down content of the IPL [Indian Premier League] and the Ashes,” says Leenders. “It is to give relevant video and data information for the community because these people are largely struggling to find scores and information and images from their own games. If the ECL is a one-week event, the ECN turns it into a 12-month proposition.”

The ECN will effectively provide a platform for the streaming of a selection of the domestic games that act as qualifiers for the ECL. But Weston says the quartet are looking for broadcast partners for the larger end-of-season ECL event.

The first edition of the ECL has been scheduled for three days near the end of July so as not to clash with the IPL or the ICC Cricket World Cup. From 2020 onwards the organisers plan to turn the tournament into a T20 event and spread it across the month of June to target Indian audiences during the country’s monsoon season, when the Indian national side isn’t playing.

“The Indian people not only want to see [Indian cricket captain] Virat Kohli,” says Leenders. “As long as it’s good cricket and it’s competitive and competitively balanced, they like to see Indian, Pakistani, German people play in Europe, which for them is still an exotic place.”

As with the Champions League, the ECL fixtures in Spain will be scheduled in carefully selected midweek slots to target Indian television audiences. Weston says three Indian broadcasters have so far shown an interest, as have a French, Spanish and German broadcaster.

Sponsorship

Leenders says the ECL will then look to target European companies looking for exposure on the sub-continent and Indian companies looking to sell in Europe for sponsorship.

“For European countries to sponsor the IPL is very expensive,” he says. “For Indian companies to sponsor European football – very expensive. There’s a huge value from sponsoring European cricket that then gets beamed into India.”

The organisers say they have the round one funding in place to cover the first two editions of the tournament. The first event will cost €1m to produce, a figure which includes travel costs and accommodation for each of the teams, a club participation fee, and €20,000 of prize money split equally between the winning club and its national federation. Next year, the prize pot will increase to €100,000.

The eight teams will be split into two groups of four and play each other in a round-robin format before a semi-final and final. In year one they will earn a flat fee of €2,500 regardless of where they place. In year two, the teams will earn €1,500 per match, meaning sides who make it to the final rounds will earn the greatest amount.

Weston says the prize money and appearance fees add up to a bounty for clubs that are accustomed to surviving on budgets of between €1,000 and €2,000 a year.

“I would back Afghan refugees who are now German citizens to beat traditional Dutch “elbow-up” cricketers and that’s where you get stories emerging,” he says. “We can create cricketing icons because of these people’s backstories and natural talent – they just never got a chance because of politics or wars.”

He adds that the ECL is now on the International Cricket Council’s approved list of events, after it was sanctioned by Cricket España, and Weston thinks the event can only be to the benefit the international game.

“We will help the European federations competing in the ECL to ignite their national team cricket, because if the domestic clubs are stronger, the national teams will become stronger. And if the national teams are stronger, they are more likely to qualify for a T20 World Cup and more people are likely to watch them in that T20 World Cup.

“Helping make the game as accessible and visible as possible in Europe both on a grassroots, club and international level will help the game grow in the long term, and that’s what all cricket fans and administrators want.”

This, he says, is already evident in Germany since the creation of German Cricket TV. Before the launch of the channel there were 60 teams in the country. Now there are 270.

Besides making a success of the ECL, Weston says his ultimate ambition is to create a footprint for cricket in Europe.

“I asked myself: what do I want to be when I grow up and what do I want my legacy to be? It wasn’t in running a hedge fund and trying to make money for people who were already extremely wealthy. I wanted to be the guy who builds cricket in Europe.

“My goal is that in the next 25 years, cricket is the number one team hitting sport in summer.”

With backers of the calibre of Klooz, Feiner and Leenders, that dream isn’t quite as quixotic or laughable as it first appeared.

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