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#TFGInterview - CEO Raman Raheja on the balance of competition and nostalgia in Legends League Cricket

THE CONCEPT OF having former cricketers who were greats in the international arena play in a match or a tournament to draw in the eyeballs of a large nostalgic audience is not new. It has been tried many times before, to the extent that it has become a constant sidetrack in the world of cricket.

It's good for the players, and it's good for the fans who are quite not ready to say goodbye to their old heroes yet. And of course it's good for the organizers. But most of the former implementations of this formula have been low-effort, low-stakes tournaments that, to the trained eyes of the cricket fans, appeared too casual to be taken seriously.

We have seen this play out in 6 over cricket matches in Hong Kong or big names from the past playing at baseball grounds in the USA. The novelty wears off fast, after which it looks like just a gimmick.

So when the Legends League Cricket, a 3-team T20 competition featuring former leading figures in world cricket, was founded Raman Raheja & Vivek Khushalani it ran the risk of adding to that long list of unimpressive efforts.

That, and they were launching a new league in the middle of a global pandemic that had upended normal life across the world.

So there was no shortage of challenges when it came to getting Legends League Cricket off the ground. But with the first installment behind them, co-founder and CEO Raman Raheja believes they were successful in positioning themselves in a way that could hold a long term appeal to cricket fans.

Speaking to TFG, Mr Raheja revealed how the Legends League Cricket managed to be interesting; and it had a lot to do with the quality of the matches being put on,

"The objective is to bring on cricketers who have recently retired but have active cricket left in them. If you have seen the first season, you know this is not exhibition cricket. This is serious cricket. It was extremely competitive. 5 of the 7 matches went on to the last over for a finish. So, clearly that shows that the players we brought on were very physically fit, active and were able to give competitive cricket onto the field. They are able to play active cricket. You know, just to give you an example; one of the cricketers, I don't wanna name him, who claimed that he was fit and he was a part of the India team. When he landed we saw the competitiveness that was there among other players... he did not get into the field. He went into the commentary box.

"Of course, we can't be compared to active cricketers. But they were comparative to each other. Because of them had retired recently or in the last 5, 6, 7 years. Sanath Jayasurya at 52 was so physically fit that he was able to well in a format that he was not known for in the past. And that too against the likes of Pollard and Brett Lee. It was not a joke. It was good stuff."

But the plan of ensuring quality cricket with former international players becomes a lot tougher and more complicated when there's a pandemic going on that strictly limits travel. Mr Raheja said that it affected their plans for the LLC, but not in the same way that it affected most sports leagues around the world,

"We actually pre-poned it. We were originally supposed to [launch] in the month of March 2022. But we realised that IPL was going to be a 10 team affair, and any close proximity to IPL would have only kind of disturbed... although we don't compete with active cricket, but because in the first season you want to build a loyalty base so you don't want to be close to the biggest cricket event in the world. So we pre-poned it.

"We didn't know the country would go through the third wave in such a big way... we had an option either to push it which would have meant we would have gone into the month of June or we could have stayed put which would mean we lose out on some opportunities including sponsors... so we launched it, even though it was right in the middle of the 30% positivity rate."

Legends League Cricket co-founder & CEO Raman Raheja

The league venue became all the more critical due to the pandemic. However, there were other considerations behind picking Oman as the venue for the inaugural season. Mr Raheja expained,

"For Legends League Cricket, the basic objective was to promote cricket... the idea of this league is to bring the biggest cricketing legends and take them to new regions and locations. These legends then would be able to draw a lot of eyeballs of the world and that helps the location to uplift the cricketing ecosystem in that particular region...

"We considered UAE. But UAE saw so much of cricket with the World Cup, with the IPL. The objective would have been diluted... so finally we zeroed down on Oman. The idea is to keep these legends who have huge following and use them to bring in the audience and that really promotes the cricket in its own unique way.

"We still do anything outside, but retain the prime time television audience for cricket it would work."

As for hosting matches in India, he did not rule it out, but explained why it may not happen in the near future,

"There's never a never. But having said that... currently there are two reasons. One, I already told you that we wanted to promote it into the ecosystem where cricket is an upcoming sport. Secondly, our format is to bring upon the USP of India-Pakistan cricket rivalry. Now, for that in current circumstances, India is not the right location."

So the plan for LLC's launch was based on some solid fundamentals. That did not, however, reduce the amount of practical challenges they were going to face to implement it all.

Primarily, ensuring the fitness of the players was going to be an issue during the pandemic. Mr Raheja detailed the approach that LLC took to ensure this,

"We went about it scientifically. We brought in Andrew Leopard who was the first international trainer of the Indian cricket team in the Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly era. He is the Director Sports Science of Legends League. And while we were identifying the player pool he would go about their fitness checks and all of that before we finalised the contract. Then, once we finalised the contract with the players, we put it into the contract that they have to maintain the fitness level which is compatitive cricket-worthy. 

"And that is something which brings about the cricketers being good enough to play. So it's not like that you get up out of the commentary box that you were doing yesteday and then you're here and you're playing cricket. Because then you're going to pull your muscle or anything, and then injury would happen, which would spoil the reputation of the player as well as the league... it is part of the deal while we're signing up with the player and then you have our experts work around the fitness of the players for a period of time, whether they give them training regimen or whatever training these players are doing. They follow it up with their remote data. So we try and do that scientifically and this was our first season and we faced our challenges.

"Now, the second season, we have players who are forthcoming. So they are saying, ok, so now you let us know 3 months in advance so that we can prepare well. So we're already now going to make the announcement for the September season, with the dates and everything, so that the players have enough time to be fit and trained. The likes of Yusuf Pathan and Irfan Pathan, they went into nets for 8 days before they even arrived there in Oman. They were really keen to give their best."

Up next was the matter of accomodating factors like the pandemic, vigilance about match-fixing... stuff that all cricket tournaments are having to deal with in the current scenario. For Mr Raheja, these problems could be addressed through an unified approach that involved smartly managing the bio-bubble,

"COVID is here to stay. It's not going to go out very soon. So various sports have adapted to the thing where the... new rules are coming into play. And new format. So you see IPL, twice over, it has happened with no audience. So clearly that is something you have to pick up and go forward... we have to adopt them and work the business around it. Even if there was no audience, we would be fine, because you don't consider that revenue as part of your business. You go without it. You tweak the model to handle that.

"The cricket economy is really fast evolving. And you have a lot of these smaller leagues and cricket events and tournaments which are not really worthy in terms of the... cleanliness is not the right word... the purity of the format. You know, there's a fringe. We wanted to be away from that. That's one of the biggest challenges. You know, the betting communities and all of that. We've got to keep clean cricket. So we adopted the best practices. We brought in the ICC's anti-corruption unit to work with us. 

"We kept the bubble easy. Oman was good, it was not into serious strict bubble, but we kept it going. So we kept away from some unwanted elements. The players had to be in a restricted but still easy bubble so that you don't mix around with those unwanted elements of betting communities... those were the challenges. Not that we faced anything but we were prepared to face it. Because if any of our events were tainted, I would have been history. You know, we wanted it to be clean and still competitve."

And although he was keen not to compete with the existing popular cricket leagues, there were certain scheduling conflicts Mr Raheja could not avoid; most notably certain players who left their teams midway through the competition to play in the Pakistan Super League.

To manage it all, Mr Raheja explained, required a delicate balancing act and a well-defined line as to which players LLC wanted to have on board,

"When we signed up Imran Tahir and Mohammed Hafiz, Kamran Akmal, Shoaib Akhtar and a couple of Pakistani players, we were all very much aware that after the first two matches they were to go back on PSL. It was always a deal. So I can be very happy about them playing the whole format without playing the whole season with us, but having said that, these are retired cricketers. They are retired from active cricket.

"Now PSL is a domestic tournament of Pakistan and they bring about some of those cricketers to play. So Hafiz has retired from international cricket but he still plays PSL. So for me that is the fine line. That we will not go active cricket on international format. I can never get a clean window where no cricket is happening and I can host Legends League Cricket. I will always be in the loop where something or the other will happen in some other international series.

"So I may miss out some cricketers who are not really playing actively in that series but it could be the role of a mentor, could be a role of a coach. It could be a role of a commentator. You know, so something or the other we will lose out. But having said that, another example I will cite here. Now, Irfan Pathan is a regular commentator with the BCCI and India cricket. Now the time when we hosted, India was playing South Africa to which series Irfan Pathan was doing commentary. And he left that assignment to come and play with us. So clearly a point where, while of course I don't want to compete there... but I can never be an isolated event with no other cricket happening around that time... so 'no active cricketer' means any cricketer playing for an international team, or is not retired from international cricket."

With those elaborate, highly coordinated efforts going into birthing this new league, the returns from the first season were impressive. In terms of the sport, the games were competitive. According to LLC, 248 people tuned in to watch live matches across multiple countries where they had different networks as broadcast partners. The reported total reach of the first season is around 703 million fans, and it had more viewers in India than major T20 leagues like Big Bash, Pakistan Super League or Caribbean Premier League.

Encouraged by the results, Raman Raheja is now eyeing an expansion of the league into new forms and territories,

"What you have seen is just one format. We are now going to get into other formats of legends cricket. And we will eventually be able to cricket more opportunities where we can bring about this format into India.

"The current format is with 3 teams. But as I said we are working on multiple other formats. So the second season, which is going to be seen in September, will be a 4 team format in a franchise model... it will be in line with any other league where the franchisees are the team owners. The four teams will be owned by the franchisees. We are going to make the announcement on that with more details... every year we will host twice over, one format will have the franchise format, the other will be the 3 teams that you have seen.

"We will retain the Asian Lions and Indian Maharajas, and the World Giants for the tri-nation format which will be scheduled in March 2023. But the new format, which will have 4 teams, will be all new teams... the player pool will remain the same."

The league's popularity has drawn in offers from different countries to host the next edition, but Mr Raheja insists that in the near future, Oman will remain as the host,

"For now, Oman is the host... we will retain Muscat as the venue. We will come out with more details about it soon but yes the venue remains the same. We already have offers from Sri Lanka. In fact we have an offer from South Africa to take the league there. Before we finalised Oman we had an offer out of UAE. So those offers will keep going but for now Oman is a beautiful destination. The government of Oman is supporting us for the league, for promotion of the cricket. So happy to remain there for now.

"Yes, USA is a part of the agenda but not a priority. The reason being, any cricket that has to be a success, has to be seen on prime time in India. Now USA for the time zone that it is in, it is a difficult proposition. So you know to make commercial sense, you have got to keep it in a geographical location which has a prime time viewership in India. It's what we will go with in the first few seasons. Then after once you have established, then you can probably do tweaked formats which can be taken to locations like USA and Canada."

For now, the LLC is looking to cast a wider net to bring in even bigger names in world cricket. Mr Raheja said,

"We would love to have the biggest names. Mr Dhoni! You know he is retired from international cricket but not from all formats. So we are waiting. Once he does that we will approach him. And there will be more such names. In fact Chris Gayle had shown keenness but unfortunately he had some other assignment so he could not come. So he would be on board. AB de Villiers and the likes of those are the ones we have on the radar for the second season."

However, not every player that he wanted could be brought in, he admitted,

"Yes, of course the biggest name being Sachin Tendulkar. We approached him. There were negotiations and discussions that were happening. But for some it couldn't pan out. You have to do with what you have, so we went ahead."

Another major name that he wanted but Shane Warne, who tragically passed away last month,

"I would have loved to have him there but you know he was not phyisically fit to be doing active cricket. So he was not even part of the pool in season one. But he was one of my first names that we considered. In fact some of our existing cricketers even approached him... approached him to kind of have an understanding of his fitness level and ability but we realised that it was not the right time. And also because it was season one. At season one, you've got to establish that yes, there is something, some credibility needs to be brought in. So, you know... not all the cricketers thought that kind of platform would be created. And today I have queries from the biggest names. So Brian Lara is keen to come and play. All of those guys are there."

So, while every legend that shaped the modern cricket folklore and evokes sky-high nostalgia in the fans' hearts may not be taking to the field at Legends League Cricket in the near future, it appears the primary objectives of LLC - which were centred around establishing it as a competition where these former greats would display their competitive chops once again - have been well achieved.

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