Cricket Drafts & Auctions - Improvement Needed in Growth Industry

19th October, 2018.

It's been a while since I wrote an opinion-based blog post, with most of my recent pieces focusing on player recruitment data and team strategies.   I have one further recruitment strategy article planned, which will be published early next week, and then I'm planning on a reduced writing schedule for the near future while I focus on concluding my first T20 strategy book which will hopefully be available towards the end of the year - I'll post more updates on this, including several extracts, closer to the release.

However, given my interest in business in general, one area that I have wanted to write on for a while now is the business behind the auction and drafts of T20 events.  With several recent drafts fresh in the mind, the main focus of this piece is how leagues are failing to reach their maximum marketing potential.  

American sports - notably the NFL - have mastered fan engagement of drafts.  According to this article, 45.8 million people watched at least part of the 2018 NFL draft, and it doesn't take a genius to work out the massive marketing and advertising revenues that this fan engagement brings, particularly in such a commercially-driven country as the USA.  

Indeed, there are numerous websites for US sports which discuss drafts in minute detail, as well as plenty of analysis subsequently.  While the baseball draft appears less popular from a viewership volume perspective compared to American Football, the MLB website, for example, still produces detailed 'Prospect Watch' players, with write-ups and some statistics on each of these players in advance of the draft, as well as numerous articles and analysis.

Compare this to cricket.  According to this article, a similar number of viewers to the NFL draft actually watched the 2018 IPL auction, clearly demonstrating the immense commercial potential that the event has in such a cricket-mad country.  No doubt, this auction also has the most media coverage among cricket leagues, with CricInfo offering a live blog, and various websites - including this one - performing analysis of the signings.  It would be fascinating to know whether this commercial consideration was discussed by the ECB when planning their own franchise league.

Despite the relative commercial success of the IPL auction, compared to other cricket leagues, I feel that there are still several areas where there could be improvements.  Some franchise teams don't even have a website, or a fixed postal address!

Primarily though - and this goes for virtually every T20 league around the world - fans would be much more engaged if they had a full list of available players.  I am truly amazed that such a basic element of a draft or auction is ignored by virtually every franchise league worldwide.  

At least the recent Afghanistan T20 League draft provided one (link here) although it was riddled with spelling mistakes of players.  Among many errors, I can't help wondering whether the 'fast bowling all-rounder Tom Heim' may have had more chance of being picked up if he was listed with the correct name, while it looks like Simon Harmer was listed twice - once as Simon Ross!  I also can only assume that Keith Parker, is actually Hampshire's new signing, Keith Barker, while the current PCA Chairman & Worcestershire captain looks like he was listed as Oaryl Mitchell.  

However, despite the pleasing inclusion of the draft player list from the Afghanistan T20 League, there was precious little information on the rules of the draft or league published in advance.  For example, how many overseas players were permitted in each squad?  More importantly, how many would be allowed in each team?  For fans to be fully engaged, and for commercial possibilities to be maximised, this type of information needs to be stated in advance.

This was also the case for the swiftly-organised Mzansi Super League cricket draft, held this week in South Africa.  No draft player list seemed available, and there also appeared to be no information on the numerical restrictions of overseas players.  There also seemed to be little information of other squad 'requirements'.  

I accept that this was a league organised at very short notice, but surely it cannot be difficult to publish a list of available players, particularly given that it was streamed across several channels.  I would have been keen to write an article on the draft, but with little idea on who went unsigned, it's very difficult to comment on squad composition.  For example, I am not entirely convinced on the merits of a number of overseas players in the competition, but it's impossible to know whether they were good or bad signings because we don't know who else was available!  

This isn't a remotely unique scenario to South Africa - most T20 drafts are exactly the same.  After over a decade since the format's inception, it is extremely surprising that viewers of drafts - mostly who are loyal fans - are not even extended the courtesy of having a full list of available players.  Similar to the implementation of data analytics (an area where cricket also hugely behind American sports), I do expect cricket to master the 'fan experience' eventually, although it may still take some time.

Moving on from fan engagement, I wanted to talk a little bit about the draft dynamics of T20 franchise leagues.  The American model is a complete free market whereby a team is free to pick their perceived best choice (finances permitting) when it is their turn to choose a player.  The IPL is relatively similar, although from an auction perspective.  While the IPL model has attracted some media criticism for treating players like commodities, I do feel that this approach works quite well, with teams having the ability to use considerable game theory (if able to) to gain competitive advantages in a free market.  

However, this isn't the case with most cricket drafts, who have a myriad of player categories from which to choose from, and I don't like this approach at all.  

Take the recent Mzansi Super League in South Africa as an example.  Each team had to choose an 'International Marquee' player, and with six players in the category, it was one player for each of the six teams.  In this case, the last two teams were left to choose from Eoin Morgan and Jason Roy.  I've discussed my feelings of Eoin Morgan as a T20 commodity on numerous occasions, so there is no need to go there again, but my numbers do make Jason Roy an above-average T20 batsman.  Having said this, what does the 5th/6th team do if they don't want to sign an overseas batsman?  Perhaps (and in some leagues, this arguably would be solid logic) the team might want to devote a considerable part of their resources on signing quality overseas bowlers?  They are completely hamstrung by the category.  

I fail to understand what benefit forcing teams to take a 'Marquee' player brings to teams - particularly international players with no affinity to a local area - and with 'Marquee' players frequently not being the best players in the drafts, there may soon be a point where a team does not want to take any of the available choices in this category.  In addition, on many occasions, the 'Marquee/Icon' players are the same names across numerous leagues, ensuring that the same players consistently take high salaries.  This consistently reduces the opportunities for excellent, but lower-profile players, to earn a lucrative contract - if a team wants to make a below-average player their first-round pick, then let them!

Ironically, the Mzansi Super League did have an 'American Style' draft, but after the domestic and international marquee players.  I feel that drafts would be so much better if it was a complete open market with a random team draw order, and with players stating their reserve (minimum bid) price.  This would hugely benefit franchises who were willing to go the extra mile for researching the market, and understanding player strengths and weaknesses, and be a much fairer system for the players as well.