Muhammad Faisal Mirza is a sports management professional and strategist. He is also among the pioneers of Pakistan Super League. Today he joins us for an interview
Q. Assalam o alaikum , thanks for being on the show. Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you became involved in sports and athlete management?
A. Walikum Assalam, Sure. I come from a sporting family, with one Uncle having gone all the way up to representing Pakistan as an Olympian. For me it was all about hockey growing up but fell in love with cricket once I saw it in my early teens, the “Kaali Aandhi” series as it was quite politically incorrectly dubbed (West Indies tour to Pakistan). With such a strong affinity for sport and having decent skills too (played up to the U19 level and then played college sport in the US), for me it was a match made in heaven when I discovered there was actually an academic discipline called Sports Marketing, focusing on sport within my degree specialization of Marketing (another passion). I went on to minor in it in my Bachelors, proceeding to apply, get admitted to, and receive my MBA from then-top-rated, Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. I’d worked with giants of the industry in the US, from Nike, Octagon, Yahoo! Sports, ESPN Regional, consulting or otherwise, before deciding to head back to Pakistan. In the early 2000s it was a stretch finding a place for my particular skill-set and degree here, (where we’re still decades behind in some fields), but got my break in broadcasting with the Geo TV Network, where I was lucky enough to pilot and launch as well as broadcast several groundbreaking sporting properties, including Pakistan’s first city-based franchise league in Football (Super Football League), win the rights of domestic cricket for the PCB and broadcast rights for four other boards in Pakistan, before leaving for the Social Impact sector. In the CSR field, I was fortunate enough to lead a sports-for-development impact organization that brought around half-a-million children into organized sport, but it was finally my dream project (one that I’d pitched in 2002-03 to then PCB CEO, Ramiz Raja) of doing Pakistan’s own version of a franchise cricket league for the PCB. I had been part of and author of a pitch made to the Board as an external bidder, though later brought on to lead a few verticals within the space when that pitch concept was adapted by Repucom (now Nielsen Sports) for the PCB in what went on to become the PSL. It was a combination of the various experiences over the years and rising to the challenge of nothing similar ever having been done that I (at first hesitantly) accepted the role as the first line of defense to launch the PSL, working exclusively on recruiting and acquiring cricket talent (players and staff) in a market that looked at any project being done in this region as dubious at best (in the last three years, there had been two failed/mooted attempts at launching the League and one each of failed seasons for the SLC and BCB of their own leagues) and also worked on relationship building and recruitment of potential franchisees.
Q. You were among the pioneers of PSL. What was the preconceived notion when PSL was being formed? Who was the minds behind PSL?
A. As I was just saying, it was quite an interesting time when we went to market with the PSL. As is usually the case, we had more nay-sayers and leg-pullers than people who actually believed in, largely due to not really understanding, the property we were wanting to launch. I’ve been quoted as saying several times, and you can have as many differences with him as you like, had it been any other leader at the helm at the time than Mr. Sethi, PSL would not have come about to be, as was clear from the previous two attempts under the previous stewards as well. He was quick to see the vision and signed on wholesale to concept. The core team, including Repucom, who were often our project “course correctors” were sold on the idea and gave it their all to make it a success. This latter is real praiseworthy because often it was clear that some nuances were beyond the realm of reality for some stakeholders, but everyone stayed true to the course. Here too, the signing on of big-name players was correctly identified as the make-or-break acid test that would mainly drive realistic values. I still fondly recall a 2:30 am call from Mr. Sethi saying he will personally garland me if Chris Gayle (who had recently dubbed himself Universe Boss and was the biggest brand out there) signed on for the League!
The truth is, while there was skepticism in the athlete community and agents alike at first, once there was a level of confidence, which came from the ICC giving us the NOC as well as the painstakingly acquired go-ahead from FICA, followed by some big names and then even bigger names signing on, the flood gates were then open and that tidal wave took us to the Draft, which was the real coming out party announcing the PSL to the world, where it became a reality even to some of the franchise owners who had just acquired these teams.
Q. How much can sports contribute to revenue generation for a country? Is there any country in the world which relies heavily on sporting activities and events?
A. Sport can be a massive source of economic activity, feeding into several direct and ancillary industries that benefit from that activity. In more organized economies, these things are better articulated and structured, but in Pakistan too, we have seen growth in leaps in bounds in the industry directly as well as around sport. Where there was just one state-run channel, there are now five channels fully dedicated to sport on traditional broadcast media, not to mention the countless digital channels out there. One of my favorite examples of a nation that grew from and because of its sporting vision and focus is South Korea, in the way it focused on growth in participatory sport and how through it, it evolved the esports gaming ecosystem that is now ubiquitous in our lives, quite literally taking its economy with it to unprecedented levels. There are several countries, including Hungary, Greece, Spain, among others, where sport constitutes a major part of the GDP, though nowhere is it more viscerally and richly present as in the US, where the sporting economy in and of itself owing to its scale, dwarves the GDP of many nations.
Q. How can PSL benefit the Pakistani economy? Don’t you think that the security arrangements and modalities in conducting PSL outweigh the benefit of organizing the event?
A. PSL DOES, even now, benefit the economy, especially since its return to Pakistan. Just the staging of the event itself is enough to kickstart many small and medium businesses that monetize enough through linked or conceived associative marketing to the event that they cover annual operational costs. The exponential growth it has both seen and spurred, in broadcast values (though still nowhere close to what it should be in a global perspective of similar viewership and commercial quantum), sponsorship values, for the league and teams all-round, as well as affiliated marketing and rights, has been unprecedented in Pakistan. The economic valuations created directly in and around the PSL over the past 8 years have been in excess of a billion dollars now, not accounting for the spill-over to other events and brands that this indirectly causes (every brand has a PSL flavor to its promotions in-season, every major broadcast channel has talking heads discussing it, every restaurant has “deals,” so on).
The security costs are not something unique to the PSL – ANY major public gathering event that could have been perceivably staged in the past few years, ABSOLUTELY HAD TO have foolproof security arrangements (you may recall the attack almost 14 years back to the day, on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team) in order to build an atmosphere of trust, that continues to this day, including Pakistan Cricket bilateral tours and other major events. We will, God willing, see decreasing levels of security as that confidence builds and local law enforcement also feels more comfortable relaxing these measures; meanwhile, security of the participants and fans alike, is and should be sacrosanct to protect the PSL, by far the biggest commercial brand ever created in Pakistan.
Q. You have worked with several high-profile athletes in Pakistan. What do you look for in a potential client, and how do you work to support and develop their careers?
A. I prefer working with corporate clients more than individual athletes per se, though I am friends with, have advised and continue to do so, both personally and professionally, some of our top athletes throughout my time spent in sport over the past couple decades now. Each person’s (and athlete’s) journey is his or her own and my own inclination in that has been more gut-feel, sometimes borne out of a perceived need more than an actual transaction. It should be the job of any well-wisher or advisor to maximize the opportunities along that journey and be of support wherever possible (and within reason!). This can be from creating maximum engagement and promotion for sporting opportunities, commercial ones, or even personal brand opportunities, though most fulfilling have been ones where one has been able to bring an athlete’s (or even a brand’s) dreams to fruition.
Q. Pakistan has a rich sporting history, but the country has struggled to achieve success at the international level in recent years. What do you see as the key reasons for this, and what measures can be taken to improve the state of sports in Pakistan?
A. Systems – or lack thereof. We have several inefficiencies as a society, that have seeped into and entrenched themselves into how sport is run here. I wrote on this a while back, which I’m sure you could find if you really wanted to as well, hehe, but I don’t honestly see a quick fix to it. Are the powers-that-be willing to consider even the notion of decentralizing sports, hiring professionals and specialists, or attract international caliber talent, empower them, and let sports be run with a greater purview of success rather than political appeasement or a retirement parachute? I think the answer to any ONE of those will clearly tell you it’s not something that we should at least currently at least waste breath or mental process over.
Q. There has been some discussion in Pakistan around the need for greater investment in sports infrastructure and facilities. What is your view on this, and what more needs to be done to improve the state of sports infrastructure in the country?
A. There is actually surprising plenty of infrastructure present, just no support system around it and hence a lack of ownership and maintenance. If you’re talking about world class facilities, then absolutely – we have NONE, regardless of sport, and are years away from any. That too though, stems from the natural and criminal inefficiencies we have let happen in sport for too long without being addressed. Major steps are required to retool this and it won’t happen overnight. What has worked in the past, though there is a massive trust deficit, is efficient public-private partnership, where stakeholders can make a combined stand and force action, despite this too being a band-aid solution in the absence of proper systems.
Q. With so much talent in the country in every sport, why does Cricket remain in the limelight?
A. One word answer – money. Cricket globally grew and we saw a generation of heroes evolve under the closest thing we have seen to a demi-god in the sport all at once. That whole generation inspired a craze that has spanned generations, within and around the sport, who have fallen in love with it. That crosses over to the brand side too and having seen every other once-big sport in Pakistan (Hockey, Squash) dwindle in interest, the buyers of sport also only see value in it. I sense a paradigm shift, with the generation that has grown up with more international sport, such as Football, even Basketball, eSports for that matter, who will start enacting their interests (already visible on the creative and selling side) into their media buying, which will start impacting how these sports potentially see growth financially too. Till then, Cricket will trump everything.
Q. Many young people in Pakistan are passionate about sports, but may lack the resources or support they need to pursue their dreams. What advice would you give to young people who are interested in becoming athletes, and what more needs to be done to support them?
A. It’s a tough life you’re choosing, but nothing is more satisfying than fulfilling that dream. Like the last answer, there’s no quick fix to these issues, but there are increasing opportunities like academies and clubs that are now realizing there’s money to be made in becoming more active and as such, they are always looking for talented individuals. Aside from that, in learning, there are now unlimited resources at your fingertips, whether on YouTube, ebooks, podcasts, training videos etc that can really help. The moral supporting conscience for sport among private and corporate citizens needs to be elevated and major stakeholders need to play their part to do so – highlight the need for organization, funding, adopting athletes for development, and these can play a part in streamlining this route while we all wait for a major overhaul of the systems altogether.