'New venue can help us grow'
Born in the days when cricket was still a gentleman's game and 'It's just not cricket' served as a stern rebuke which had some meaning, the Karp Group & PC Jeweller Hong Kong Sixes has gone through a stormy childhood and now, in its teen years, is wondering what the future holds.
John Hung and Terry Smith, who were both around at the birth, are convinced the only way forward is if the boundaries are extended. They are talking in the literal sense - a new venue which can cater to around 15,000 fans.
'Until the Sixes can become self-sustaining, where it doesn't have to depend on sponsorship or the government as the main source of funding, we will always struggle. And to be self-sufficient we need a bigger venue,' says Smith, vice-president of the Hong Kong Cricket Association.
Former president Hung agrees. 'We need to escalate the importance of the Sixes to the level of the Hong Kong Sevens. But we are at a disadvantage because while the rugby sevens has a ground which can hold 40,000 fans, we have one which caters to 4,000,' he said.
The Kowloon Cricket Club has provided yeoman service to the tournament which started in 1992 - created by private entrepreneurs Ken Catton and Papu Butani with financial help from Rod Eddington (Cathay Pacific) and Hung (Wharf Group) - but the limited size of the picturesque ground leaves little room for growth.
This is a huge stumbling block for prospective sponsors who want to see increasing returns on their investment. And with revenue from tickets limited, organizers have had to scramble around for financial backers, a tough ask in economically harsh times.
'We need a stadium of about 15,000 seats to make it financially viable, as it costs around HK$8 million right now [to stage it],' said Smith. 'We can't be reliant on the government, and sponsors who are extremely hard to find these days.'
Smith called on the government to provide the infrastructure that sports like cricket and hockey needed - a smaller-sized stadium, when the new Kai Tak sports hub is built and slated for 2018.
'The new stadium at Kai Tak will be a 50,000 or 60,000-seater state-of-the-art venue with retractable roof and moving stands etc. But along with that, you will need a support stadium and we hope the government will seriously consider building a smaller 15,000-capacity venue which will still have all the facilities, including corporate boxes,' Smith said. 'The rugby sevens, which is our model, was able to survive all the economic problems because it had grown into a big self-sustaining event. It had become more than a sport and turned into one big festival.
'Around 30 per cent of the fans who turn up for the Sevens come to watch the game, the rest are there to enjoy the atmosphere and have a good time. They started in 1976 and had time to grow. We began in the 90s and had a break in between. We still need time to grow. But the biggest problem is that we don't have the room,' Smith said. Hung pointed out the rugby sevens, which has boomed since its inception, doesn't need to rely on sponsorship as its main source of income.
'We rely on sponsorship for 65 per cent of our revenue, while rugby doesn't have to. They have 40,000 tickets and corporate boxes to sell. That's where their main source of income lies,' Hung said.
With no room to grow, the Sixes has stagnated. While popular with fans and players, the moneymen are reluctant to commit to the longer term as they feel the returns will be poor. This has resulted in marquee companies such as banks and airlines being disinclined to attach their brand to the tournament.
In 2007, Shane Warne and his All-Stars turned up and the tournament peaked. The HKCA, which jumped into bed with promoters Zero Friction, received HK$7 million in profits.
Tens of millions of fans around the world watched Warne, Brian Lara, Glenn McGrath and Anil Kumble among others parade their skills in front of cheerleaders. A total of 24 cameras caught every blade and bit of action. It was so well-received even the International Cricket Council included the Sixes in its annual awards list.
But that was just a moment in time. Zero Friction ran into financial difficulties - even though it honoured its commitment to the HKCA.
'We believe Harsh [Sabale of Zero Friction] over-extended himself. He was a visionary and had great ideas but unfortunately he had financial problems,' Smith recounted. 'We were lucky we were covered by our contract and received our fee [HK$7 million].'
With Cathay Pacific and Standard Chartered deciding against continuing their title sponsorship in 2008, the HKCA took the plunge. After all, it had money in the bank.
Sri Lankan master blaster Sanath Jayasuriya and England Ashes hero Matthew Hoggard provided the star quality, but the novelty had worn off. The HKCA was forced to write off HK$1.8 million. Last year, it was decided to do away with the All-Stars - Warne and Lara had cost US$50,000 (HK$387,000) each in 2007 while Jayasuriya and company cost between HK$100,000 and HK$275,000. The last-minute entry of diamond merchants Karp Group and Unirich Jewellery ensured the tournament made a small profit.
In its present skin, the only way the event can expand is if it is able to become an attractive product for television. But Smith says in this day and age, when there is so much cricket being played, it is hard to break in.
Over the years, the event has always faced problems. But despite all the obstacles, the Sixes like the Sevens, has made a name for itself around the world. Now all it needs is a bit of help.