NEW WATERS

'The only currency we're looking to deal with at the moment is the currency of exposure'

Washington Freedom may not have the brand recall of those sister franchises of IPL but they have the stars
Washington Freedom may not have the brand recall of those sister franchises of IPL but they have the stars ©Sportzpics

Right before the India-Pakistan game in October last year, Dhiraj Malhotra, the tournament director of that 2023 World Cup, got a call from Washington Freedom owner Sanjay Govil offering him a contract to come and join his fledgling MLC franchise as the CEO. "He just called me out of the blue. He gave me his honest and clear vision about his franchise. And he had me onboard within no time," recalls Malhotra to Cricbuzz.

Malhotra is a prominent figure in the cricketing world and Indian sports industry, often finding himself in the periphery of events that have redefined the game. In his storied career he has managed the historic Indo-Pak 2004 series, the first WT20 in 2007 and was the first Tournament Director of the IPL, later rising up the ranks to be the CEO at Delhi Capitals and GM at BCCI. Malhotra, who, somehow has always been the right man at the right time and at the right place, believes there is something special brewing here in America too.

"I feel MLC can be a game changer. I think if done right, it has the potential to really grow. And if you look at the owners, each owner in their own right has created a business or a sport or a legacy. And so it's only fair that they've all come together and are trying to create something big in cricket and in the US."

An ex-army man and a Shaurya Chakra [a gallantry award] awardee for his rescue operations in Kashmir and with over 20 years of experience in the sport industry, Malhotra asserts that instead of the remuneration or the position, it was the nature of the challenge that was the driving force behind his decision to land up in America.

"When I was approached by Sanjay, he conveyed his vision to build the sport in the DC area. I was surprised to see thousands of cricket players over there. Everybody's playing some form of cricket. We are here to drive a community building exercise through cricket. Much like other American sports. It'll take time, I'm not saying it's not going to be easy. And I know, it'll be much harder than what it sounds but it's realistic. We're looking at building a home stadium soon. We'll have a legacy to give back to the city and in the DC area."

Apart from cricket, Malhotra set up the Indian Kabaddi League and has had stints at the Indian Super League and the Indian Hockey League. He has tasted success with cricket in its strongest market. Emulating a similar feat in America would be a herculean task, given the lack of infrastructure and structured cricketing ecosystems in America and the latent cricket market, which will require some heavy lifting to further develop. However, Malhotra believes his similar experiences with nascent leagues holds him in good stead to realise cricket's American dream.

"We're going to get into academies, we're going to get into anything that has to do with the community, be it cultural events or entertainment events, we will try getting the Washington Freedom name in there, and make sure that we become a household name slowly. Our aim is to be relevant 12 months a year so that will dictate our marketing and social responsibility plans. We want to get our players and Ricky Ponting out there in the community and let people be educated on what it takes to be successful in sport and hopefully one day we will have kids from the DC area graduating to play for the Freedom."

Govil has asked Malhotra to keep the financial spreadsheets off the table for the first few years in a way. Brand building is at the forefront of their strategy for the next few years. "The only currency we are looking to deal with at the moment is, the currency of 'exposure' and we are willing to put the numbers game away for the next 4-5 years. Look at the players we have got and the coaches this year."

While the Freedom want to be aggressive at brand building, Malhotra asserts the need for the franchise to be vigilant with the type of sponsors they are looking to onboard. Freedom have partnered with some mainstream American brands like Verizon and New Balance.

"Sanjay has been realistic. We do not want to devalue our brand. We want the right brand for the right position. If it's a mainstream brand, then we stand to gain from the indirect marketing through them, even if the monetary gains are low, the exposure trumps the money aspect. We will be in a better state to demand the money 2-3 years from now when we've proved ourselves."

Dheeraj Malhotra (right) with Ricky Ponting at Delhi Capitals.
Dheeraj Malhotra (right) with Ricky Ponting at Delhi Capitals. ©BCCI

The IPL franchises who have ventured in the MLC have carried an innate impetus with them, leveraging their fan loyalties from the IPL and extending it to their American offshoots like TSK, MINY and LAKR. This was evident in the pattern with which the stadiums were packed last year. Games that involved those teams were mostly sold out. Teams like Freedom find themselves behind the 8-ball in that aspect and face a tall order to get on an even keel with those franchises.

"People like winners!" explains Malhotra. "If you look at those three teams, they have [won] 13 of the 16[17] IPL seasons and easier to build a fan base because of that. And that is the reason why we have gotten some superstars like Glenn Maxwell and Travis Head. We have also invested a lot in our domestics and the results were there for people to see in the World Cup."

Malhotra is right in a way. Saurabh Netravalkar and Andries Gous, the two breakout stars of USA's World Cup campaign got their initial spotlight in Freedom colours before they shot to fame at the World Cup. At Freedom, the pair came back to a high performance environment after years, something they were devoid of in the cricketing wilderness of America.

"They were not exposed to things like recovery methods in between matches, sports science aspect of cricket, gym sessions, structured high intensity training sessions and the way we track the players in terms of bowling workloads. Patrick Farhat is the head of our Sports Science who has worked with the Indian team and the IPL teams before, has set up systems to improve their strength, fitness and recovery. Small things like getting access to ice boots for recovery after the game. These things make a world of difference," said Michael Klinger, director of cricket at Washington Freedom.

In January earlier this year, Freedom sent a contingent of domestic players including Netravalkar and Gous for a 12 day training camp at New South Wales' new state of the art training centre in Sydney. The tour also gave them a chance to have some T20 gametime against some Sydney Sixers and Sydney Thunders players. The camp kick-started preparation in the lead up to the World Cup. It is understood that Freedom set out a budget of close to USD 40,000 to send the players to the camp.

"Sanjay was quite receptive to the idea of getting our domestics into Australia for a training camp in the off season. This facility in New South Wales is probably the best in the world right now. The experience for them was probably something they hadn't seen before and weren't part of. I still remember Akhilesh Bodugum, our young off spinner being starstruck upon seeing Nathan Lyon who had come over to the training facility for a gym session. I arranged a 10 minute meeting for him which turned into 20 as they spoke. Our next step is to make sure how we can monitor and keep developing them 12 months of the year."

Meanwhile, Ricky Ponting's appointment as the coach might well be a watershed moment for the franchise trying to its feet in the cricketing world. For a fledgling brand desperately trying to look for a talisman, Ponting pulls unmatched gravitas in the game for the fans to connect to. A legend of the sport, he is one of the hottest coaching commodities out there in world cricket and the fact that this is his first assignment as coach outside the IPL is also a reflection on the rising prominence of cricket in America. Considering that Ponting chose to work with a non-IPL franchise and a cricketing start up like Freedom also demonstrates the clout of the management. Moreover, there is also a case for Ponting to leave his imprints on the budding franchise and create a legacy of his own.

After all, it is legacy that Malhotra, the Washington Freedom and the MLC, by extension, are after.

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