Cricket Australia killing the goose that lays golden eggs?
The KFC Big Bash has notched up another successful season with bumper crowds across the country helping to rejuvenate domestic cricket. So why is Cricket Australia relaunching the domestic Twenty20 competition under a new moniker and replacing the state teams with city-based clubs?
Because in the desperate attempt to keep pace with the Indian Premier League and cash in on the success of Twenty20 cricket, Cricket Australia is eagerly expanding the Big Bash concept, with little thought seemingly given to the consequences of the proposed changes.
The Big Bash will become known as the Big Bash League (BBL) next season, with state teams replaced by city clubs. As the press release from Cricket Australia states: “The Big Bash will move from a state team competition to ‘club’ city-based league. There will be eight teams with new team names and colours, which will provide a clear point of difference from state cricket. The two additional teams will be located in New South Wales and Victoria”
The commercial benefits of the change are obvious. Into the game come new investors eager to grab their share of the new franchises, inflating the revenue Cricket Australia can squeeze from Twenty20. New club names and colours allow for a new image for the competition distinct from the rest of state cricket; rivalries will grow between cities and intrastate clubs in New South Wales and Victoria; and, critically, it leaves the door open for possible expansion – Townsville, Gold Coast, Newcastle, wherever.
But, as is so often the case when cricket authorities try and cash in on the proliferation of Twenty20 cricket, Cricket Australia seems to have lost sight of the costs.
The last thing cricket needs is, well, more of everything: more teams, more competitions, more cricket. The calendar is already overcrowded, struggling to fit in domestic and international matches across all three forms of the game.
Particularly costly could be the impact of the city-based clubs on the state teams (although they will still be aligned to one another). The birth of the new clubs will only increase the divide between domestic Twenty20 and domestic one-day and Test competitions, depriving state teams of the exposure generated by the Twenty20 competition.
So while the Southern Redbacks toil away in the Sheffield Shield to a handful of paying customers, their Adelaide Big Bash counterparts (can I suggest Mullets as the nickname?) will be playing in front of bumper crowds, with no brand recognition going back to the Redbacks Shield team.
The problem with the new format is it only creates confusion and division in a game already hard to follow. Cities will suddenly be asked to support two separate teams (more in NSW and Victoria) over three competitions in the one code, at a time when every other Australian code is also expanding and overcrowding each market.
Will the support be transferable between state and city? What of the state teams’ recent Big Bash exploits; will all that momentum be lost with the new clubs forced to start again? And will cricket fans embrace these new clubs as they do the current state teams? Is the pull of a city team really that much more powerful than the state?
As the A-League has shown us, new franchises with Americanised nicknames and without a connection to their communities struggle to sustain a fanbase. And cricket fans will bemoan the loss of the Redbacks and co and the pleasure of seeing locals representing those state teams. Player movement across the city clubs in tandem with the replacement of the state teams will only wear away at the traditions of domestic cricket at a time when the game needs to be protecting and adapting them to the new market, not casting them aside and starting again.
Obviously the change has more to do with opening up the competition to more teams and multiple representatives from the bigger states, but the above questions are still worth asking. Cricket Australia needs to address how the new teams will relate to their state counterparts and not underestimate the challenge in starting afresh (once again, look at the A-League).
The reality is there is nothing wrong with the current Big Bash format with the state teams competing, and Cricket Australia risks diluting and weakening the product with more games spread over a greater stretch of the Australian summer involving plastic teams.
Cricket as a whole risks gorging itself on the riches of Twenty20 because the game was so late to the commercial table. And that theme is repeating in Australia, where Cricket Australia is late to the table, undoing the recent progress made by the KFC Big Bash and the state clubs, trying to rework a recipe that’s already proved tasty.
Crowds have been strong once again this season. Last night 27,290 turned up at the Adelaide Oval for a domestic cricket match with, as my friend put it so succinctly, “Stuart Clark the only household name on the field.”
And that’s another point to remember. Until the ICC creates an international calendar with a window for domestic Twenty20 comps to have their own standalone period, there will always be a lack of international star names in the Big Bash, so Cricket Australia needs to keep some perspective here.
And by expanding the calendar too greatly, the Big Bash risks losing one of the keys to its success – the momentum generated by playing exclusively in December and January over the summer school holidays.
Cricket Australia need only look to England, the birthplace of Twenty20, to see how too much of the shorter format of the game can dilute the product.
The Friends Provident t20 domestic competition is contested between 18 first-class counties spread over two conferences, playing 151 matches in total.
But as the competition expanded, consuming more of the domestic calendar, crowds fell. According to ESPN Cricinfo, Warwickshire averaged just 3000 a game having once filled Edgbaston.
As one administrator said: “When it all started there were a handful of games, so the scarcity value made them must-see events, and the ticket prices were low. Now prices have rocketed and there are too many games in too short a time.
“Not many people can afford £20 a night eight or nine times in six weeks. So they come to one or two and miss the rest. It’s the same audience, it’s just been diluted. And when the buzz of a full ground becomes a more stilted atmosphere of a two-thirds-empty one, then the casual fans stop being drawn in as well.”
There’s no guarantee the Big Bash League will suffer the same decline, but England’s experience should act as a cautionary tale. No matter how many cheerleaders, fireworks and flamethrowers you use as part of your show, too much of the one product dilutes, particularly with Twenty20, which has yet to digest amongst many cricket traditionalists and still has a way to go to find a committed audience.
Further details of the new-look Big Bash League will be released on Tuesday, but in all the hyperbole that’s sure to accompany Cricket Australia’s announcement, they should take this next step with some caution and not kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.
Follow Adrian on twitter @AdrianMusolino
Adrian Musolino is editor of V8X Magazine, and has written as an expert on The Roar since 2008, cementing himself as a key writer who can see the big picture in sport. He freelances on other forms of motorsport, football, cycling and more.