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What's next for the Big Bash League? Since you asked...

27th January, 2015
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Yo. (AAP Image/Joe Castro)
Expert
27th January, 2015
16
1961 Reads

The fourth edition of the Big Bash League wraps up on Wednesday, with the Sydney Sixers having something of a home field advantage against perennial finalists the Perth Scorchers.

The tournament’s success has raised a lot of questions, so lets ask our favourite economist-come-sports-guy to answer a few.

This Twenty20 thing goes alright, doesn’t it?
Yeah, this season’s Big Bash has been great, hasn’t it? I think I saw at least the second innings of every game bar one; it took over the television in my house and I dare say my place was more the rule than the exception.

You might be the exception actually; the TV ratings haven’t really changed from last year.

That’s not much of a surprise, given where the numbers already were. The regular season had an average audience of 925,000 which, as you say, is the same as BBL03.

I don’t see that as a major negative – I mean, a typical AFL game doesn’t get anywhere near that (the Grand Final had around 3.8 million viewers this year); Australia’s games at the Asian Cup have drawn an average of 750,000.

The quality of the play has been fantastic – even renowned switch-hitting, country-hopping Englishmen have caught the fever – there’s been heaps of close finishes and the Sixers played their annual Super Over.

The most popular session of the tournament – the Stars against the Sixers super over game – saw its audience peak at almost 1.5 million viewers. For a league in just its second year out of its pay TV cocoon, I reckon the higher ups at Cricket Australia would be pretty pleased.

The internationals are still where its at; even the supposedly on-the-nose ODIs drew an average of 1.5 million viewers. But the BBL figures are solid.

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So Channel Ten took a bit of a gamble on the rights to the Big Bash a couple of years ago. How do you think its working for them so far?
Well its no secret that Ten had been struggling a bit over the past few years. Since losing the rights to the Saturday AFL around five years ago, and then giving up on the V8s, the network didn’t have an iconic sporting property to boost its brand and viewership. In a world of DVR and streaming, access to live sport has become the most critical bit of content for free-to-air TV networks – other than the nightly news of course.

Ten is paying $20 million a year for the Big Bash, as well as providing a portion of the production costs. What might have looked like a bit of a gamble in 2012 is now looking like a steal.

And just quietly, Ten’s commentary line up has taken over the TV Cricket Commentary Belt held by Channel Nine for decades.

Indeed. Who’d have thought the guys calling the traditional form of cricket would talk like children all summer. Anyway, I’ve heard crowds are up across the board this year. Can you shed any light?
Certainly can. Figures from the Australian Financial Review suggest attendances are up around 20 per cent, although this is probably skewed a bit by the Adelaide Oval (up 48 per cent) and Blundstone Arena (up 44 per cent) redevelopments in 2013 reducing crowds at those two stadia in BBL03.

Brisbane managed to set a new record for attendance despite a very poor season; although interestingly the Heat topped the run scoring tally this year. Unfortunately they also topped the run-leaking chart.

The Melbourne Stars had 11,000 more people in their four regular season games this year than they managed in four games plus a semi final last year. The Renegades were similarly up on last year.

Over eight days of BBL cricket in Melbourne, just under 200,000 seats were filled (199,998). What was the attendance for the eight days of international cricket? 264,319.

Sydney broke, and then re-broke, the NSW domestic crowd record in the two Sydney Smashes – the Thunder’s forced move to the more boutique Spotless Stadium might be an accidental masterstroke.

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Even at the spectator’s graveyard that is the WACA, eight per cent more people turned up to watch the Scorchers this season than last; despite the games starting at 4:10 local rather than the early evening slots more common on the East Coast.

Meanwhile, a near-capacity crowd of 52,000 were at Adelaide Oval for the Striker’s semi final loss to the Sixers. 52,000! I’ve not checked by I would hazard a guess that would be amongst the biggest domestic cricket crowds on record.

All eight teams are on track to break even this year as a result – the first time this will be achieved in the four years of the Big Bash.

That’s a positive sign.
Sure is. The big question will be whether Cricket Australia, and by virtue of structure the State Cricket Associations, have recouped their initial investment in the Big Bash. I’d suspect they’re still a year or two away from that, but I remember reading a number of articles from respected writers prognosticating that BBL cricket would never make money. Its now become a question of how much.

The success of the competition is getting everybody a bit excited about what’s to come for the country’s T20 pinnacle.

I bet you’ve got some thoughts.
Just a few.

A few? That’s a change.
Are you done?

I’m the one asking questions, mate. So I guess you’ve put some thought into the what’s to come?
Yeah. I’ve heard people start talking about expansion, new teams, more games, that sort of stuff. It’s obvious where it’s coming from: everyone loves the Big Bash.

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It’s on at a perfect time of year, and in contrast to the major footy codes in this country there’s still an element of fun to it. Don’t you just watch on TV and feel like it’s a bunch of blokes having a bit of fun throwing a ball around?

I don’’ feel like that when I watch the West Coast Eagles in August; I feel like I’m watching 18 surgeons meticulously going about their work. Sure, it’s still entertaining, and I love it and I’ll watch far too much and write far too much about it this year, but it’s almost… clinical.

The Big Bash, by contrast, has a carnival atmosphere. People paint themselves orange and dance around. There’s call and response (as fucking frustrating as that Spanish horn is, it works). There’s kids everywhere, wearing Craig Simmons jerseys. Adults get dressed up without having to be told they’re going to Australia’s Biggest Dress Up Party.

But it doesn’t affect the quality of play. Where the detractors say its Mickey Mouse stuff – and I’ll out myself as one of those guys originally – we’ve actually been gifted is a tournament that ticks every box.

So lets have more of it? Not so fast.

Not the time to expand?
Not quite yet. First of all, I’d imagine Ten’s agreement with Cricket Australia would have been built around a certain number of games a year. I would imagine if either party wanted to change the conditions, it would mean paying more than the $20 million per year committed now. What’s the incentive for them, right now?

The scheduling is also complicated. The BBL is played in a defined window, with the first class season put on hold so players are available. Its already a pretty tight summer of domestic cricket, with the One Day Cup played in October, four day cricket in November and the first part of December, Big Bash in late December and all of January, and two months of first class fixtures to round it out before footy takes over. Throw generally 35-40 days of Test cricket, a handful of ODIs and T20s and that’s a lot of deliveries to be bowled.

CA have been really reluctant to play more than one game a day, particularly this season where there was only one “double header” played. Now I think that down the track this policy will be changed, but for now its here to stay. So what do you do?

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Cut the BBQ Beef Cup!
That might happen, you know. According to austadiums, the final of the Matador Cup attracted a crowd of 819. No there isn’t a number missing there. Ditching that might have some costs, but it might give the BBL another month with which to ensconce itself.

But expansion doesn’t just mean more games.
Yeah there’s been a little bit of talk about more teams, too. Geelong want a team, to justify their redeveloped stadium. Canberra want a team – something something Jono Dean something. I bet the Gold Coast want a team, because Gold Coast.

There’s even been talk of an All-England team ala the British and Irish Lions coming in and calling Melbourne home for the seven weeks of play. That would mean we have to give Aussie Fred back, so I don’t see that happening.

New teams would be great, but the maths of it means it can’t work until the time allowed for the tournament is expanded.

Oh?
Let me explain. In the current eight team format, everyone plays each other once while playing their allotted ‘rival’ a second time. That leads to a 32 game regular season, and three finals games. If we keep the same format, you would need 55 games plus at least three finals.

I see. That would be challenging in the current window.
Yeah I mean it could be done, but it would be a challenge for the broadcaster to get every single game on TV across the country. There’s also the question of what to do about filling the teams.

Not enough cricketers to go around?
I wouldn’t go that far. But you would have to find another 36 players that could play at the highest level. There’s no doubt teams would be filled, but are you stretching the talent pool a little thinner than it is now. For every AJ Tye there’s an Ahillen Beadle, I guess. I’ve got a solution to that one though.

Of course you do.
More internationals! BBL sides are currently allowed to sign two primary and two secondary international players, with the secondaries acting as replacement players that can only come into the squad if one of the primaries is unavailable. So you can only have two internationals in the team at any one time.

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The easy solution is to lift it to three, or even four, in the case of expansion. I personally think it could and should be lifted to three for the next edition of the Big Bash. The internationals add so much to the quality and profile of the tournament, and at the end of the day probably help the development of our top domestic players. The IPL lets teams sign up to 11 (11!) internationals, with up to four being on the playing list at any one time.

*Shudder* The IPL…
Have you been following the court case going on in India at the moment? Where the BCCI and ICC head honcho who also happens to own one of the teams his organisation is in charge of governing is accused of fixing games, betting, passing on information about said franchise? Yeah. But that’s another story for another time.

Anyway as you were saying.
No, that was about it. Lift the international quota to three.

So it feels like we’ve been talking for a little too long. Anything else you’d like to add?
Just two more things quickly. On the topic of private ownership, don’t be surprised if some of the country’s more well-to-do start kicking the tyres of a couple of franchises. Cricket Australia has always stated their goal is to have part or full private ownership of BBL franchises, as a way of supercharging the growth of the tournament.

State associations own all of the franchises right now, and may be reluctant to give them up cheaply if investments are just starting to be re-couped. Also, these franchises would be giving state cricket a big financial leg up – lets face it the domestic competitions probably haven’t been bringing in enough money to keep the lights on. All of a sudden, there is a completely new and largely self-funding (now) business line for those organisations. They might not want to give it up. But that has to be on the radar.

And finally?
Well I had some more crazy ideas about how to make the tournament better, but they’re the kind of rule changes and unrealistic brain farts that this column is famous for.

Pick… three
Three? Right.

First, let’s ditch the whole power play and fielding restrictions concept, and allow captains to set fields according to regular cricket rules. Don’t force them to have infielders, catchers or outfielders – let them stick fielders wherever they want. It would allow for greater strategy on the defensive side of the game – all of a sudden you don’t need to bowl a tight, middle stump line with four guys on the leg side rope – and it would encourage more innovation by the batsmen.

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That’s not that crazy. What else?
Well, I’d also like to see what would happen if bowlers were allowed to bowl five overs per inning versus four! Perth and The Good Sydney Team have both shown that having a lot of good quality bowling can mean defending lower, sub-140 totals is possible.

(it is still really difficult, as the Stars showed the Scorchers at the MCG a week or so ago)

While you’d think it would lead to less bowlers being picked, I actually think it would lead to more specialist bowlers being picked. Think about it. Teams feel like they have to pick at least seven batsmen or bowling all-rounders to cover themselves in the case of losing early or late wickets. That leaves a maximum of 16 specialist bowling overs, and that’s if teams pick four specialists which they rarely do. Give the opportunity for each specialist to bowl a quarter of the innings, and all of a sudden that calculus is easier.

That’s an interesting one. What’s the third one on your list?
Wow you’re still paying attention!

This last one is related to expansion.

I think the BBL should be at least a home-and-away league, where teams play each other twice in the regular season.

Wait. Didn’t you just spend a thousand words saying expansion is off the table?
Yeah but I said this was a crazy idea. Hear me out.

Major League Baseball runs over seven months, where teams play 162 game seasons and play off series that run up to seven games. Teams play six out of seven days. It becomes a marathon, rather than the sprint with which most Australian leagues are associated with – at least in terms of the number of games.

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T20 cricket has a lot of similarities to baseball; more than just the way Chris Lynn hits a cricket ball. Most crucially, T20 is random. The best team doesn’t always win. The Stars have showed that over the four seasons of the BBL to date. The best way to weed that out is to play for longer, so the best teams get more of a chance to exhibit their skills over their opponents.

How would you squeeze it in? Well, I think you could easily (read: easily) play two games a day/night, even if you only fully broadcast one on national TV. Cricket Australia has set up an Apple TV channel, and it’s app is going from strength to strength. The other game could be broadcast there, with “look-ins” on it from the national game when it’s getting interesting. And you could even do what they do pain the AFL and guarantee games featuring a team from a particular market are shown.

BBL cricket is awesome, let’s have more! Right now!

Yeah, you’re nuts.