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Opinion

The Big Bash has big problems

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Roar Rookie
17th January, 2020
108
4306 Reads

The Big Bash League has had many successes.

Debuting on our treasured cricket grounds as a revamped model in 2011 with new catchy team names and fluorescent pyjamas, over half a million spectators made the effort to go see the new competition in the flesh.

Those punters certainly got some action. Shane Warne, Matthew Hayden, Chris Gayle, Brad Hodge, Herschelle Gibbs and even a young Steve Smith. What a time to be alive.

As I sit here reflecting, it’s obvious that really was a long time ago. I was spending whole days at university eating cornflakes and desperately trying to be an adult.

Although I still love cornflakes, times have changed and the BBL needs to start changing something. Quickly.

The current Australian sporting landscape is dynamic and evolving and the Big Bash has remained statuesque in the face of incoming threats because the numbers said it could afford too. It can’t anymore.

To be a legitimate, sustainable elite sporting competition the BBL has to start acting like one. It has to be more dynamic. The BBL is no longer able to achieve consistent growth purely on the back of the public’s insatiable taste for cricket and the novelty of Twenty20. It’s time for Cricket Australia (CA) and the BBL administrators to take this seriously.

Peter Siddle bowls for the Strikers

(Jason McCawley – CA/Cricket Australia via Getty Images)

Attendance and TV ratings

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The most basic statistics one can turn to when rating popularity is how many people go and how many people watch it. It’s a raw figure that rarely lies.

I will be looking only at average attendances – including finals – which leaves a little room for error as less product should increase attendance averages in those years and thus skew the stats slightly, but the trends swamp such minor anomalies.

  • 2011-12: 18,021
  • 2012-13: 14,883
  • 2013-14: 18,778
  • 2014-15: 23,590
  • 2015-16: 29,443
  • 2016-17: 30,114
  • 2017-18: 26,531
  • 2018-19: 20,552

I would give a gold star to everyone who can predict if 2019-20 is up or down on the previous year but they would be more participation awards then actual wins. It’s a strong and worrying trend.

Just 19,456 are attending Big Bash games in 2019-20 so far. It’s still a great figure in isolation, but its far front the lofty benchmark it set itself.
A very strong opening year followed by a sophomore slump is not surprising. The four years of rising attendance is not surprising. The veracity of success in 2015-17 is surprising.

In its sixth season the BBL put itself in conversation with the world’s major sporting competitions. That is not embellishment; it really did. In terms of average attendance the Big Bash League attracted the seventh-highest average crowd for a professional domestic sport league – ahead of Spain’s La Liga in eighth and behind the AFL in fourth, the EPL in third and of course the NFL in top spot. The BBL was hanging with the big boys. Admittedly the volume of games and total attendance is incomparable, but the BBL was six years old. It was an outrageous place to find itself.

A 12 per cent drop-off followed in 2017-18 before a further 22.5 per cent drop-off in 2018-19. The league lost approximately 30 per cent of its average attendance in two seasons. If I lost 30 per cent of my wage, I would struggle to survive. I think most would.

A whopping 80,883 fans turned out to see the Melbourne Stars play the Melbourne Renegades in 2016. In 2017 the Melbourne derby attracted 71,162 spectators. By 2019 the derby final attracted just 40,816 people, and only 30,388 – 54 per cent capacity at Marvel Stadium – turned up for the Melbourne derby this year.

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I am sure there are contextual and external factors around this that account for minor differences, but it’s hard to argue against people just not being as interested.

Aaron Finch celebrates with Shaun Marsh of the Melbourne Renegades.

(Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

Analysing Australian TV ratings is a little more complex. There is the movement from Network 10 to the Seven Network, the paid TV introduction, the timing of marquee matches and even the introduction of sharing platforms such as Kayo Sports. It throws curve balls everywhere. To be honest, I found it seriously hard to find clean comparative figures. The length and nature of cricket plays into this as well, with people rarely watching an entire broadcast, thus making the numbers fundamentally flawed. VOZ will launch in 2020 and hopefully end the confusion, but until then you need to read between the lines.

But there are still a few things which make your eyes pop.

In 2016 the BBL put on the crown and became Australia’s highest-rating sport competition with an average national audience of 1.1 million viewers. These numbers held pretty firm before the partnership between free-to-air and pay-TV was introduced in 2018. There was no overall cliff dive, but a 20 per cent reduction in free-to-air average means your old fans lose ease of access.

I rely on my TV to tell me most games are on. If it’s not on, I don’t go running to check Foxtel, probably because I know it will definitely be on the next night.

TV Tonight described the finale to the 2018 season as finishing “on a high” with 1.04 million viewers. The BBL was averaging over that figure per game just two years earlier. The BBL|06 final was viewed by 1.79 million people. I know expectations change with reality, but that is some fall from grace.

Channel Seven and Fox Cricket are invested in the product being popular on TV to the tune of $1.182 billion over six years, and they are publicly concerned. Throughout and following last year’s competition the broadcasters discussed with Cricket Australia their various demands. Things are worse now. There are some nervous people sitting in some big offices.

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The BBL is one natural regression from being back where it started. People often speak most loudly with their feet and their remotes and the Australian public is screaming, “We don’t care like we used too”.

Adelaide Strikers fans

(AAP Image/David Mariuz)

Competitors

It’s a little hard to put the BBL in one basket and find its direct competitors. I would be very interested in exactly how the BBL inner sanctum sees itself.

Is it entertainment? Is it a competitive sport? Is it a family-friendly activity? The truth is it’s blurred between all these and subsequently so is the target market. To avoid spiralling into a deep analysis of the most popular family-fun events, I think it’s safe to look at Australian domestic sporting competitions. It’s who the BBL should view as direct competitors, and if it doesn’t, I would love to hear the boardroom discussions about how they plan to topple the mighty Melbourne Zoo.

I also won’t be looking at other Twenty20 competitions around the world, because they are all fighting the same fight. They are certainly the biggest competitors for the talent pool, but the explosion of competitions is almost certainly an unsustainable bubble that will burst and leave us with a few remaining elite competitions. The BBL just has to do enough right to be one of them. The Indian Premier League (IPL) is in another stratosphere and essentially incomparable with our humble league.

By mid to late January the Australian sporting landscape becomes saturated. Seriously soaked. The BBL runs concurrently with the A-League, NBL and Australian Open. It can be hard to know where to look. The summer of cricket is now the summer of sport.

The A-League has been a slow burner. Its average attendance figures last year are practically identical (10,441) to the BBL’s first year (10,497). One thing is clear: the league is now well established, with over 100,000 members and strong fan-bases in Melbourne and Sydney. On the contrary the TV ratings for the A-League make for sobering reading. One free-to-air match a week and sinking Foxtel ratings since 2012-13 has made A-League viewership an ongoing concern.

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The BBL has the A-League covered as a competitor, but as the BBL becomes increasingly vulnerable the A-League is only ever one Alessandro Del Piero signing away from taking a bite of the market.

Ben McDermott leads out the Hurricanes

(Graham Denholm – CA/Cricket Australia via Getty Images)

The National Basketball League (NBL) couldn’t be more different. Years of being a parody of a basketball league have been dissolved among a seemingly sudden revival.

Basketball feels as popular as it’s ever been in this country. The NBL halcyon days of the 1980s and 1990s were something else from what I have heard, but there feels a genuine interest in the game both at home and abroad, and the figures agree.

Following a systematic rebuild the NBL set a new record for its highest attendance for a regular season in 2018-19 with over 700,000 total fans. It also had the lowest average winning margin, thre teams tied at the top and the highest points per game since 2009. The NBL had its BBL|06.

Average attendances this year are up 11 per cent to 7357, with Round 3 being the highest-ever attended seven-game round in NBL history. A duel between legitimate NBA draft prospects RJ Hampton and LaMelo Ball had 1.9 million views via Facebook of all things. Rough estimates say highlight views globally were over 5 million. The new TV rights deal (2019-21) sees an 86 per cent increase in free-to-air matches.

It’s all coming up roses for the NBL and serious trouble for the BBL. With access to the NBA and prestigious talent gracing our shores like never before, the NBL is far from done growing. It must be noted the rise of the NBL is in direct line with the decline of the BBL. While it’s impossible to draw a firm link, I say with some confidence the NBL must be eating into the same target market and contributing to the decline in numbers. It’s the first serious competitor the BBL has ever had and it’s going to be a dog fight.

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The lack of constancy

I will try to keep this short and sweet because I think this is more a personal gripe than anything else.

The constant turnover of rosters is an issue for the BBL. I am certainly pro-player mobility, but the BBL needs a period of steadiness.

The Renegades side that won the title last year lines up this week with seven new faces. It’s a different team. There is a number of factors – international cricket, injuries – but nonetheless it’s an extreme turnover.

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You can love your Sydney Sixers but I would not blame you for being apprehensive in purchasing player-related merchandise. They may be playing for the Sydney Thunder next year.

While you can look at the IPL draft as the coolant to my argument, I feel the Australian public would reject such a notion. Watching Glenn Maxwell play for the Perth Scorchers next year, the Brisbane Heat in 2021 before a final year with Hobart Hurricanes doesn’t sit quite right with me, and I love a good draft.

Some of this isn’t really the BBL’s fault either. The explosion of T20 competitions globally has created a small army of mercenaries. A quick look at Dan Christian’s resume explains the current state of play.

However, with short-term international signings teams aren’t even the same outfit within a single season. Many sports have mid-season trade periods, but this is a seven-week competition. Signing Dale Steyn for the first six matches may be great for addressing some internal KPIs, but it doesn’t really help you win. It’s a publicity exercise and it’s undermining the competition.

I knew this wouldn’t be short and I am rambling now, but it’s this constant flux which is also robbing us of true competing dynasties and rivalries not based on geography.

Ask yourself this: what is greatest BBL team of all time? If it’s the BBL|03-06 Scorchers, who is the best team since?

The difficulty of these questions is an issue. They are hard to discuss at the pub.

Mitch Marsh.

(Stefan Gosatti/Getty Images)

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The fixture

Like cramming a dinner parties worth of cutlery into those awkward plastic dishwasher baskets, Cricket Australia have squeezed as much cricket in as possible and it’s completely overflowing. Rather than doing a smaller load and having clean spoons, Cricket Australia just wants it all now. It’s the cliched sacrificing of quality for quantity.

The last few years have felt like the BBL is limping its way to the finish line. I don’t often give direct recommendations, as I like to hear solutions, but there is one painfully obvious move here: a reduction in overall games.

The belief that more is better for such a unique small window competition is deeply flawed. Whenever I hear objections to this along the lines of ‘mo games, mo money’ I just point to the NFL.

The BBL even has its own history to look at. The competitions glory days back in BBL06 had 35 games (eight games per team). Fast forward to 2018-19 and suddenly we have 59 games (14 per team).

Early last year Chris Lynn had this to say.

“I think 14 games is too many,” he said. “You do get a few breaks in between, here and there, but it just drags out. I don’t want to be too soft or anything like that but that’s just the vibe I’m getting.”

I don’t think you’re soft, Chris. It’s the vibe we are all getting.

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Fewer people are going and fewer people are watching. Don’t overthink this one, CA. It’s not that confusing.

This cricket schedule needs to be trimmed. The games need to feel urgent. Less is more. You get the picture.

Glenn Maxwell of the Stars celebrates 50 runs during the Big Bash League

(Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Where are the Australian Test players?

By little fault of its own, the BBL very rarely get the chance to have the competition’s host country’s brightest stars play any meaningful matches. Surely their inclusion is the golden ticket back to the glory days. Pat Cummins bowling to Steve Smith at the SCG. Sign me up.

Unfortunately any games seem like guest appearances, almost as if they are the professional sportsmen visiting a local game to boost morale. It’s ridiculous. The part that is their own fault is why these players are even getting on the squads. I know there are player management loopholes which allow for other list inclusions, but serious sporting teams do not have world-class passengers.

The belief is these players will be available late in the fixture, which is handy if you’re in contention and utterly pointless if you’re not.

The Sixers have Steve Smith and Nathan Lyon, the Heat have James Pattinson and Marnus Labuschange and the Sydney Thunder have the world’s premier fast bowler, Pat Cummins. As we progress with two-thirds of the season behind us the five above have combined for a total of two games, 11 runs and five wickets. All thanks to a couple of James Pattinson cameos. Smith hasn’t even played since BBL|03 but has been played in the Bangladesh Premier League recently.

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Cummins will take a break following the three-game ODI series currently being played in India before earning $3.17 million in the IPL from March to May.

It’s like giving someone a bag of chips but quickly picking out all the ones visibly coated in the most flavour. It’s disappointing and a bit bizarre.

Final thoughts

I am attacking a league here which is a baby in global sporting terms, and I know that, but it comes from a good place.

I love cricket but I don’t really love this cricket. I don’t even support a franchise because I fail to strongly align or care for either of the Melbourne franchises – and they’ll be different next year anyway. I’m currently strongly supporting Rashid Khan. I sure hope he isn’t different.

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I recently visited my 81-year-old grandad. I arrived to him watching the BBL while casually reading the paper.

“Who’s playing?” I asked as I put the kettle on.

“I don’t know, don’t really care. It’ll be over soon anyway.”

Sure, pop isn’t the target demographic, but you can’t afford people to view your product like that, not in this environment. Apathy is surely the beginning of the end, and all the numbers say there is far too much apathy around the BBL.

The BBL will survive for now. Australia loves cricket enough and there are contractual obligations all over the place.

Meanwhile, at headquarters smarter minds then mine already know everything I have written, and it’s their job to turn it around.

However, hope doesn’t change reality. The BBL has gone stale.

Without action consumers will continue to consume a product past its expiry date until they eventually feel sick and stop buying it. With action the BBL can cook up something new all over again, but it’ll likely have to be a microwave meal.

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The BBL needs something quickly.