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Opinion

Time to re-invest in the Big Bash League

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Roar Rookie
5 days ago
8

Not even a rain-reduced BBL09 grand final could save the Melbourne Stars from themselves.

Almost like clockwork, another poor batting performance was in the books. Marcus Stoinis played an idle pull shot for no good reason to be caught for ten. Nic Maddinson chewed up three balls for nil before plopping his fourth to cover. On a skidding deck, Glenn Maxwell tried to sweep a straight one that was hitting his castle halfway up. It was a formality from there.

Ironically, the Stars would’ve lost less face had the rain continued, and the Sixers been handed the trophy by default.

But the Big Bash itself needed an actual match more than anything. Bare bays of seats during the finals series have given the media a free hit to rag-doll it. To read most of the recent coverage is to read its obituary. It’s been described as dreary, diluted and a drag. Waleed Aly says it’s “fallen flat on its face”. And just about every current and former player has lamented its length.

Marcus Stoinis of the Stars leaves the field after being dismissed during the Big Bash League

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Conversely, more measured pundits have pulled their punches. Dan Brettig points out that the Big Bash attracts TV audiences most other sports can only dream of. Gideon Haigh believes attendances and curiosity have just reverted back to something sustainable. Peter Lalor opines that, overall, the big picture remains solid. But these opinions seem to be in the minority, or at least aren’t being shouted as loud.

In reality, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. And elements of the Big Bash shouldn’t be knocked without considering why they exist.

The season’s length of over seven weeks feels too long, but it facilitates a broadcast deal that bankrolls the rest of the sport. Crowd numbers around the 13,000 mark during the finals are a joke, but those crowds didn’t exist a decade ago. It’s a plastic league full of marketing-led gimmicks, but it’s why an unprecedented number of school kids are engaging with the game at grassroots levels.

Ironically, a lot of the fuel for BBL negativity stems from the rise in engagement it enjoyed in seasons five and six. The recent MCG crowd of 13,000 looks especially pathetic when compared to the 80,000 people that attended a Melbourne derby in 2016. Back then, in shorter BBL iterations, its elements of scarcity and star power formed a brilliant cocktail, especially when mixed with what was left of its novelty.

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But if we work from a base of accepting the league has done more for cricket in Australia than was ever required or expected of it, and seeing as TV heavyweight Dave Barham has been pulled in to pick the eyes out of it, let’s consider how it might be tinkered with to elevate its place in the public consciousness over summer.

The Sixers pose with the trophy after winning the Big Bash League Final

(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

The first point is scarcity. More than enough ink has been spilled in response to the regular season ballooning from eight games per team to ten then to the 14 we see today. Crowds have thinned out because families still only go once a year. Home games are now miss-able because there are six others to choose from, and whether they’re won or lost rarely matters in the scheme of things.

With the broadcast deal locked in until 2024, any request to reduce the fixture before then would most likely be wasted breath. But is there a compromise that could see it at least brought back to 12 games a side? Doing so would at least slightly increase their importance, and could be done without reducing the number of prime-time matches.

Star power, evidently, has also been found wanting. The Big Bash thought it could become cricket’s NBA – a constant stream of content that was rarely meaningful but usually compelling. But without the sport’s most gifted athletes, the NBA is the NBL.

In that landmark Melbourne derby, the likes of Kevin Pietersen, Chris Gayle and Dwayne Bravo were the protagonists. Maxwell, Stoinis and Aaron Finch were a stellar support cast. Four years later, AB de Villiers was the only real international drawcard. Other imports included Samit Patel, Richard Gleeson and Dilbar Hussain.

AB de Villiers of the Heat plays a shot

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

The Big Bash isn’t even inside the world’s top five T20 leagues in terms of remuneration for players. International circuit kings can make a healthier pay packet at Bangladesh’s concurrent BPL. Even Canada’s competition is more lucrative. Cricket Australia, if and when it decides more talent is necessary, will need to re-invest some of its capital to afford teams extra salary cap space to entice more global guns for hire.

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Another investment from CA could be made via a shift towards positioning the BBL as a bona fide sporting competition. It’s been two years since Ryan Buckland implored them to decide what it wanted the Big Bash to be: “a billboard for the television network that purchases the rights? Or a serious competition that aspires to show the best short-form cricket in the world and deliver fans a compelling contest?”

The continued absence of the DRS (don’t slow the game down!) but inclusion of a strategic time out (allowing for a strategic ad break) points to CA’s main priority: the entertainment and value for broadcast partners. Add to that the lack of reserve day for the grand final and you’d be forgiven for thinking that reaching the right result was utterly unimportant to the competition.

But isn’t the entertainment borne from the importance of the result? When everything is riding on a certain game, over or delivery, it’s instantly watchable. It’s absorbing because it matters. But if the governing body sits on its hands while vital umpiring blunders skew entire matches, how can it expect fans to ride every ball white-knuckled?

Undoubtedly, the BBL has done more than its job as a Cricket Australia cash cow. But nine years in, it’s finding it harder to cement its place in the public consciousness.

As the league turns double digits next season (and we can finally do away with calling it BBL-0-something), narratives like the Stars’ will continue to emerge. The players will be more invested than ever. Now they, and the competition, deserve to be invested in.

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