Big bash for cash

As published in Inside Sport, December 2011

Not yet sold on the Big Bash’s extreme makeover?  Neither are we. 

Around the globe cricket is navigating the winds of change. The spectre of omnipresent gambling, evolving technology and viewing habits, product saturation, private ownership and dynamic power shifts have impacted the game at every echelon. At the eye of the storm is Twenty/20.

From the get-go Cricket Australia afforded T20 all the reverence of a backyard hit and giggle on Christmas Day.  But for a couple novelty fixtures each summer, the national team has been above this overtly gauche hi-jinx. Nevertheless, as the Baggy Green coughed and spluttered and ODI interest floundered, the domestic T20 competition exceeded expectations.  “We couldn’t have asked for any more from last season’s KFC Twenty20 Big Bash.  The evenness and quality of matches, as well as the performances of the Australian and international players, were the driving forces behind the record TV viewers and spectators” testified CEO James Sutherland in CA’s 2009/10 Annual Report.

Yet before last summer’s instalment (whose ratings and crowds dropped against a compelling Ashes series), and before the critical Argus Report into Aussie cricket’s malaise, a giant leap of faith was made to reinvent the wheel.  The rivalry and passion typical of the various football codes is said to be the inspiration for the city based concept, rather than the state v state dynamic so imbedded in cricket’s permaculture.  Instead of entertaining logical regional centres such as ACT, Darwin or Geelong, both Melbourne and Sydney boast two franchises.  Thus Blues and Bushranger fans will divide their loyalties based on their preferred coliseum to which these randomly coloured fluoro outfits are coupled.  So, country folk have been left high and dry, and the appealing notion of Trans Tasman involvement similarly passed over, the Kiwis running their own show.  “(But) let’s get real. How many people are passionately committed to their State team?” proffered CA’s Big Bash League ‘Project Owner’ Mike McKenna in an online article outlining the changes.  “Sure, there are plenty who follow the scores, check out the points table and are delighted when their State wins the Shield”, McKenna went on to say.  “However only a few, very loyal and passionate fans, attend more than the occasional match.  We average less than 1,500 fans to State cricket clashes.”

It’s a fair point, until one considers Big Bash V1’s average attendances doubled from 9833 in 2005/06 to 18,152 in 2009/10 (including 43,125 for a Victoria v Tasmania clash at the MCG). 

Now CA is honing in on female and youth audiences as the key to reasserting cricket’s mantle as the national sport, claiming team identities ‘were developed through a combination of feedback from fans and consultation with experts in sports team branding.’ Never mind the superfluities, according to McKenna, more teams and more matches will deliver “frequent regular compelling content played by teams they choose to get passionate about.”

Er… in those terms, how could potential and existing consumers not be enthused?  And how could anyone not be convinced by the oh so subtle team launches, replete with skateboarders, graffiti walls and assorted clichés?

Whilst comments posted online mostly register somewhere between the inane and the insane, intermittent nuggets of intelligible prescience serve to capture the mood of the room. From all points of the compass, the tide of opinion is the vital organs residing in our heads and chests have been ignored;

“Went to every single Redbacks home 20/20 game over the last 3 years and cannot understand why it needs to be changed. It was getting bigger and better every year.”

“As usual nothing exists in Queensland outside of Brisbane. The names of the teams really tick me off and so do the colours.”

“I read in the paper the other day the Sydney based teams would be Sydney Sixers & West Sydney Thunder. What a load of crap! And one of them will have pink as one of their colours. What a double load of crap!!!”

“What attracted a lot of people to T20 in Perth was not only the entertainment factor of a fast paced game but also the fact it evoked WA parochialism. It was our boys representing our state, taking on those gits in the east. Now it is just some plastic franchise some geek in marketing in Sydney came up with.”

“Hmmmm… not convinced, when is the last time we had a hurricane in Hobart?”

“How on Earth are they expecting people to form an allegiance to a side that’s got a crap name, stupid colours and no ties to the state whatsoever?”

Reasons why our National Basketball League went into freefall included the confusing and frustrating transient nature of participating teams and the artificial hype being ‘more American than the NBA’.  So is aping the most garish aspects of the Indian Premier League really such a good idea?

A cynic would suggest the whole shebang is merely tailored to suit the imagined preferences of the lucrative Indian television audience, and their love of the punt.  After all, CA’s funding model relies largely on gaining a hefty television rights premium, and the Indian market will loom large in the next deal.  BBL games would slot nicely into their TV prime time, although CA stated it could take as long as ten years for the League’s roots to take hold and command the big bucks.  And it will be a long road considering more (manufactured) teams and dilution of talent historically attracts a fair few tumbleweeds.  For all the star attractions, World Series Cricket was initially a dud before proving its point, and similarly the BBL is a high risk means to an end.  CA even conceded as much during protracted pay agreement negotiations with the Australian Cricketers’ Association.

Whilst teams are to be administered by the states, CA has opened the door to non controlling investors capable of bringing the world’s best to the crease.  Until then, the Melbourne franchises have latched onto AFL club presidents Eddie McGuire and Jamie Brayshaw for their media and corporate connectivity (at least the latter boasts some cricket pedigree).  Surely a competitive league requires a consistent and coherent framework, and one that doesn’t conflict with the goal of restoring Australia’s test cricket lustre?  The Argus Report certainly thinks so.  As state player Ed Cowan noted, now you get paid heaps more for being not quite as good!

If finding sympathy for middling state cricketers on big dollars is tough, seconding them interstate to play against teammates makes dubious sense.  As Victorian stalwart Andrew McDonald pondered “If you get re-located to Perth for eight weeks of the season for the 20/20, then do you play first class cricket for WA? Do you just move your family across there and play?”

The complexities of sports administration are often lost or hidden from subjective and passionate consumers.  CA’s rapid descent from acclamation to the veritable whipping boy of Australian sport has been remarkable to say the least.  From Broome to Bowral we’ve dissected and devoured Messrs Ponting, Clarke, Hilditch, Nielsen and Sutherland – with relish.  One can empathise with CA’s difficulty prioritising and bankrolling its cherished ‘proper cricket’ amid a new world pecking order, and the ruthless competition from other sports at home.  Of course McKenna and his team may yet prove the doubters wrong.

Whether the BBL can ever generate the buzz and ‘content’ which reignites passions, draws newbies, and ultimately demands the desired TV rights and private investment is a multi-million dollar question. Certainly the KFC Big Bash was already finger lickin’ good. The new fast food offering appears to have forsaken the secret herbs and spices for a cheesy vindaloo.

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2 Comments Add yours

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