Further expansion of the KFC Big Bash League that is seeking an increased presence in regional centres and the potential positioning of the women's game as a gateway to the international summer are focuses of a five-year strategy unveiled by Cricket Australia on Thursday.
The strategy, that was released in Melbourne and encompasses the period covered by the recently signed MOU between CA and the nation's best players, identified the T20 format and women's cricket as well as an increased commitment to grassroots programs and infrastructure as central pillars.
Currently, the Rebel Women's BBL runs largely in parallel with the men's competition through December and January, but CA is looking at potentially shifting the WBBL to an October-November window to maximise its exposure and autonomous identity.
CA Chief Executive James Sutherland believes such a move would enable the WBBL to establish a standalone presence in the prime time evening broadcast market and also provide cricket with a valuable bridge product spanning the period between the cessation of Australia's football codes and the beginning of the international summer.
Currently, October is the domain of the JLT One-Day Cup which is played as daytime fixtures, and Sutherland claims the newly signed MOU that delivers significant pay increases for women's players offers greater scheduling flexibility for the women's game.
"The whole environment changes a little bit as our women become more professional as we have traditionally tried to schedule matches over the weekend to allow our women to keep doing the other things that they do with their lives," Sutherland told cricket.com.au yesterday.
"But as we get more professional we'll have more flexibility in terms of programming.
"We feel that the exposure that Women's Big Bash League is a little underdone compared to what it deserves, and that's partly because it's played in the shadow of not only the men's BBL but men's international cricket – all these things going on at the same time.
"It's hard for it to justify its own airtime, so we see it as an opportunity to expand and grow the public interest in and awareness of the Women's Big Bash League.
"We also note that October-November period – at least here in Australia – leading into the start of what's traditionally a Test series in late November is a pretty quiet time in Australian sport and certainly an opportunity for the WBBL to capture some of its own space."
The coming summer also heralds the first major expansion of the men's BBL competition since its inaugural season in 2011, with 2017-18 to host 43 matches – an addition of eight games – and stretch from December through to early February.
Sutherland confirmed that the next projected expansion of the BBL is to encompass a full home and away season for the eight franchises – a total of 59 matches including three finals – which he acknowledges will likely require an even longer season, possibly finishing even later in February.
He said that CA currently sees no need to expand the BBL beyond eight teams, but noted that there was a strong commitment to take the game into regional centres in conjunction with state associations and the competitions key partners, including broadcasters.
The coming BBL season will feature matches at two new regional venues, with Launceston and Geelong to host their first matches of the domestic competition.
In addition, the Melbourne Stars and Sydney Thunder announced this week they would return to Albury on the Victoria-New South Wales border for pre-tournament men's and WBBL fixtures, raising the possibility of similar 'border games' in centres such as South Australia's Mount Gambier.
"We've got an eye to the future and the potential for expansion but our on-the-record position is we have always felt that we'll be increasing the number of games before we increase the number of teams," Sutherland said of the domestic T20 competitions.
"That still stands, nothing has changed there.
"But it's an exciting opportunity to explore new markets and to provide cricket fans in those regional areas with valuable cricket content that they might not have previously been able to see or get to.
"That will be a great new development for this season and I know there are already plans for next season to do things.
"There's no doubt that in those major regional centres there's a real appetite for top-level cricket, and we haven't even touched on some of those major centres in northern Queensland that would be ripe for it as well."
Despite the likelihood of a further expanded BBL season extending increasingly beyond its traditional (and lucrative) school holiday season, Sutherland indicated that CA had no plans to follow the English T20 Blast model and introduce a 'finals day' format.
As shown by the recently concluded UK competition, England fans have embraced the season-ending event held at Edgbaston each year at which the competition's semi-finals and final are squeezed into a single day's action.
However, the travel logistics of that much smaller island make that a more feasible for fans of the competing teams, and while Sutherland acknowledges the concept might appeal to an Australian venue such as the MCG there are no plans to alter the current structure of three standalone BBL finals.
"It's certainly something we've explored along the way and talked about," Sutherland said of the 'finals day' concept.
"I think venues would certainly be attracted to the idea and I think it would work, but whether it's the way we want to culminate our season is another matter and our clubs and state associations venues and broadcasters would all have views on that.
"We've so far resisted that even though the ECB have been doing that successfully for years, we've chosen to have a slower final week of the tournament with a couple of semi-finals on different nights and then the final later on.
"That's what we're planning in the foreseeable future.
"If we expand (the BBL) any further then there's all sorts of things to look at – we can start a bit earlier, we can finish a little bit later, we could even look at a couple of windows, all those things and a combination of those are being contemplated.
"I would say it's likely it will finish a tiny bit later."
While the strategy outlined today included major events such as the coming summer's Ashes campaign and the landmark ICC World T20 tournament in 2020 – the first time the men's and women's events have been staged separately – the focus was strongly upon cricket's health and wellbeing at domestic level.
"In particular, we will be placing the emphasis on making cricket the leading sport for women and girls, and delivering the best participation experiences to grow junior cricket," Sutherland said.
"We do not underestimate the challenges that are inherent in those strategic themes.
"Our recent facilities audit – the first complete survey by any sport of all its facilities around the country – found that just 20 per cent have changing rooms that are suitable for women and girls.
"It also told us that too many cricket clubs do not have enough practice facilities, and that many new communities in our major cities have no sporting facilities at all.
"It is hard for any sport to look for growth if the basics aren't right, and this strategy shows that cricket is determined to act as one in meeting that challenge.
"We don't do this for our own sake – all of us believe that the Australia will be healthier and stronger if sport, and particularly a wonderful team game like cricket, is at the heart of its communities."
Sutherland will next week take part in cricket activities – including the new format introduced for junior players as well as with young All Abilities and Indigenous players – in every Australian state and territory to help spread awareness and appreciation of National Play Cricket Week.
"During Play Cricket Week, I'll be trying out a whole range of cricket playing activities around the country," Sutherland said.
"I'll pull on board shorts for a session of beach cricket on the Gold Coast in Queensland, I'll face the bowling with a giant cricket bat in Melbourne to remember what it feels like to be a little kid again – and to show why we have introduced new junior formats, to make the game easier and more fun for children.
"And I'll play alongside the All Abilities League in Perth, one of the most inspiring and humbling experiences anyone can enjoy.
"Most of all, I'm really looking forward to visiting all our eight states and territories to hear stories from people who love cricket – and can't wait for the season to begin."
Sutherland's Play Cricket Week national tour
September 10 North Hobart Cricket Club, 10:30–11:30am; showcasing club cricket community impact
September 11 Edinburgh Cricket Club, North Fitzroy, 9-10am; showcasing new Junior formats. Adelaide High School, West Terrace, 2-4pm; showcasing girls cricket leagues
September 12 Yirara College, Alice Springs, 2-4pm; showcasing Indigenous cricket
September 13 Murdoch University Sports Ground, Perth, 5-6pm; showcasing all-abilities cricket
September 14 Surfers Paradise, Queensland, 3.30-5.30pm; showcasing beach cricket
September 15 Cockatoo Island, Sydney Harbour, 8.30-11am; launching MILO in2CRICKET and MILO T20 Blast junior programs. Action Indoor Sports, Kambah, Canberra, 3-4pm; showcasing Indoor Cricket
To sign up to play cricket this season visit playcricket.com.au
Follow Sutherland's journey on the Cricket Australia Facebook Page