Big Bash looks beyond cricket ahead of 10th birthday
Cricket Australia looking to the NBA, the EPL and even Ed Sheeran for inspiration as the T20 competition approaches a milestone season
25 March 2020, 12:12 PM AEST
As planning continues for the KFC BBL's tenth season, Cricket Australia is looking beyond recent innovations in major sports leagues around the world and eyeing the entertainment industry for ideas on how to deliver a more compelling fan experience.
A review of this summer's expanded men's Big Bash has been conducted by David Barham, Channel Seven's former head of cricket who also oversaw Network Ten's hugely successful coverage of the competition in its fledgling years, and is due for completion this month.
A preliminary presentation on its findings was made to CA executives earlier this month.
Among the key talking points was the impact the expanded playing schedule – increased to 61 matches, with a revamped finals structure last season – had upon average attendances, particularly for matches staged when schools reconvened after summer holidays in February.
Despite the increased fragmentation of the media market that is seen as one reason for the headline decline (around five per cent) for total television viewership year-on-year, the BBL continues to dominate its prime-time broadcast timeslot.
It also continues to draw significant crowds, and recorded attendances in excess of one million for the fifth consecutive summer even though wet weather and other factors (like smoke from bushfires) meant 16 per cent of BBL|09 matches were interrupted or abandoned.
That compares to an average of two per cent of matches per season that were similarly impacted across the previous eight BBL seasons.
The extended season also brought calls from many players, as expressed in a survey undertaken by the Australian Cricketers' Association, for the number of BBL matches to be reduced.
But CA Chief Executive Kevin Roberts told cricket.com.au that rather than focus on the number of qualifying games played during the season – which for the men's competition is now the same as the Rebel Women's BBL and the Indian Premier League – planning for BBL|10 will largely centre on innovations aimed at fans.
"We've obviously got a commitment with broadcasters and others to maintaining the current number of matches," Roberts said.
"One of the challenges we faced this season was, by compressing the increased number of matches into the window we had, staging more afternoon matches and we also had more regional matches than before.
"While that's great for taking the game to people in the regions, there's an obvious trade-off with viewership and attendances.
"So it's a bigger discussion than the number of matches. Certainly the BBL is the envy of sports all over the world.
"It has the highest average viewership of any sports league in Australia, and it's about to turn ten so it's time for us to keep evolving and driving innovations.
"That's the key focus, driving the next wave of BBL growth in the future."
The concerns raised by players was reflected by the ACA survey of its members, in which they were asked whether or not the BBL season was too long.
Around 70 per cent of the Australia-based BBL players answered that it was, on the understanding that any reduction in the number of games would bring with it a smaller pay packet.
When the number of qualifying matches was increased (in BBL|08) to 14 per team, additional money was made available in each club's salary cap in line with the players' Memorandum of Understanding with CA.
ACA Chief Executive Officer Alistair Nicholson noted that if the total number of games was reduced, those additional funds would no longer be available which would effectively mean players taking a pay cut.
"I don't think that's necessarily on the table," Nicholson said.
"I don't think it will go back down from 14 games to 12, but players have been consistent in their belief that the season is too long and Cricket Australia know that.
"We've been vocal about that the last few years. The point is the players are asking 'what's the best shape of this tournament?'
"And if the length does need to be reduced, the players are not necessarily wanting to be the barrier to that."
In addition to receiving the recommendations in the report compiled by Barham, who pioneered a number of changes in both format and delivery of cricket broadcasts when overseeing Ten's coverage, CA is examining how fans engage with other large-scale events worldwide.
And given the BBL and WBBL are pitched unashamedly at younger audiences and families, those studies will transcend sport and explore how people are choosing to interact with musicians and other forms of stadium entertainment.
Roberts cited the example of English singer-songwriter (and avowed cricket fan) Ed Sheeran who last year completed the highest-grossing music tour of all time, selling out huge venues with what was essentially a pub show – a single performer on stage accompanied only by a loop pedal and an assortment of guitars.
While he's not comparing a troubadour to T20 cricket, Roberts believes the innovations that will enhance the appeal of the BBL – and thereby broaden cricket's appeal to families and communities – should not be confined by existing preconceptions of at-ground sports experiences.
"It's fascinating to watch the way that someone like Ed Sheeran goes about it compared to the more traditional concert experience," Roberts said.
"So there's a lot to learn from everywhere.
"In terms of fan engagement, the NBA (America's professional men's basketball competition) is one of the benchmarks around the world.
"And as a national league that's maximised its presence globally, it's hard to go past (English football's) Premier League.
"But I think there's also a lot to learn from e-sports (video games), as well as from the entertainment industry.
"We've got our eyes and ears open, and we're curious to learn and keen to grow our sport."
One of the most striking innovations in the coverage of cricket over recent years has been the increased access broadcasters have gained to players and coaches during match time, via live coverage and in production of projects such 'The Test' currently screening on Amazon Prime.
And while most of that content is delivered to audiences viewing or listening to games remotely, CA will explore means by which fans in the crowd might also better experience being 'taken on to the field' by advances in technology and access.
"It's really time for that next wave of innovation," Roberts said.
"Clearly, the sports, the entertainers and the athletes who tend to develop the highest profiles around the world are those who really give an insight into who they are as human beings.
"It's the ones who are able and willing to explain what drives them, what makes them approach their sport the way they do, and what they stand for as a person.
"More and more, it's getting behind the helmet to understand the athlete as an individual.
"So we want to continue looking at how we can evolve that experience for viewers, and for the fans who attend matches as well."