Just as they had for the first edition of the tournament in 2011, the Sydney Sixers lifted the Big Bash League’s neon-lit trophy as champions, at the end of a final that was rain-truncated but near miraculous for having happened at all.
The trophy, and the identities of some of the Sixers holding it up – Steven Smith and Moises Henriques to name two – were just about the only unchanged thing about the victory scene, as the BBL has changed utterly from that first start-up event broadcast exclusively by Fox Sports as Cricket Australia eagerly sought a free-to-air buyer for domestic T20 cricket. Up to that time, it had been a product that not even Kerry Packer wanted, palming it off in his final broadcast rights deal in 2005.
Fifteen years later, at 61 matches with an expanded finals series, this was the biggest BBL yet, maintaining a trend of competition growth that has been continued by Cricket Australia and its broadcast partners. This despite the fact that two of its key health indicators, broadcast audiences and attendances at the grounds, have been showing signs that the league’s extension is wearing thin. At the very least, it is not pulling in the sorts of big event audiences that characterised its supposed “peak” years in 2015-16 and 2016-17.
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Why is this the case? CA and its broadcasters are trying to figure things out for themselves, having called in former TV executive Dave Barham to conduct a review of the tournament. Barham had been instrumental in Ten’s award-winning coverage between 2013 and 2018, before briefly helming Seven’s new cricket department and then exiting for personal reasons ahead of the 2018-19 season. In 2018 he had reckoned that better cross-promotion of the BBL on international cricket and vice versa would help, as would better performances from the teams in the major markets of Sydney and Melbourne. The Sixers and the Stars held up their ends of the bargain this season.
Those who have chosen to throw rocks at the BBL have generally picked up the argument that it is too long and cumbersome, there are not enough star players, and the tournament’s place amid the rhythms of the Australian season have been disrupted. First by the aftermath of the Newlands scandal last summer and then by the combination of a low drawing international season this time and the absence of the Australian side due to a tour of India at the height of the January school holidays.
What these arguments miss, perhaps, are a longer story of growth from the 20-game, state-based Big Bash that began in 2005, and from that of a tiny domestic cricket broadcast product at the same time, to the most sought-after summer broadcast property in Australian sport as of 2017.
Back then, the BBL was played over 35 matches, cost the Ten Network in the region of A$20 million a season to air exclusively in Australia, and pulled in an average national broadcast audience of more than one million viewers per fixture. After the 2017 peak, things began to trend down slightly in terms of crowds and broadcast audiences in 2017-18, the last season in which Ten held the rights, after an increase from 35 to 43 matches.
When the new broadcast deal in 2018 wrenched the BBL away from Ten – a turn of events that still sticks in the craw of many at or associated with the network – it was no longer just a piece of fan-finding R&D for CA, but a commodity worth as much to Seven and Fox as the international season itself, for so long the bread and butter of cricket rights deals in Australia. So from A$20 million a season for 43 matches, the BBL’s value grew to effectively A$100 million a season for the addition of only 16 more games, before an extra two finals were tacked on this year.
As CA’s head of commercial, Steph Beltrame, put it recently to SEN Radio: “T20 cricket already existed and the Big Bash at that time was really like a start-up. [In 2013] the description through media commentary was that Channel Ten had overpaid for this product. By the end of it after they had worked incredibly hard with us to build the product, I think the description was that they had a bargain.”
Another $500 million is a lot of extra value wrought from a domestic tournament that, prior to 2013, did not really have its own broadcast deal, as it simply fell under the umbrella of Fox’s small-time contract with CA to air domestic matches played between the states. CA has, to its credit, ploughed much of this extra cash into the game’s community levels, the better to get club cricket growing again after a lull of several years, and also to capitalise on the interest of children and families that the BBL had been devised to attract in the first place.
At the same time it has used money to help build the WBBL, now sitting happily in its own window at the front end of the season. That tournament is a good example of how the cricket landscape has been utterly changed by the BBL, though within the parameters first devised by CA when the governing body stopped short of allowing privately-owned clubs. A degree of central control, and balance within the context of the whole cricket season, has been maintained, meaning international cricket is still seen as the pinnacle for players, the Sheffield Shield and domestic limited-overs tournaments still have their – albeit fringe-dwelling – place, and the BBL is very seldom if ever set up to clash with either.
For the players, coaches and clubs there is one imbalance about the balancing act: salaries for participants in the BBL bear absolutely no relationship to the value of the rights deal, unless they are overseas or marquee players fortunate enough to benefit from bundled deals with marketing and broadcast elements. Aside from the likes of Shane Warne, Kevin Pietersen and this season AB de Villiers, most players have given their time at remarkably good value for CA, something reflected in how it has become harder to attract overseas players to the longer event.
That pressure has left broadcasters decrying the lack of “big names” populating the tournament, although it was seen with de Villiers or Chris Gayle at the Sydney Thunder before him, that no player, regardless of how talented he is, can overcome the handicaps of a squad that is otherwise poorly constructed or dimly led. Perhaps the area for most consideration as far as high profile players is concerned is how to bring the likes of David Warner, Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins back into the fold for the pointy end of the tournament.
Those sorts of names, already contracted to CA, would help bring the BBL a little more in the way of star power to match the brief but bright lights of the Australian Open tennis, which serves as cricket’s only genuine summer competition for broadcast audiences during the last two weeks of each January. And although Open tennis enjoyed several moments of television ubiquity around the runs of Nick Kyrgios, Ash Barty and Roger Federer, its average of around 726,000 viewers over two weeks was still outstripped by the BBL’s 780,000 over closer to seven weeks.
Elsewhere, the contest for summer audiences isn’t one. Soccer’s A-League has been particularly hurt by comparison. Average A-League audiences have hovered for more than a decade at somewhere between 50-75,000 viewers nationally on subscription services, with free-to-air peaks like the average 358,000 who watched the 2014 competition final. The BBL’s broadcast audience, even without the still rubbery figures of the streaming service Kayo places it comfortably ahead of average audiences recorded for the major winter NRL and AFL competitions.
So there is plenty to suggest that the gentle decline of the BBL’s audiences in recent years is not, as the academic and social commentator Waleed Aly put it on ABC debate show Offsiders, “the BBL falling on its face”. Instead there is cause to ponder how the BBL fits into the season, whether it should be played as a long tournament or a short, sharp league, and how much the drop off in crowds and audiences this season was influenced, like the rest of the country, by its extreme weather. From 2011 to 2019, the BBL had only three abandoned matches in total, and nine affected by rain to the extent that they required DLS. This season alone there have been two abandonments, and no fewer than eight fixtures requiring DLS, including the final.
That final, incidentally, recorded an average national broadcast audience of 919,000 for a match that looked so unlikely that there were even some first edition newspapers that carried columns indicating it had been abandoned. This after the Thursday night fixture between the Stars and the Thunder at the MCG drew an average of 1.048 million viewers, only the fourth match of the competition to crack the one million mark. These matches took place after a week’s gap to the previous finals, indicating that after weeks of at least one game a day and often more, the appetite had returned.
It is worth pondering how much less CA would have sold the BBL for had it retained the 35-game length that seemed to hit the sweet spot five years ago. The subsequent extension in games has meant that quite stable numbers of attendees and broadcast viewers are spread more thinly. Precious few respondents to any CA survey about what fans want from the BBL in 2020-21 would find themselves answering “more”.
There is much that has changed in the decade since that first final, but the thrill of the BBL as an event remains. What CA and its broadcasters should actively discuss is whether the bankable audiences over seven weeks of a 61-game season are going to be as thrilled, engaged and deeply involved as those who salivated over 35. That, after all, is why the BBL began.