Review of a Second Year of the Big Bash League

A year ago, I gave my impressions for iSportconnect of the first year of Australian cricket’s franchise-based Twenty20 competition the Big Bash League. With the second season completed, won by the Brisbane Heat, I felt it time to revisit the tournament’s progress.

BBL|02 ( to use the second year’s official abbreviation) has seen a high standard of Twenty20 cricket, with wide television exposure across India and the UK. Innovations with helmet cameras and glowing stumps have added to the entertainment value, and some people have told me that they find it more fun to watch than the IPL.

But with Cricket Australia reported to be losing more than ten million dollars on each of the first two seasons, they would have expected to see growth in both attendances and television viewership. In both areas, BBL|02 has not delivered.

There are no signs of panic from CA yet, as they see the BBL as a long-term investment. However, plans to expand the league beyond its initial eight-team structure are disappearing further into the future. Of more immediate concern will be the need to sell the television rights to the BBL at the best price this year with new contracts for broadcast of Australian cricket currently being negotiated.

Average attendance per game for the 35-match BBL|02 was 14195. Not only is this lower than the first season’s 17749 (over 31 matches), it is lower than the final season of the state-based Big Bash Trophy (18152 over seventeen games). This can be partly attributed to reduced capacities at Adelaide Oval and Sydney Cricket Ground during reconstruction.

Crowds in Perth, Hobart, Adelaide and Brisbane are all very good in relation to stadium capacity, but the two-team rivalries in Sydney and Melbourne have mixed fortunes. The all-Melbourne Stars v Renegades games were two of the three best-attended of the season, with their clash at the MCG attracting the single largest recorded crowd (46581) in the history of Australian domestic cricket. Both teams performed well on the field until losing their respective semi-finals.

In Sydney, poor attendances reflected poor performances by both the Sixers and Thunder, the latter failing to win a game all season. Their second derby of the competition attracted just over 20000 spectators, and the Thunder home match against Adelaide on the last Thursday shopping night before Christmas drew BBL|02’s lowest crowd of 4101.

Much criticism of the Sydney Thunder highlights poor use of the million-dollar salary cap over the last two seasons. The failure of both Sydney franchises this year, however, is part of a wider problem in the running of cricket in the state which has seen in recent weeks the resignation of both the chairman and CEO of the franchises’ owner, Cricket New South Wales. The damage to the brand of, in particular, the Sydney Thunder may be sufficient to undermine the long-term viability of a two-team rivalry within Sydney.

On the other hand, the rivalry in Melbourne between the Stars and the Renegades may look healthier, but will be put to the test next year with Shane Warne unlikely to return to the Stars. Warne was paid a special fee by Cricket Australia outside the BBL salary cap for his ability to market the game, but at the age of 43 failed to succeed on the field in BBL|02, and attracted controversy through on-field confrontations and a bizarre relinquishing of the captaincy in the semi-final.

Scheduling of Big Bash League matches will continue to be a problem. Cricket Australia is keen to maximise the peak holiday period from Christmas to mid-January for BBL, yet wants to play more games, all televised live. Attendances and viewing figures were substantially lower before Christmas than after, and with the possibility of a free-to-air TV network buying into the BBL market in the next rights deal, there may be pressure to arrange matches over a wider range of the season. Friday nights in October and November, following the end of the NRL and AFL seasons, would be an obvious slot for scheduling Twenty20 cricket. The problem here lies with reassembling franchise teams at different times throughout the season, including the flying in and flying out of international stars.

My personal view is that Cricket Australia erred in shifting from a state-based competition to the franchise-based Big Bash League. Trends in 2010 and 2011 were showing that interest in Twenty20 cricket was reaching a mature level, with solid attendances. Cricket Australia decided that the way to capitalise on the old Big Bash Trophy’s progress was to shift to a model that copied elements of both the Indian Premier League and soccer’s A-League when neither was necessary.

CA faces the challenge of selling BBL television rights at a time when the competition is, in its largest potential market of Sydney, at a low ebb. The risk is that failure of the BBL may put CA so heavily in debt that they will have no option but to sell the franchises to private investors in future years to remain afloat.

(This article originally appeared at iSportconnect.)

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