Empty stands in BBL|11 means changes need to be made ahead of BBL|12. Image: cricket.com.au

After the Perth Scorchers were crowned BBL champions for a fourth time last night, after an underwhelming campaign, how can the BBL reinvent itself into a big competition once again?

On the 2nd of January, 2016, the Big Bash League well and truly landed on its feet.

An Australian domestic cricket record crowd of 80,000 fans poured into the MCG on a warm summer’s night to watch the Melbourne Stars beat the Melbourne Renegades by seven wickets.

Two nights earlier, Travis Head created his own fireworks in front of a sold-out Adelaide Oval on New Year’s Eve, hitting three consecutive sixes to take his Strikers to a stunning final over victory against the Sydney Sixers.

Only six years on, the BBL’s version of the Melbourne Derby attracted just 21,562 fans while the annual New Year’s Eve fixture at Adelaide Oval brought a crowd of 10,000.

Crowd figures have been just as dire throughout the country in BBL|11 and while the pandemic can be held responsible for some of the competition’s troubles, signs of its deterioration came long before the coronavirus arrived on Australian shores.

Big Bash League chief Alistair Dobson should not be overly concerned about the financial security of the competition, given BBL|10 was the most-watched season since its inception in 2011.

Though for a country regarded as one of the most passionate sports nations in the world, BBL|11’s measly crowd figures suggest the novelty of the competition is wearing off for many.

If Dobson needs the inspiration to bring fans back to the stands, he only needs to look to the success of England’s inaugural ‘The Hundred’ competition in 2021, which managed to attract an astonishing 55% of ticket holders attending their first game of cricket.

As talkback radio and office break rooms alike discuss where they think the BBL has come unstuck in the last few seasons, Dobson and the Cricket Australia board will no doubt be scratching their heads as to how its golden goose became so overcooked.

With just over two years remaining on its mega-broadcast rights deal that topped $1 billion in 2018, time is of the essence for Cricket Australia to save its crown jewel. 

The Big Bash needs improvement in a variety of areas and should make every effort to rebuild its brand.

Through smarter scheduling and drawing inspiration from other successful T20 competitions around the world, the BBL can make significant strides to return to its former glory.

1. BBL Needs Australia’s Best:

From BBL01, CA has been unperturbed by the unavailability of Australia’s top cricketers, building its profile off the likes of local limited-overs stalwarts including Glenn Maxwell, Chris Lynn, and D’Arcy Short.

International stars have helped this cause, with the BBL also providing a platform for offshore talent to shine and turn themselves into household names, a la Rashid Khan, Jofra Archer, and Haris Rauf.

While this recipe has seen the BBL retain high levels of popularity for the best part of a decade, calls continue to grow to adapt the summer schedule to accommodate the nation’s best and capitalise on the success of Australia’s title-winning campaign in the 2021 T20 World Cup.

Australia’s hosting of this year’s edition of the T20 World Cup will create further headaches for the BBL’s place in the 2022/23 Summer but may provide exactly the intel Cricket Australia needs to bring the tournament to a new timeslot. One that would either be completed in time for each Summer’s Test series and give the opportunity to home-grown stars to compete or commence after the final Test of the summer.

Criticism of Cricket Australia’s decision to prevent Steve Smith from competing for the Sydney Sixers in the BBL|11 Finals following the cancellation of the New Zealand ODI series should only re-enforce the need for fans to witness Australia’s best in the competition.

2. Less Is More:

A reduction in tournament fixtures should be another strong consideration for Cricket Australia as it approaches re-negotiations on its broadcast rights deal that expires at the conclusion of the 2023/24 Summer.

Players both local and international have commented and expressed their frustration over the length of the BBL over recent years since it expanded to a full home and away season.

At the peak of its powers, a typical BBL season featured just 32 regular season fixtures, one game against each opponent, and the inclusion of a further round to accommodate Melbourne and Sydney’s multiple sides to play two ‘derbies’ and rivalry games.  

Many overseas players who used to come out for the full tournament are now only making themselves available for a short-term BBL contract, prioritising riches in other domestic leagues around the world for the bigger paycheques over a shorter period of time.

Others, including local players, have decided to forego the BBL entirely.

Creating a more viable fixture to allow Australia’s own stars in Pat Cummins, David Warner, Steven Smith, and Marnus Labuschagne to play a full season of BBL cricket might be the compromise CA needs to ensure its broadcast rights deal retains its current value, albeit with fewer fixtures.

Additionally, 32 fixtures plus finals would assist a free-to-air provider in broadcasting every game, providing all Australians with consistently free coverage, reminiscent of Channel 10’s success between 2013-2017.

Marnus Labuschagne (left) and Steve Smith (right) bring crowds to the BBL. Image: cricket.com.au

3. Promote Through Draft:

The BBL has by no means sat on its heels waiting for fans to return to the stands in recent years, employing an array of rule changes and quirky features to make the competition more appealing and exciting.

From bat flips replacing coin tosses, to power surges and X-factor players, Cricket Australia has attempted to innovate and stay ahead of the game and bring more excitement in phases of the 20-over format that had become too tactical and boring.

This creativity has been met with minimal reward and the BBL must now look to succeeding competitions around the world for inspiration as to how it can bring excitement back to TV screens as well as the stands.

Promotion of the competition in its lead-up is often lacklustre, and Cricket Australia could do worse than introduce an IPL-style draft in the weeks prior to the competition to create intrigue about which franchise the league’s best players may land on.

News of the IPL draft creates headlines globally, and the ability to promote player movements and salary figures would give the competition the publicity it needs to attract new fans and bring back loyalty to BBL franchises and their stars.

Cricket Australia had planned to implement a BBL international player draft ahead of BBL|10 with COVID thwarting any major plans of the draft going ahead.

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4. New Timeslot, More Stars:

Arguably the biggest impact on the competition felt from COVID-19 has been the lack of notable international signings.

On top of this, stars are continually forced into leaving midway through the competition, or just prior to the finals series due to a host of national commitments or conflicting domestic T20 fixtures.

At the forefront of this issue is the need for players to commit to a minimum 14-game season and while the IPL has adopted and succeeded with a season of this length, the monetary reward for internationals competing in the IPL as opposed to the BBL, is incomparable. 

With a seemingly non-stop global cricket schedule that continues to grow in the total number of matches, the mid-October to late-November time period is regarded as one of the quietest of the year, both domestically and internationally, and serves as the ideal time for Cricket Australia to roll out as many international stars as it can find. 

5. Indian stars In The BBL At Any Cost:

The most sought-after international stars in T20 competitions around the world continue to be barred from competing in any replica-IPL tournament.

Pursuing a resolution with the Board of Control for Cricket in India to bring Indian stars to Australia’s shores for the BBL may be exactly what CA needs to unlock a bevy of Indian fans living in Australia, many of whom flock to stadiums in their droves when the Indian National team have toured in past decades. 

The BCCI will likely have an asking price in redacting this clause from its player’s contracts and CA would likely be the only cricketing body in the world to afford it, as well as have the need for Indian players to re-ignite its competition.

After Indian superstars in Smriti Mandhana, Jemimah Rodriges, Harmanpreet Kaur, Poonam Yadav and many more lit up the WBBL this season and gave it a unique touch of Indian flavour, one can only imagine what the likes of Virat Kohli, Shikhar Dhawan, and Rishabh Pant could achieve in bringing crowds en mass back to the BBL.

A big-ticket item like Virat Kohli would help the BBL enter its next phase of success. Image: cricket.com.au

6. BBL and WBBL to Succeed as One:

Off the back of a successful inaugural season for the UK’s newest cricket innovation, ‘The Hundred’, the significance of the WBBL within the Australian Summer should be re-considered.

One of the key features of The Hundred was the coordination of the men’s competition with the women’s, with the majority of fixtures being played on the same day, at the same venue with back-to-back time slots. 

The highest global attendance for a women’s cricket event ensued, totaling over 267,000 fans across 32 matches, a figure former England captain Charlotte Edwards described as evidence of the tournament “single-handedly chang[ing] women’s cricket in [England]”.

Of these fans, over 20% were women, demonstrating the ability for this innovation to change the demographic of cricket crowds in Australia.

The Women’s T20 World Cup Final crowd of 86,000 less than two years ago should give CA the confidence it needs to draw stronger crowds to female cricket and turn breakout stars such as Tahlia McGrath into household names.

The BBL has played a significant role in returning cricket to relevancy in Australia throughout the last 11 years, but league chiefs and Cricket Australia must continually look to adapt, and poor crowd numbers in BBL|11 should create a sense of urgency at the top.

Rather than changing the game itself, as has been the solution undertaken in years past, consideration must be given to factors that will not only re-invigorate the competition for its existing fans but most effectively draw new fans to the stands.

Though it has never been easier to consume sport from home, the importance of crowds will continue to be the key measure of popularity when it comes to sport and Cricket Australia will want to prove its product to broadcast partners ahead of its next negotiation period.

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