Show about 'nothing' gets record ratings
They say there's a Seinfeld quote for every occasion. In analysing the first weekend of Australia's brand-new Big Bash League, one immediately springs to mind.
Chief protagonists George Costanza and Jerry Seinfeld are pitching their TV pilot to NBC executives. "What's the idea?" asks the chairman. "Nothing! The show is about nothing!" George responds emphatically.
"Why am I watching it?" asks the chairman. "Because it's on TV." George casually responds.
The first two matches of the Big Bash League yielded record television figures. Australian pay-subscription provider Foxtel recorded an average audience of 342,000, for Friday's night's opening encounter between the Sydney Sixers and the Brisbane Heat, and a total of 858,000, surpassing the 316,000 average of the 2010 Big Bash final between South Australia and Victoria.
It only got better on Saturday night. The match between the Melbourne Stars and the Sydney Thunder, a contest featuring Shane Warne, David Warner, and Chris Gayle, attracted the fourth-highest ever subscription television ratings in Australia. Foxtel's average viewers for the match reached 488,000. To an international audience this figure is paltry, but in context, it is extraordinary.
The only pay-TV programs to trump that figure are this year's Rugby World Cup semi-final between New Zealand and Australia (734,000), the World Cup final a week later between New Zealand and France (649,000), and the 2011 Super 15 Rugby final between the Queensland Reds and the Canterbury Crusaders (531,000).
"We're thrilled in those figures," Cricket Australia CEO James Sutherland told The Australian yesterday. "It certainly sets the tournament alight."
But the question is, what are we watching? Or more accurately, as the NBC chairman in Seinfeld put it, "Why are we watching?"
How can these domestic cricket matches, between teams no one has ever seen before, rate ahead of Test-match rugby, international cricket, international football, AFL, NRL, A-League, Super Rugby, and English Premier League, all of which are regularly shown on Foxtel's sports provider Fox Sports?
This tournament has been hastily put together. Players were only permitted to sign 12-month contracts with the eight franchises - such was the uncertainty of the competition, its set-up, and its future. Over a century of traditional state rivalries were binned for brand-new city-based franchises that had nicknames and colours with no geographical relevance whatsoever. The fans have not voted with their feet, as the opening weekend's crowds have been underwhelming.
"We're the first to admit we would have liked to see bigger crowds at the first two games," Sutherland said candidly. Just 12,285 were at the SCG Friday night, and 23,496 turned up to the MCG on Saturday.
Are people confused about who to support? Domestic cricket supporters have always been divided by their state of origin. There is a family of three living in Perth who exemplify this sentiment. The father, a Tasmanian, supports the Tigers. The mother, a South Australian, supports the Redbacks. Their six-year-old son supports Victoria, as the first five years of his life were spent in Melbourne before the family shifted across the Nullarbor.
Furthermore, on ESPNCricinfo's Page 2, Byron Howard explained his allegiance to the Sixers in a fan report of the opening match.
"I supported the Sydney Sixers, not because I have any kind of geographical sentimentality as a Sydney-sider, but because I could find a pink tee-shirt to wear to the ground more readily than the lurid, blue-green of the Brisbane Heat," Howard wrote.
"The crowd wasn't huge, but they were generally good-natured and noisy. Some of the attempts by promoters to drum up support in the stands fell embarrassingly flat when they didn't realise that most people had little passion for either team yet, this being their first outing."
So if fans are not enamoured with the teams, yet, how do we explain the television audience?
Is it the players? The obvious answer is the Warne-factor. Everything he touches turns to gold. Fox Sports have reportedly funded part of his deal with the Stars to perform in the BBL for a salary rumoured to be above seven figures. Fox Sports have got their value for money, with Warne appearing on nearly every second television advertisement in the lead-up, plus two exclusive appearances on their magazine program Inside Cricket.
His battle with cricket's newest superstar, David Warner, not to mention the sideshows of Chris Gayle and Liz Hurley, undoubtedly attracted a large part of Saturday's television audience. But given they were all performing in the flesh at Australia's largest venue, the MCG, this does not explain the crowd of 23,496. The Melbourne public is known for their attendances at sporting events, and Warne is their Pied Piper.
But the green-clad Stars versus the green-clad Thunder attracted nearly 5000 less than the Warne-less Victoria and Gayle-less New South Wales did in a Twenty20 at the same venue two seasons ago.
Even those who follow domestic cricket casually are confused about which players are playing for which franchise. One Cricinfo follower commented yesterday, "I thought I was imagining things earlier when I first checked the scores and saw Phil Jaques and Ricky Ponting opening the batting for Hobart - this BBL sure is a strange beast."
Strange beast indeed. George Bailey and Cameron White, two Sheffield Shield winning captains for Tasmania and Victoria, are playing together at the Melbourne Stars alongside Western Australia's vice-captain Adam Voges. No doubt plenty of fans were perplexed on Friday night when Dan Christian, New South Wales born and raised, a cult-figure in Adelaide for exploits with South Australia that have got him to the Australian Test squad, walked out onto the SCG representing the Brisbane Heat. One wonders how Tasmanian-born Travis Birt must have felt as he was booed to the wicket at the WACA wearing a Hobart Hurricanes uniform, having been cheered making the same walk for the Western Warriors eight days earlier. Simon Katich left the WACA in acrimonious circumstances in 2002, since becoming synonymous with all things NSW, yet he is not playing for either Sydney franchise, but rather the Perth Scorchers.
So is it the standard of cricket that is attracting the television audiences? The first four matches have been fairly one-sided. Ironically, the three sides that have played the most cricket together were the three most convincing victors in round one. The Sixers are predominantly a NSW unit, the Strikers are simply the Redbacks in blue, and the Hurricanes are Tasmania with Jaques replacing Bailey. David Warner's innings for Thunder was extraordinary, the rest in the match were all-but props in the one-man stage show.
Twenty20 has been billed as a young man's game, and one to showcase the future stars, yet it's been the veterans, save Warner, who have proved there is no substitute for experience.
And as far as substance goes, one high-ranking observer at the WACA felt the match was entirely without merit, given the Man-of-the-Match (Ben Hilfenhaus) took two wickets and the top-score was 40, few could argue.
So why are we watching? Because there's nothing else on? There is no Australian team playing to observe, dissect, critique until Boxing Day. The A-League, who would give anything for the kind of crowd figures Sutherland bemoaned, is struggling to capitalise on the hype of its major recruits. The Australian Open tennis is still over a month away.
Which takes us back to Seinfeld. In the plot, Jerry and George's pilot is created, but the show is cancelled, as the concept is deemed too ridiculous to be successful. Clearly a self-deprecating dig from Seinfeld's creators at how absurd it was that their show about nothing had become one of the most watched of all-time.
Who knows how the BBL will turn out. It's impossible to judge on just one round of fixtures. But if the ratings are anything to go by, cricket's "show about nothing" could be a massive hit.