Inventing the T20 future
"The future cannot be predicted," wrote the inventor of holography, Dennis Gabor, in 1963, "but futures can be invented." Gabor's words would no doubt resonate with Cricket Australia. When the Australian board invented the Big Bash League in the summer or 2010-11, they invented the future of cricket in Australia.
It is apposite of the age that the origins of the future of Australian cricket lie in the meeting of 180 stakeholders who convened in August 2010 at the inaugural Australian Cricket Conference. The summit, held over five days in Aitken Hill Conference Centre in Melbourne, saw extensive market research presented to those in attendance and has since been referred to by those at CA as a "wake-up call."
The research found that cricket's popularity amongst teenage demographics was plummeting. BBL general manager, Anthony Everard recalls that "cricket faced losing a generation of fans unless something was done," and it was within the T20 format that CA felt the answer lay. "It's become pretty clear to us," said CA's operations manager Mike McKenna at the time, "that T20 is the vehicle by which we were going to get females and kids interested in the game ... it's the product they prefer and it's the one that's going to get us into a new space." Not only were there concerns surrounding the game's popularity amongst young people, but also more generally with a 24% decrease in television audiences over the preceding decade and a huge over-reliance on broadcasting revenue from the sub-continent and particularly India.
In 2010 Australian cricket already had its own domestic T20 tournament, the KFC Big Bash, which was played by the six existing state teams. The Big Bash produced a high standard of cricket and was typically competitive but it had broken down very few barriers into new demographics of fans. To compound problems, as Graham Dixon, then Queensland's chief executive, recalled, "despite a lot of people going to the Big Bash in 2009-10, the bottom-line is that it still ran at a loss for the state associations." Australia's domestic T20 tournament wasn't growing the sport and it was losing the sport money at a time when it needed to do the opposite.
"It's pretty obvious to us that people aren't as passionate about state cricket, and state competitions generally as they are about club competitions," said McKenna in 2010. This was a seminal realisation, one perhaps informed by the AFL backgrounds of CA's most influential men, CEO James Sutherland (former finance manager at Carlton Football Club) and McKenna (former general manager of Essendon Football Club), but a seminal one all the same. The six state associations represented over 100 years of history and were part of the fabric of the sport in the country, but they were institutions seen to be out of touch with modern inclinations and were anti-brands as much as they were brands.
"In order to to be able to provide a product to appeal to different audience than we currently have, we need to have something different," said McKenna. "Having different teams, new brands, the ability to basically start again and target a different audience, is really important."
"To reach kids," McKenna said, "we need cricket that doesn't look the the cricket they know."
There is little doubt that CA were heavily influenced by the success of the Indian Premier League. Indeed, McKenna acknowledges that the IPL was "one of the references for planning the BBL," while Sutherland admitted that there was "a lot to be learnt from the IPL." However, CA were in one regard ahead of the BCCI and the IPL. As early as 2005, prior to the IPL even existing as a concept, CA struck up talks with New Zealand Cricket and Cricket South Africa about forming a "Southern Premier League," involving teams from all three nations based loosely on Super Rugby. These plans even progressed far enough for the sports management company IMG, who were later heavily involved in the IPL, to have a temporary desk set up at Cricket Australia's offices in Jolimont. The idea for the SPL was widely reported as news in 2008 following the enormous success of the IPL, but in the end, the concept was put on hold "indefinitely."
One aspect of the IPL that did find its way into the origins of the BBL was that of private ownership of teams. In October 2010 it was planned that 33% stakes in the new BBL teams would be sold, and following a report by the research firm LEK that predicted teams could command private investment of between A$25 million and $40 million, by March 2011 CA planned to sell 49% stakes. Queensland Cricket reportedly received requests from overseas investors in the United States, China and India before the Brisbane team even had a name. This was all happening during the boom years of T20. Lalit Modi had been and gone at the IPL, but despite his scandalous exit the league surged on and two new teams, Kochi Tuskers Kerela and Pune Warriors India had just been sold for nine-figure sums. The Kochi franchise was worth more on paper than many established European football clubs.
Yet despite the stimulating climate and luridly tempting projections, Cricket Australia recognised the fragility of private ownership and Everard recalls that it was "decided that given the strategic importance of the BBL to acquire new fans it was best that the managements and governance of clubs remained under the domain of state cricket associations, who had the broader responsibility for all other elements of the game (game development, community/club cricket etc)." It's also highly likely that third-party interest levels were not as high as had been imagined.
In February 2011 CA announced that the inaugural BBL would run from December 2011 to January 2012. By April 2011, eight new teams, superficially if not foundationally detached from the state associations were unveiled. There was a team for the capital city of four of Australia's six states and two per state in New South Wales (Sydney) and Victoria (Melbourne). The teams were centrally assigned home grounds, kit colours and nicknames, purposefully unfamiliar to the existing ideals embodied by the state system.
As appears to increasingly be the case in the ever-more opaque world of cricket administration there were those unknown to those on the outside pulling the strings and controlling the message of Australia's new league from the very beginning. In the IPL it was IMG, and for the BBL, it was Chicago-based sports marketing company PCG. Having recognised the restrictive connotations of the state system CA therefore realised the importance of the BBL's image being distanced and isolated from such vestiges and outsourced the job to an expert third-party. PCG had worked with the NBA, NFL and MLB.
Their man on the ground in Australia was Dan Migala, a US sports marketing expert who has had a desk in CA's offices since day one of the project. Migala recalls how he was asked to question "every detail about [cricket's] sporting code and literally write the marketing, brand and fan-engagement vision from scratch." PCG, Migala said, were involved in the very earliest meetings surrounding the formation of the BBL and "had a direct role in planning the marketing vision; including team colours and names." It's interesting to consider that in an age in which popular culture is increasingly Americanised the BBL, in Migala's words, drew on lessons from "North American sporting codes."
Sutherland was keen to create a window free of international cricket in the Australian season to give the BBL the star quality that was seen as so integral to the success of the IPL. However, he soon accepted that the rigours of the international schedule made a window impossible. The BBL was going to rely on domestic talent and foreign imports.
The progress towards the BBL was not without opposition, however. In detaching T20 contracts from the existing all-encompassing state contracts, the financial rewards on offer for non-T20 players was diluted. Furthermore, the new BBL would be at least ten matches longer than the old Big Bash, eating into more of the existing domestic calendar denying fringe Australia players opportunities against the red ball during the summer's Test series. In a time when Australia's national side, particularly their Test team were struggling there were those who saw CA's priorities as betraying the national team for financial gain. CA would've argued that the performances of the Test team are of little relevance if in 15 years' time there were half the number of players to choose from.
In the absence of private ownership the eight teams were to be centrally funded by CA. "Seed funding," Everard explained, was tagged to specific purposes "such as marketing, event presentation etc" while clubs were also granted "foundation funding" to "assist them in their formative years and take the pressure off them living hand to mouth, enabling them to focus on the key objective of acquiring new fans." CA planned that the level of central funding would decrease over time as the teams became more self-sufficient.
Prior to the first BBL season, the broadcasting rights for the original Big Bash still had two seasons to run with the pay-per-view channel Fox Sports. Having signed that deal way back in 2005 the price of the rights were well below the market value by 2011.
Without private ownership of teams and without a recent or sizeable broadcasting deal CA were investing big money, big dreams and big goals in a league that existed only on paper and had at least two years to run until sizeable revenue could be generated from a new broadcasting deal. Queensland's CEO was candid in his admission that "the game simply cannot afford another elite competition that is a drain on income." CA were looking to solve a problem evident in its existence with a solution conspicuous in its infancy.
The creation of the BBL was an investment by Cricket Australia. It was an investment to expand cricket's audiences with a view to one day making a profit. It was also in this sense, a risk. The BBL would shift the target audience of cricket and redesign the sport's popular image. Detached and separate from existing conceptions of cricket, CA had created the BBL with the hope that it would bring a new generation of fans to the sport. If it failed CA would be poorer, potentially have a smaller audience than before and have the wreckage of 100 years of state cricket on its hands.
As the first season approached McKenna boldly proclaimed that "virtually the entire cricket industry is behind us because we can all see it is going to work." It was going to have to; CA were rewriting cricket's history to invent its future.
Freddie Wilde is a freelance T20 journalist. @fwildecricket