Fast forward to the future
Seasons one and two of the Big Bash League were defined by the looming spectre of a new broadcasting deal for the competition. Having signed a seven-year deal for the old KFC Big Bash in 2005, pay-per-view channel Fox Sports owned the rights to the first two seasons of the new incarnation. This gave Cricket Australia and the tournament itself two seasons to create fresh interest among broadcasters. Given the size and depth of CA's financial investment in the BBL, the new deal would have to be significant for it to justify their commitment to the concept.
There was, therefore, something unashamedly and understandably brash about the early years of the BBL. In his talks with the Australian Cricket Board before World Series Cricket in 1977, Kerry Packer told the administrators: "There is a little bit of the whore in all of us, gentlemen, don't you think?" Thirty-five years on, CA was similarly brazen in its pursuit of popularity. This was, to a sport and a nation historically defined by high-level performance, something of a culture shock. This shameless and arguably cheapening self-promotion was, however, in the eyes of CA, necessary for cricket's audiences to be expanded, and in this regard they were right.
Fundamentally there was very little difference between the old KFC Big Bash and the new BBL, but they looked different, they were marketed differently, and the first season's results were better than even CA imagined possible. In BBL01, TV viewership rose 83.5% on the old Big Bash (71% higher than was budgeted for), and attendances rose 30% (10% higher than was budgeted for). That the BBL was hidden behind a pay-per-view wall was not an obstacle to its popularity. The 31 matches in the first season were comfortably the 31 highest rated shows on pay-per-view television in Australia through the season's duration. The highest-rated match of the season was the fourth-most watched programme in Australian pay television history. The revolution had well and truly been televised.
Average viewership and attendances fell slightly in season two, with CA making the mistake of scheduling too much of the season before Christmas. CA operations manager Mike McKenna defended the figures claiming that "at the beginning [of the first season] we set our targets for three years and blew them out of the water in year one. So we are still doing better than we originally projected."
Despite the popularity of the BBL, just one team, Melbourne Stars, turned a profit in the first season, and the combined team losses amounted to $1.85 million, with CA itself losing $10 million. McKenna was unperturbed by the financial troubles, however, saying that "based on results from the opening season, we're confident this investment is a worthwhile one. Any loss needs to be viewed in the context of the significant investment needed to launch a new league and contains a proportion of expenses that relate to establishment costs."
In the second season, despite projections that five teams would make a profit, only two actually did. But these figures, CA maintained, were to be expected. It was the nature of the long-term investment. CA pointed to the imminent broadcasting deal as the endgame for the league's start-up costs.
The sale of not only the BBL broadcasting rights but the international rights - on the market for the first time in 34 years - dominated CA's thoughts in early 2013. The board hired investment bank Credit Suisse to help guide it through the sale of the rights, and their own negotiating party was headed by Stephanie Beltrame, CA's general manager of media rights, and Dean Kino, general manager of business and legal affairs. Selling two sets of rights, CA played Nine and Ten off each other, driving the price up. When Nine invoked their right to match any offer made by Ten for international cricket, that left Ten with the BBL. Ten boss Hamish McLennan hailed the five-year, $20-million agreement as "the deal of the century for Cricket Australia and Ten".
The introduction of the BBL on free-to-air television was a watershed moment for the league's popularity. The league's official website, bigbash.com.au, claimed research had found that season three was the BBL's most successful season in "all three key attendance metrics".
Average television viewership rose from 235,000 to a staggering 910,000, meaning close to one million people were watching domestic cricket matches almost every night in December and January. The average attendance also rose massively on the disappointing season two, to 18,778, which was also over 1000 per match more than the excellent first season. The headline statistic for CA, however, was that 42% of attendees were coming to their first BBL game, which was 14% more than in season two, and that 22% of attendees were coming to an elite cricket match for the first time.
"BBL attracting new cricket fans" ran the headline on the official website. Closer research found that 50% of attendees were with family, 24% were children (compared to 9% in Tests), and that 51% of women attended their first BBL game. The third season was also a breakthrough one for the finances of individual teams, with seven of the eight sides turning a profit; and the only reason the Hobart Hurricanes failed to do so was because of stadium development
"We have unashamedly designed a competition and marketed a competition to attract new people to the game," CA's CEO James Sutherland said. "It's definitely paying off for both us and Channel Ten,'' McKenna said during the season. "They put a lot on the line in order to get the rights off Fox Sports for the Big Bash... and we also had a lot at stake."
Yet despite the enormous success of the third season, McKenna revealed in October 2014 that CA was still not making a profit from the BBL. "But that's a deliberate growth strategy," he said. "The Big Bash League is about bringing new audiences to the game and about reinvesting money in grassroots cricket." In a year in which CA's willingness to not invest in the future of the international game was made evident by its part in the takeover of the ICC, by contrast its confidence in investing and nurturing long-term growth in Australia's own domestic game provides a poignant and pertinent realisation.
It was not until this fourth season that the rest of the world really took notice of the BBL. Average TV viewership rose again, this time from 910,000 to 930,000, but more tangible was the staggering climb in average attendances from 18,778 to 23,548. One semi-final drew over 50,000 spectators. While the first two seasons were defined by the necessity of a new broadcasting deal, the third, and particularly the fourth, have been defined by the match attendances.
About 52,633 people watching a domestic cricket match played outside the subcontinent could come to be seen as a seminal moment in the history of the domestic game. Indeed, another mind-warping statistic is that Adelaide Oval saw larger attendances for its first three BBL matches than it did for the entire Australia-India Test match, while it took the Gabba just two BBL matches to do the same. Domestic cricket in Australia is outselling international cricket.
There is little doubt that the BBL being on free-to-air television has boosted the league's popularity. Dan Migala, who has been sports marketing company PCG's man on the ground in Australia working with CA has said he sees Network Ten's role in the BBL's popularity as "incredibly important", and that he believes Ten's viewers are "future attendees of not only the BBL but also other forms of the game".
It is expected that for the first time all eight teams will turn a profit after this year's fourth season. "Clubs are rapidly becoming more commercially successful," BBL general manager Anthony Everard claims. "One club generated $1.5 million in sponsorship revenue this year, and another club had gate receipts for one match of $450,000." While it is planned that the level of central funding of teams by CA will decrease over time as the clubs become more self-sufficient, Everard believes that it is "likely" CA will continue to provide "tagged funding towards specific initiatives such as community engagement, event presentation etc." Which he believes are "critical to the objective of engaging new fans - families, kids."
Crucial to the popularity of the BBL has been CA's realisation that it needs to offer more than just cricket to draw young fans to matches, and that has seen a myriad of in-game, extra entertainment provided. "We had to look at the match through the lens of the child," recalls Migala. "You quickly realise that they have many options for entertainment. Video games. Movies. Soccer. The list can go on and on. This is why the BBL is very much communicated as an entertainment product first that has cricket. The entertainment value will draw in the children but the cricket will keep them there."
However, there are those who doubt this, because for the sport itself popularity and success are not mutually inclusive, and the BBL's detractors worry that the cricket itself is only an element of the BBL package, and not necessarily a defining one. While there would be no product without the cricket, growing the sport's popularity necessitates that the cricket is the centrepiece of the event.
Migala, something of a new-age sports marketer, who was instrumental in designing the broader entertainment package on offer at the BBL, is not worried about excessive entertainment superseding the sport. "The on-pitch product has to be there, but I'd argue that the fan engagements aren't 'extras' but part of a symphony-like experience for attendees.
"Bill Veeck, legendary MLB marketer and team owner, famously said, 'You can control everything about the fan experience except what happens on the field', and that's the foundation of the BBL's approach to making sure they over-deliver on the experience for every fan each and every time they pay to attend a match."
It is hard to quibble with what Migala says. In an age in which people are seen to have shorter attention spans and more distractions than ever, getting them through the gates of cricket stadiums, by whatever means deserves credit. Whether the thousands of new fans who have been to the BBL then become fans of longer formats is the next great question that will shape the future of cricket in Australia.
Freddie Wilde is a freelance T20 journalist. @fwildecricket