How the BBL meticulously masterminded its success
"Are you coming to the Big Bash tonight?" asked the kid, who could have been no older than seven, of the family friend being picked up at Adelaide Airport on the morning of New Year's Eve. "You have to come, it's New Year's. It's traditional."
In many ways, he was right. It did feel, on New Year's Eve in Adelaide, like you did have to be at the Big Bash: 46,389 people - a strikingly diverse bunch - were at Adelaide Oval, and what a spectacle they were party to. "What did we do on New Year's Eve before the Big Bash?" one Adelaidian joked the following day.
How can anything pertaining to the BBL possibly be traditional? Sure, sporting traditions exist all over the place - football is traditionally played on Boxing Day across the UK and Australian Rules is traditionally played on Anzac Day and the Queen's Birthday public holidays, for example. But the BBL? You likely own a pair of shoes or a household appliance with a more storied history. Tradition is carved over time, and passed from generation to generation, not created in an instant.
Except, in the BBL, tradition has been created both quickly and with success. Many things have stood out about the fifth edition, but more notable than the bumper TV ratings, the youthful, next-gen make-up of the competition's devotees, and the dramatic, dynamic cricket, has been the sheer volume of people flooding through the gates.
New Year in Adelaide felt like a "moment", but two days later 80,883 turned up at the MCG for the Melbourne derby. Every game has had some sort of record: small, seemingly insignificant ones, such as Etihad Stadium attracting its highest derby and non-derby crowds, or significant ones, like the whoppers at the MCG and Adelaide Oval, or Hobart's first (and second, and third) BBL sellouts, and the Sydney derby coming close to 40,000. Almost every game has attracted a bigger crowd than last season, and the group-stage average attendance sat at 28,248, almost 5000 up on last year's average.
Listen to a golfer's post-round press interaction and you'll hear a regular refrain: "I've just got to control the controllables," they'll say. The same goes for Cricket Australia's dealings with the BBL; the only thing that cannot be scripted is what happens on the field. Everything else is planned meticulously. There is no better example of this than the fixture list, and the rewards are reaped in those extraordinary crowds.
"We work hard to optimise the schedule for our 32 pool games," says Anthony Everard, the competition's boss. It's a pretty unique competition in this country; for the football codes that run through winter - it doesn't really matter which Saturday afternoon you play on in May, July or August, it's still a Saturday afternoon. "But we play in a really concentrated period and within that, what we identified early is that there's a huge difference between a Saturday afternoon the week before Christmas and the same time slot the week after.
"Our focus is very much on families, and the weeks leading into Christmas are very busy times. It's the end of the school year, and people have loads on, with Christmas shopping and the like. What we have to try to do is make the BBL as accessible as possible, and a big part of that is making the schedule predictable, so families know year on year when the fixtures are going to take place and can plan their other activities around that time."
Thus, a series of flagship games, and dates, were identified, and "icon fixtures" born. The two Sydney derbies were placed on the opening night and the last Saturday of the pool stages, and the two Melbourne derbies on the first two Saturdays of January. Perth Scorchers, due to their favourable time zone in relation to the Boxing Day Test, expressed interest in playing that evening; Adelaide Strikers did the same with New Year's Eve.
There is more to come; Sydney Sixers are looking at playing on Christmas Eve 2016 (with accompanying carol service, which saw 3000 on the SCG outfield on December 20 this season), and Sydney Thunder are even considering Christmas Day. Hobart Hurricanes got a (since surpassed) record crowd on New Year's Day this year, and are looking at the possibilities of locking that in, although they are slightly put off by the financial hit of playing on a public holiday, when they have to pay all event staff double time.
Of the timings of the Melbourne derbies, Everard explains, "you have Christmas behind you, the most family time you have all year, but people are still on holiday. It makes sense to have our biggest match up in the market where we have the biggest capacity, at the MCG." There's a knock-on effect that feeds into the rivalry; Etihad Stadium had its own record crowd a week later, too. "Families now know that the first two Saturdays after New Year, there's going to be a Melbourne derby."
New Year's Eve cricket was introduced in 2013, when - following much deliberation - Everard invited expressions of interest from teams. "It was a date we had not traditionally played cricket in Australia," he says. "There are so many other entertainment options that night. Sydney could never work, there are one million people at the harbour. Melbourne's proximity to the Boxing Day Test made it tricky." Enter Adelaide.
Bronwyn Klei, Strikers' general manager, says she could "hear a pin drop," when she told her staff the team were in the market for a New Year's game. "I thought it was great!" she says, "but I'm married with two kids and have nothing to do on NYE! The rest were like, 'What? We have to work?'"
CA backed Adelaide's case for the fixture. There were hurdles; the town's Lord Mayor does his own fireworks very close by - some Sydney Sixers players confided this was a frustration and distraction during this year's game - and there were fears the two events would cannibalise one another.
There were far more positives, though. Adelaide Oval is bang in the centre of town and has a famously sociable crowd. The game starts early enough - 6.40 local time - to kick off a night out, with a brief concert afterwards, or provide its entire entertainment for young families. Klei admits she has been "totally blown away" by the event's success and growth and believes "it is already an Adelaide institution", while Everard says "that it has shown us that if you get the formula right, it doesn't take long for something to become an institution."
Everard believes the same is possible in the Christmas period, although he is wary of overkill. "Whether or not there's an opportunity for the BBL to become part of the Christmas tradition and actually enhance that experience, that would be the aspiration," he says. "We certainly wouldn't want to interfere with those traditions that already exist."
The BBL's traditions do not end at the fixtures. There is a desire for in-stadium experience to be consistent, and Everard cites Melbourne Renegades' use of the "Crusty Demons" motorbike troupe and Brisbane Heat's "Rocket Man", who flies around the Gabba on a jetpack, as successful innovations.
The attempts to create in-city rivalries - which saw the BBL look at Manchester and Los Angeles as examples of two-team towns - also appear to be working, as the teams attempt to brand themselves distinctly and appeal to different parts of their city's make-up. The numbers suggest it is working, with merchandise flying off the shelves (at the MCG on January 2, A$160,000 worth was sold) and impressive crowds, but anecdotally Thunder and Sixers home games feel distinct from each other, as does the experience at the MCG or Etihad Stadium.
As the league matures, Everard's plans seem to be slipping into place. This season's total attendees will top 1,000,000 during Friday's semi-final at the MCG, while Adelaide Oval's semi-final sold out in an hour. Every fixture feels like it has broken some record or another and, amazingly given its brief history, the BBL seems to be cementing its place as an institution in Australia's sporting calendar. None of this has happened by accident.
Will Macpherson writes on cricket for the Guardian, ESPNcricinfo and All Out Cricket. @willis_macp