Journey to a million: the BBL success story
Cricket is a game of statistics, often trivial ones. One number has towered above all others this summer in Australia, a figure that Melbourne Stars coach Stephen Fleming said would send shockwaves through the cricketing world. That number is 80,883, the crowd figure for the BBL match between the Stars and the Melbourne Renegades at the MCG on January 2. Stop and take that in for a moment, and remember that this was a domestic cricket match.
Sport is part of Melbourne's identity. It was the first Olympic host city outside the northern hemisphere. It hosts Grand Slam tennis and a Formula One Grand Prix. Test cricket started in Melbourne. But in terms of pulling crowds to domestic sport, the Australian Football League leads the way. The tribal nature of the AFL stems from its Victorian history. Inner-city Melbourne clubs have built up rivalries over more than a century. It is absolutely ingrained into Melbourne's psyche.
In 2015, the MCG hosted 45 regular-season AFL matches, but only three drew bigger crowds than the BBL's Melbourne derby. The clubs involved in those three games - Essendon, Collingwood, Richmond and Carlton - are among the oldest and most successful in a league that started in 1897. A contest between two cricket teams that did not exist five years ago, in a format that did not exist 15 years ago, drew nearly as many spectators.
There is nothing trivial about that.
Remember how the Australian summer looked before the BBL existed? Five or six Tests and a stack of ODIs. If it's the last week of December, it's the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne. If it's the first week of the year, it's the Sydney Test. If it's mid-January, it's a one-day tri-series. Remember that? The BBL's core audience don't. The BBL's core audience is children, and if you're a nine- or ten-year-old, the BBL has been around for half your life and all your memory. You believe that the BBL is cricket, and cricket is the BBL.
One of the great pleasures of Test cricket is its inbuilt narrative. Over five days, a match can ebb and flow, twist and turn. Its fortunes can change on one spell of bowling or one fine partnership. And then change again and again. Add 138 years of history and you have a compelling storyline, from British rule to colonial expansion to West Indian dominance to the emergence of India as a powerhouse. One-day internationals have 40 years of World Cups behind them.
It is deceptively difficult to find such a narrative in T20 cricket. The five World T20 tournaments have been won by five different teams. In domestic competitions like the IPL and the BBL, team rosters are so fluid that it's hard to keep up with who plays where. Even entire teams have come and gone in the IPL. Within a T20 match, the storyline is so condensed, the intensity so heightened, that one ball can change it all.
Even so, a narrative had started to emerge in the BBL. In 2011-12, Stars lost a semi-final, Sydney Thunder finished last. In 2012-13, Stars lost a semi-final, Thunder finished last. In 2013-14, Stars lost a semi-final, Thunder finished last. In 2014-15, Stars lost a semi-final, Thunder finished ... second-last.
For some fans, there was a certain schadenfreude in seeing the Stars keep choking, for they were viewed as Melbourne's establishment team, based at Test cricket's first venue, with the big names, their president the same man - Eddie McGuire - who runs one of the AFL's richest teams, Collingwood. But there was little joy in seeing Thunder repeatedly struggle, for they were meant to be the team that tapped the much-desired resource of western Sydney's burgeoning population.
Barring a Melbourne or Sydney derby for the final, a Melbourne Stars-Sydney Thunder decider must have been the dream result for the BBL's organisers this year. To cap off the tournament with a Thunder triumph, from cellar dwellers to premiers, with captain Michael Hussey lifting the trophy in his farewell match - the BBL could hardly have asked for a better final story.
At a day of Test cricket, or an ODI, you can sit in the stands and drink for seven or eight hours. You can sit in the sun and fry, getting sizzled and sozzled. If you are industrious enough, you can rally the folks around you to construct a beer snake, a long and winding collection of plastic cups that advertises your alcohol intake and lack of attention to the match. Or you can get a Mexican wave going, preferably while holding a beer so that everyone around you gets soaked with booze.
At a BBL match you can get a drink, but the game is over in three hours so chances are you won't have too many, certainly not enough for a beer snake. Often, there is too much action for a Mexican wave to gain momentum; pretty soon a six or a wicket refocuses the attention of the crowd. Notably, there is not an alcohol sponsor in sight; this is not the VB Series. The only on-field mention of beer is on spinner Michael's shirt. Is it any wonder - at $42.50 for a family ticket - parents and kids flock to the BBL?
That said, the BBL is Cricket Australia's competition, not competitor. Chances are that this year, with West Indies and New Zealand touring for Tests, crowd numbers would have been down in any case, though high ticket prices did not help. The BBL's competitors are not Tests and ODIs, but other summer sports like soccer, basketball and tennis. The BBL has given the sport another foothold in the summer, another means of ensuring that people watch cricket. Does it matter what format?
Maybe the BBL is like a gateway drug, the smooth and easy hit that gets the kids addicted. They come along for the sixes and fours, but they clap the dot balls too, so rare are they in T20s. "Dot ball!" shouts one of the signs you get handed when you walk into a BBL game. If the kids like dot balls, they'll love Test cricket, too. Okay, perhaps that's optimistic for a format that can last 30 hours without a winner. But in a few years, we'll see if the interest translates.
The BBL has already served one gateway purpose, leading to the entry of the Women's Big Bash League. Aligned with the existing men's teams, the women's sides had a ready-made base from which to work. Their matches rated so well on Ten's digital channels that several matches were upgraded to the main network. The final was broadcast live in England, India, South Africa and Bangladesh. When a domestic women's match is beamed around the world, cricket is onto a winner.
The desire to bring new audiences to cricket - more children and women especially - was a fundamental base on which the BBL was built. It was also one of the reasons the league had to react strongly to Chris Gayle's "don't blush, baby" boundary-line interview with journalist Mel McLaughlin this summer. His approach was totally at odds - and speaking of odds, note also that the BBL has distanced itself from betting companies - with the league's core values.
Don't be surprised if Gayle never returns to the BBL. There are more than enough stars to go around. Who would have ever thought an MCG crowd full of Australians would chant for Kevin Pietersen? Who would have thought men like Michael Klinger, the league's highest all-time scorer, would become household names without ever playing for Australia?
Arguably, the crowd figure of 47,672 for the final was disappointing given what came before. But just a few years ago, who would have thought nearly 50,000 people would turn out for a domestic final, and would be on the edge of their seats as Daniel Worrall bowled the last over to Chris Hartley and Ben Rohrer?
Who would begrudge such fringe players the chance of such recognition? When Thunder's Chris Green brilliantly juggled a chance on the boundary in this year's final, tossing the ball back in as he fell over the rope and then stepping back in to complete the take, he did so with the whole nation watching.
Chris Green is 22 years old and yet to make his first-class debut, but when school goes back next week, you can bet there will be more than a few kids imitating Chris Green's catch. Can that be bad for the game?
With the start of the school year comes the end of the BBL. That is the niche period the league has carved to fit its target demographic. It might draw AFL-size crowds but will never have an AFL-length season. It is what it is - a six-week festival of cricket around the country. Any expansion of that would risk diluting the appeal. CA must resist the temptation to get greedy.
They have enough money already. In 2013, the Nine Network spent half a billion dollars for the next five years of broadcast rights to Australia's home internationals. Its then CEO David Gyngell described Nine's coverage as the wallpaper of the summer: "You walk in off the beach, off the farm, wherever you are in the summer and you go 'what's the score, who's doing what?' That is a very deep thing for us."
At the same time, the Ten Network bid roughly one-fifth of that to acquire the rights to the next five BBL seasons. It was a bargain. Nine's ratings for the day-night Test in Adelaide and for the recent ODIs against India remained strong, but Ten have given the wallpaper a freshen-up in at least half the summer-house. Moving the league from cable TV to free-to-air was a key development, and more than a million viewers per match have watched this summer's BBL.
In every city, fans have flocked to matches in huge numbers. Perth Scorchers sold out every home game. But the Melbourne derby was the league's line-in-the sand moment. The MCG car parks were unprepared, with too few gates initially open. Countless fans left because it was taking too long to get in, with the MCG's new security screening. How big might the crowd have been had they all stayed?
In the words of BBL boss Anthony Everard, that match alone "brought our timeline forward by a number of years". Not even the BBL expected to be this big this soon. It should be noted that crowds were already growing during the old state-based Big Bash - 43,125 turned up to the MCG to watch Victoria beat Tasmania in a game in 2009-10 - but there was no capacity for cross-city rivalries then.
The US-based Forbes magazine this month noted that: "in just six years, a start-up cricket league in Australia has close to the same average attendance as Major League Baseball, which was started in 1869."
Does that not give you pause for thought?
"Only" 30,174 turned up to the MCG on Friday night for the semi-final between the Stars and the Scorchers. "Only" four sixes were hit in the whole match. It had poured rain earlier in the day and was by no means the most thrilling match of the tournament. It mattered little. There was no shortage of atmosphere.
As I sat in the Olympic Stand, I surveyed the scene around me.
Behind me: two separate groups of young blokes, one of Stars fans and one of Scorchers, baiting each other like it was an AFL match, with the notable difference that it never felt like getting nasty, never teetered towards the threat of a punch-up.
In front of me: a family with four kids in Stars jerseys, clapping their inflatable Zooper Dooper sticks. I did the maths: Brad Hogg, playing in this match, had played his entire international career and retired before some of these kids were born.
To my left: a young couple snuggling and taking selfies. Date night, maybe. I did the maths: if they were about 20, Brad Hogg would've made his first-class debut before they were born, too.
To my right: three older women wearing KFC buckets on their heads, also taking selfies when they were not sipping champagne and nibbling on cheese and biscuits. I did the maths: they seemed mid-60s, so might have gone to school with Brad Hogg.
The BBL might be all about the kids, but if you can also get a group of grandmotherly types - with no grandchildren present, mind you - to the MCG to watch domestic cricket while casually wearing buckets on their heads like they would a fascinator at the races, then surely you have succeeded beyond your expectations.
If Fleming thought more than 80,000 at the Melbourne derby would send shockwaves around the cricket world, it is worth considering this: more people attended the BBL than did the World Cup last summer. And the World Cup had 14 more games. More than 1,030,000 turned up to the 35 BBL fixtures, compared to 1,016,421 for the 49 World Cup games.
Of course, there are all sorts of caveats. World Cup hosting was shared with New Zealand, where the venues are much smaller, and the tournament did not take place during school holidays. And, of course, most matches featured neutral teams. And World Cup ticket prices were much, much steeper. Still, it is world cricket's premier event, and was out-attended by a domestic T20 tournament less than a year later.
You can argue that the cricket played in the BBL is of little consequence, though with a World T20 approaching that may not strictly be true. Certainly Test cricket remains the pinnacle for the players - they would rather lift the Ashes urn than a BBL trophy. But the BBL has won over the kids, the families, and in many cases, traditional cricket fans as well. More than a million people to a domestic cricket tournament?
There is nothing trivial about that.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @brydoncoverdale