Why the BBL will flop
Okay, I'm going to go out on a limb and state my predictions upfront. Right or wrong, at least I won't be accused of pretending to be wise after the event. This post is bound to alienate as many people as it resonates with, so let's just hope we can engage in a civilised dialogue and light-hearted banter. After all, this article is about Twenty20 cricket, so what could be less serious than that? There we go - first shot fired!
I know for a fact that I'm not the only person out there who thinks that the Big Bash League will end up being a flop. Many knowledgeable cricket folk I have spoken to share that view for a number of different reasons. So for the record, let me articulate why I think it is a doomed experiment, regardless of how long the experiment will be persevered with, through sheer bloody-mindedness if nothing else.
Edwin Land, the inventor of Polaroid and a man who probably knew a thing or two about developing quick copies, had this to say about the sort of process that led to the birth of the BBL in some think-tank, possibly at an executive retreat on a beach on a tropical island: "it's not that we need new ideas but we need to stop having old ideas".
Firstly, unlike the IPL (which I still think has a limited shelf life but at least enjoys 'first mover advantage'), the BBL is a cheap copy of a product (the IPL) that operates in a cricket-mad market and attracts the very best players in the world. Australia just doesn't have the sheer numbers who will continue to watch BBL games ad nauseaum. The IPL has proved that it doesn't require significant external interest in the event. Domestic consumption alone is enough to feed the beast, although I'm not quite sure how long it will take before that menu too will start to look a bit tired. But that's another debate altogether. From our perspective here in Australia, domestic interest in the event will wane as soon as the initial novelty wears off. Quality products stand the test of time. You can't throw enough money at a cheap imitation to keep it afloat, regardless of how many bells, whistles and Hollywood starlets you throw at it.
Cricket Australia's marketing gurus are relying upon the sort of tribalism that keeps football clubs throughout the country in plenty of coin. Well actually, even some of those tribes are in serious financial difficulty these days but I think they have totally misread the Australian sports fan. To expect them to follow artificially created franchises (not teams) and engender the sort of tribal passion that characterises AFL and Rugby League is a serious error of judgement. I just can't see a backyard barbeque or dinner party where someone keeps making an excuse to dart into the TV room and check on the score and then return to the patio with all the other blokes waiting to hear the score. That's tribalism. BBL may satisfy the entertainment segment of the market for a short time but it won't get thousands of fans living and breathing every run and wicket, crying tears of joy and pain over their franchise's performance. For a small market like Australia, you will need that die-hard fan base to sustain a viable franchise.
The timing of the BBL is also wrong. Yes, I understand why they need to schedule it for the holiday period but it clashes with too many other things too. Like the Boxing Day Test, the New Year's Test in Sydney, the Australian Open, beach holidays and social gatherings where it would be deemed almost rude to have the cricket playing in the background at an evening family barbeque. In my family for example, if we have guests over for dinner, the television stays off. It's slightly different over a long lunch if the Test cricket is on or if Australia were playing in an ODI but I'm sure there would be many families who would not care for the distraction of a meaningless clash between the Sydney Sixers and the Melbourne Stars dominating the sanctity of a dinner party or evening social engagement.
Further on that point, if the BBL can only survive on the back of garnering interest during the holiday period, doesn't that say something about the whole tribalism thing? None of the football codes that the BBL is trying to emulate needs holidays and good weather to sustain fan interest. In fact, tribalism is best exemplified by the fact that footy fans will turn up in droves on a bitterly cold, wet and windy winter's night to watch their favourite team get flogged every weekend. That's tribalism.
Timing wise, the fact that we have this ridiculous situation in which Cricket Australia has to schedule a so-called 'Batting Camp' before the Boxing Day Test, just underscores how ridiculously out-of-synch our priorities are. Batting Camp? It used to be called Sheffield Shield cricket my friends! You know, that quaint old system that was arguably the best domestic competition in the world? You know, the testing ground where players had to take wickets and score runs before they got selected for a Test match? Bit old-fashioned, I know, but it worked quite nicely for a hundred years or so. Here we are, about to face one of the powerhouses of cricket (India) and our best players have to attend a batting camp to get themselves prepared for the Boxing Day Test? And they keep trying to tell us that Test cricket is still our number one priority. Yeah right.
The over-the-top marketing messages I see from Cricket Australia have clearly been borrowed from our sycophantic obsession with the American marketing machine - it may attract a certain type of audience, but is this where they see the future grassroots support for cricket coming from? They talk about trying to engage with the new generation and that's an admirable ambition, but the danger lies in alienating one loyal set of fans in order to attract an entirely different segment of the market who may only ever consume cricket in this fast food format. I refute the theory that you will be able to migrate these new fans to a longer format of the game. Why would they? Their first experience of cricket will be music, colour, costumes and short attention spans. How do we ever hope to get them to appreciate a brilliant spell of outswing bowling by a Pattinson to a Dravid who is doing everything possible to leave as many as he can without losing his off stump? Where's the fun in that to somebody who has only ever been weaned on a boundary every over, with rap music accompanying every big hit?
Finally, for all those brilliant marketing strategists who reckon that the 'side entertainment' is what attracts people to the game, I have this question to ask of them? What sort of high quality product needs so much diversion to attract a sustainable following? Is the product so inferior that the only way you can sell it is to dress it up in fancy uniforms, loud music and all the circus tricks? Is the product not worthy of standing on its own? Especially for a game like Twenty20, which is so fast-moving, is the audience that bored between each over and each fall of wicket that you have to seduce them with some other form of entertainment to keep them in their seats? Is it not enough that high-quality athletes are smashing sixes, smashing noses (in Brendon McCullum's case) and performing acrobatics in the outfield (Steven Smith on Friday night)? Our old friend Edwin Land of Polaroid fame sums it up rather succinctly when he said "marketing is what you do when your product is no good".
Last night's pantomime at the MCG just about said it all. Has our cricket dropped to such a low level that we're reduced to having an ageing star of yesteryear being the biggest crowd-puller and his girlfriend tossing the coin? We needed to see Shane Warne pashing Liz Hurley to give this BBL product true legitimacy? How long before we run out of famous ex-cricketers with fake blonde hair, dodgy mobile phone etiquette and Hollywood partners?
There's talk in the local newspaper of Shane and Liz being the star attractions for the game in Brisbane on Tuesday night. Gosh, and we've even arranged to mind his kids for him while he supervises Liz tossing! And this is the future that the BBL is banking on for long-term viability? Clearly the cricket itself isn't exciting enough to get people in the door so we need to have the likes of Liz Hurley tossing the coin and playing tonsil hockey with our great leg spinner? This is the vision for the high quality, long-term sustainable product that is going to attract investors and compete with the IPL?
To those marketing geniuses in focus groups, understand this - a BBL franchise will never be a team. It will never be like following the Tigers or the Bulldogs (choose your footy code - same difference). People will see through this tribalism rubbish for what it is. If the product isn't good enough to stand on its own two feet without the distractions, even the new punters you seek to attract will vote with their feet and move on to the next teeny bopper craze.
Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane