February 7, 2012

The revolution has been televised

Why did Cricket Australia dump their state-based Twenty20 format for a shiny new city-based one? One word: TV

"That's it! The Sixers have won it! They've done it in fine fashion. They win the inaugural BBL for season 2011-12. Well done lads."

Fox Sports commentator Greg Blewett announced the Sydney Sixers triumphant champions of the inaugural Big Bash League moments after Steve Smith struck a decisive straight drive down the ground for the winning runs at the WACA.

So what did the Sixers win exactly? A place in the lucrative T20 Champions League? They had already secured that in Hobart the previous Friday. A big, shiny trophy? Well done, lads, you deserve it.

The Sixers represented their state - correction, city, correction, central business district - with distinction, but in reality the team was a New South Wales side in pink drag, minus high-profile regulars Simon Katich, David Warner, and Daniel Smith. One wonders whether they were rejoicing in droves in the hinterland of Newcastle, or the heavily populated Central Coast of NSW, or indeed the regional centres of Tamworth, Lismore, Macksville, and Wagga Wagga, all famous sporting towns that have produced Australian Test cricketers.

The Sixers' victory hardly created a ripple in the Sunday press on the east coast of Australia. Between analysis of Australia's 4-0 series whitewash of an insipid Indian Test side, completed on the same day as the BBL final; the Australian Open women's final, which yielded a new world No. 1 in global tennis; and previews of the third consecutive Grand Slam final meeting between two of the most recognisable faces in world sport, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, it was pretty hard to squeeze in column inches about the performance of Steve Smith's team.

Steve Smith's team. That sounds strange to say doesn't it? The Sixers' first-choice captain, Brad Haddin, played just two matches all tournament, due to Test match duties. Regular NSW captain Steve O'Keefe was playing in the Sixers side, but as a pinch-hit opening bat and a less-than-regular left-arm orthodox, not captain.

Smith, Australia's seventh-highest paid cricketer according to the 2011 Cricket Australia contract list, who incidentally has not been selected for Australia in either Tests, T20s or one-day internationals during this domestic summer, despite being available, fully fit, and not in any kind of form slump, held the trophy aloft as leader of Australia's T20 domestic champions.

Not that the Perth side represented Perth, or Western Australia, any better. South African Herschelle Gibbs, Englishman Paul Collingwood, and Perth-born but unashamedly proud New South Wales player Katich were mainstays in their top six. Their attack was even more diverse, featuring two Queenslanders, Nathan Rimmington and Ben Edmondson, and a Victorian, Michael Beer. Nathan Coulter-Nile, despite having the most exotic, foreign-sounding name, is the only Perth-born and raised bowler.

To be accurate, though, all of these men are regulars in the WA line-up, such is the nature of Australian domestic cricket these days. Brad Hogg is also proudly Western Australian, but has not represented WA since 2007. Hogg said he was proud to represent the Perth Scorchers, despite reminding anyone who will listen that he is a Williams (WA country town) boy through and through.

But BBL visionary and CA general manager of cricket marketing services, Mike McKenna, was emphatic as far back as February 2011 about the reasons for the move to city-based franchises. "To reach kids, we need cricket that doesn't look like the cricket they know. And the competition will possibly end up with ten or even more teams, and we don't have ten states," McKenna explained to theroar.com.au.

"I've spent heaps of time in country Victoria, NSW and Queensland, and it is full of die-hard Bombers, Magpies, Broncos and Dragons [Australian AFL and NRL clubs] fans who have never lived in, and possibly hardly ever visited, those towns or suburbs the teams represent."

McKenna is from an AFL background, so his viewpoint his understandable. He bases a lot of his thought process on CA's market research, which is often referred to, but is difficult to verify, given that it has not been published. Indeed one of Australia's most respected cricket writers was refused access to it.

Those who argued regional Australia was being ignored hit the nail on the head. Unfortunately for the proud country folk, the Sydney and Melbourne derbies were the two highest-attended matches for the tournament. The voices that count live in the boardrooms of the Nine Network and Fox Sports

Going by the close of the inaugural season, though, McKenna's research has proved accurate. A sellout crowd of 16,255 attended the final at the WACA. Given the 5pm local start time, these were not traditional cricket fans in attendance - thousands of club cricketers, the game's most loyal lovers, were still an hour away from stumps at more than 100 club grounds around the Perth metropolitan area.

Cricket Australia is overjoyed at the crowd figures. An average of 17,753 attended each of the 31 matches. That figure was 10% over budget, and 30% up on last season's competition, which was only 20 matches long.

However, the figure was actually 2% less than the average crowd figures from 2009-10. Admittedly there were only 17 matches that season, yet the former state-based format, which was, to use Generation Y vernacular "like, so two years ago", produced a higher average crowd per match.

There are plenty of caveats to that statistic, but the bottom line is that the format is extremely popular, no matter the teams, no matter the tournament. Perth cricket fans proved this in 2005, when more than 20,000 ventured to the WACA to watch the first T20 in Australia, with no idea what to expect.

So again one must ask the question, if you had a state-based format that was extremely popular, why reinvent the wheel?

The answer is revenue. Since Kerry Packer, gate profits have become a minor slice of Cricket Australia's annual revenue. Television, however, is the goose that laid the golden egg, and the new and improved BBL is 24-carat gold. The competition rated through the roof in Australia this summer. Domestic cricket has been a pay-television product since 2006, and never before has it produced ratings like this.

The 31 matches shown live on Fox Sports were comfortably the 31 highest rating shows on subscription television during the period December 1, 2011 to January 29, 2012. Just to be clear, that includes shows on all channels available to pay-television subscribers. To give these figures context, an A-League soccer fixture also broadcast on Fox Sports head-to-head with the BBL final reached an average audience of 48,643.

The final attracted an average viewership of 459,468. The only match that rated higher through the tournament was Warner v Warne, when the Stars hosted the Thunder, which was the fourth-highest watched programme in Australian pay-television history. The total average viewership for BBL games was 282,558 - 71% higher than was budgeted for the season, 83.5% more than the 2010-11 version, and 50% higher than 2009-10.

Suddenly the picture becomes crystal clear. Cricket Australia looked as though it had made a grave error by scrapping a winning product and replacing it with a hastily put together franchise-based competition. There was a hope that foreign investment would rain down on Australian cricket. That never came, mainly because CA, after much consternation and indecision, allowed only a 49% share of a team to be bought by independent investors. Players, too, could only sign 12-month contracts, such was the unease at what lay beyond the first season.

There were doubts also about the expansion to eight teams. Did Australian cricket actually have the depth to produce enough good players for eight teams? Ian Chappell, among others, argued no, claiming it was club cricket in drag. The influx of returning retirees and their subsequent performances suggested he may have been correct. Worse still, the overseas players who played were hardly headline acts and many of the best and brightest were on international duty.

Yes, Chris Gayle was a star, and the New Zealand players were admirable, though they were splitting their time between competitions on either side of the Tasman. Gibbs and Owais Shah proved inspired investments, and Rana Naved remains a cult hero in Hobart, but Michael Lumb was left to carry the drinks in the final for the Sixers, while Paul Collingwood's coach, Lachie Stevens, was surprised to learn that the Englishman averaged just six at the WACA in his last five international innings there.

There were criticisms, too, of the decision to place the two extra teams in Sydney and Melbourne who already had teams. Those who argued regional Australia was being ignored hit the nail on the head. Unfortunately for the proud country folk, the Sydney and Melbourne derbies were the two highest-attended matches for the tournament. The voices that count don't live in Geelong, Newcastle, Townsville, or the Central Coast. They live in the boardrooms of the Nine Network and Fox Sports, and both have spoken loudly with the release of Cricket Australia's statistics, with the rights for 2013 and 2014 being pondered.

"Nine is the home of cricket and we like what we see in the Big Bash," a Nine Network spokesman told the Australian. "We are keen when the rights come up to have a chat with Cricket Australia about a role, but not necessarily owning the rights 100%."

Fox Sports chief executive Patrick Delany weighed in with his views. "Any free-to-air that wanted to challenge us would find some stiff competition." Delany told the Australian that Fox Sports could consider a sharing arrangement. "But we would be more interested in retaining the rights as sole broadcaster."

And with that, McKenna is licking his lips at the prospect of a bidding war.

"We've got to make sure that as a business we get the best result we can for the product we sell, and that will be a combination of dollars but also exposure," McKenna said.

Therein lies the crux of what this BBL was all about. The players enjoyed the experience of playing for different teams, with different team-mates. The fans at the grounds were lukewarm, if not apathetic, to the eight new teams. The cricket was no better or worse than in previous seasons.

But this was a made-for-television spectacular that now affords CA the opportunity to secure a large income stream independent of the peaks and troughs of international teams touring Australia.

So while the trophy Smith raised was large and shiny, and in keeping with the traditional silverware theme, perhaps a plasma television may have been a more appropriate prize. The Sixers could then watch next season in high-definition, and ratings will increase by at least 11.

Alex Malcolm is a freelance writer based in Perth

Comments