'What has worked in sport in the past is not what fans want in future'
Last season you had a lot of success - TV ratings went up, average attendances went up. How do you feel you can build on that success?
There's two things we are focusing on: one is that as much success as we've had in recent years we've still got a lot of empty seats in our grounds, and that applies to some teams more than others. The clubs in the smaller venues are pretty full, but the majority of teams have still got seating capacity, so we are encouraging them to make sure they are chasing down additional ticket sales.
Beyond that the research has indicated that while there's a pretty strong following of the BBL, not a lot of people have chosen to follow a particular team. So it is really important to us that we drive that passion and engagement with a particular club. A lot of the fans, particularly in Melbourne and Sydney, where you've got the two teams [each], are still to commit to a team.
Do you still feel it was the right decision to have two teams in Melbourne and Sydney?
Yes, totally. We always felt it would be the right decision to give those teams the chance to establish fan bases concurrently rather than start with one team in Melbourne and Sydney and a couple of regional teams. It would always be a huge challenge for a second team to come into the town when the other team had had a five- to ten-year head start.
It is obviously really important for us to have strong representation within the two biggest commercial markets within Australia and Channel Ten are very supportive of that.
How have you tried to distinguish teams in the dual-team cities? Is it a geographical thing, or is there a deeper distinction between the two?
In Sydney you could argue there is a geographic divide. That's not the case in Melbourne, where both stadiums are in the CBD. Originally we really took a lot of learnings from other leagues around the world: look at the LA Lakers and the LA Clippers, or Manchester City and Manchester United, with everything from colours through to other brand elements and values. We really tried to separate them, so although I appreciate it is marketing talk, they do represent a reasonably strong contrast on paper.
The [Sydney] Sixers have built themselves as a really strong entertainment brand. The [Sydney] Thunder are a bit more grounded, in terms of their community outreach, etc. The [Melbourne] Stars consider themselves very much as the Melbourne sporting fabric at the MCG, while the [Melbourne] Renegades offer something very different in a stadium with a roof and the motocross at the innings break.
At the beginning of the BBL, teams had a biography on their website. The Stars stood for the traditionalists and the Renegades were the rebels. Is that something you felt would translate seamlessly into their promotion, or did you feel it was a bit forced?
We designed eight distinct brands, all of whom occupied a different space. We actually revisited that last year. We had a brand consultancy come in and help us. You can't artificially manufacture brands, and ultimately it is how the clubs actually represent themselves, whether it is through their match-day experience, how their players engage with fans, the way they dress their venues.
How involved is Cricket Australia in consulting the separate teams with regards to marketing?
Not really. We've established a framework within which the clubs operate. From a marketing perspective, Cricket Australia conducts the national campaign and the clubs are responsible for their local market engagement. We leave them to their own devices. We were very central to the establishment of the brands to make sure they were occupying reasonably different spaces and we avoided duplication were possible. We are certainly close to what they are doing and there's a certain set of principles that everyone buys into upfront and then off they go.
Which clubs do you feel are doing the best?
The one-team towns have a natural advantage. If you live in Adelaide, by and large you are going to support the Adelaide Strikers. And Perth, Hobart and Brisbane. So they have all done a good job. We must admit we are all surprised by how quickly the fans have got on board with their clubs. If you go to a Perth Scorchers game you'd think that club has been around for 30 to 40 years. Everyone is wearing the orange gear, it's incredibly parochial. In Melbourne and Sydney it's taking a bit longer, and that's for the reasons we discussed earlier.
Last season the semi-final structure received a lot of criticism when first-placed Adelaide Strikers lost in the semi-finals. Why has the BBL not adopted a CPL/IPL style playoff structure?
It comes down to time available to play matches. Adding a prelim would add an extra three days to the season [allowing for travel]. This would result in more afternoon matches [half the ratings of a night match], or the season continuing outside the school holiday period. For now we consider that the pros don't outweigh the cons. But we are open-minded about different finals systems into the future.
Have you considered the possibility of expanding the season to include home-and-away matches in the future?
We are starting to consider a future approach to growth for BBL, which contemplates a variety of options - more games, more teams, finals etc. It's early days and we won't rush. We need to consider which option helps best achieve our objective of new and diverse fans - not expansion for expansion's sake, or purely commercial reasons. Our focus now is successful delivery of BBL5. We'll know more early to mid-next year.
Before last season the BBL wasn't quite making a profit, but according to former BBL chief Mike McKenna, it was on track to, and a couple of teams were making a profit. What's the latest situation with regards to that?
They actually all made a profit last year - the first time all teams have made a profit. Part of that was funding from Cricket Australia. So I don't think it's fair to say they are all standing on their own feet just yet, but that's to be expected. We envisaged that at this early stage of the league we would support them financially. The encouraging thing is, in only four short years they have made a profit. From year one to year four, their reliance on central funding is decreasing substantially. In year one, funding as a percentage of overall revenue was 67%. That number last year was down to 50% across the league, and this year it will dip below 50%. So that trend is heading in the right direction and they'll all be budgeting again for profits this year. So we are certainly encouraged by the direction in which their financial health is going.
How long do you envisage it will be until they can stand on their own feet?
We haven't put a time frame on that. We have this year and next year, when our funding level is committed, so they have another 18 months of certainty. But Cricket Australia still sees BBL as our fan and customer acquisition arm of the business, so we don't shy away from the fact that we need to invest in that. This is not a purely commercial exercise. If we see that we need to continue to support the clubs and invest in particular areas, which may be families, or women, or different ethnic groups, we'll redirect some of that funding to make sure it's being spent on particular areas that will ultimately deliver a greater return.
Have you looked at the possibility that the BBL could, in the more distant future, become Australian cricket's No. 1 commercial property?
I think the view of Cricket Australia is that there is room for all three forms of the game. Certainly in the short to medium term, the commercial engine room is still international cricket, and that's from a media-rights perspective, sponsorship and gate receipts. There is an enormous gap in the money that is derived from international cricket relative to BBL. I know that is not necessarily consistent with other countries around the world, but from an Australian perspective, the view is to use the different forms of the game as a competitive advantage for cricket over other sports. Ultimately I guess the fans will determine what the landscape will look like in the future.
How is the BBL doing abroad? Are you eyeing overseas viewers as well?
It's a secondary consideration for us. The BBL was established around capturing a more diverse and younger audience around Australia. That is the rationale for the significant investment that Cricket Australia has made into the league, and that absolutely remains our priority. The BBL revenue is an outcome rather than a focus area, so if we are putting a fantastic, entertaining league, as part of that we are going to grow attendances, more people will be watching on TV in Australia and the revenue will come.
Is there any thought to expand the number of overseas players permitted?
It's been spoken about since the first season. We made a slight change where we relaxed the conditions around replacement players. Obviously you've got your two primary overseas players and if they get injured or get called up for international duty, you can get a replacement. So you can have four overseas players in your squad and two on the park. We think that has worked pretty well. The players' association may have a different view. If we opened up an overseas spot, that's eight domestic players who may not get on the park. When the BBL is being played there's a hell of a lot of international cricket being played, and I would be doubtful that we'd get real high-quality players that would add value.
Do you feel that the BBL can lay claim to being the leading T20 league in the world?
They are all very different, aren't they? The IPL is in a league of their own. They have a structural advantage in that they have a window and everything is just on a different scale in India anyway. We certainly talk to our counterparts in the other leagues, but we don't see each other as competition. We've got a really close relationship with Damien [O'Donohoe] at the CPL.
Obviously the more alignment we can get between the league, our clubs and our broadcasters around that, the better. And if we all do a good job on that then the crowds will come and people will tune in on TV etc.
You went to the IPL final last season. What were the things that you have taken out of other leagues that you feel that you can translate into the BBL?
I thought they did a really good job at simplifying the vision screens and using them in a simple but effective way. They were very good at how many runs off how many balls. For a new fan they did a much better job than we do to actually explain what's going on in the game.
We did some research last year with some mums who weren't cricket fans. One of them was looking up at the vision screen and said, "I can find Smith, I can find Watson, but I can't find sundries!" She thought sundries was a player. Do you really need sundries up there? That's something we are focusing on this season. It's a fine line. You have to make sure your fans can follow the game. But you don't need Duckworth-Lewis up there, you don't need extras.
What has worked in sport in the past is not what the fans want in the future, and that's the philosophy we are adopting at the BBL.
Freddie Wilde is a freelance T20 journalist. @fwildecricket