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Despite scepticism, the BBL only getting bigger

The sixth edition of the Big Bash League witnessed record crowds, but administrators expect the seventh season to be bigger Getty Images

It seems fair to view Saturday's BBL final - at the same venue, and between the same teams as the first final - as the last match of the competition's first era.

The day before the final, Cricket Australia announced that the seventh Big Bash League would be a bigger bash, with each team playing two more games - possibly at a raft of new venues, like Geelong, Canberra and Cairns - with the overall programme extending from 35 to 43 games. Theoretically, the season - which lasts around 40 days, almost exactly in line with the school holidays - will not need extending to accommodate the new games, with more played in the afternoon and at twilight.

Anthony Everard, the league's manager, said that 18 months' planning had gone into the decision, and also described the introduction of the WBBL - which just finished its second season - as the first stage of expansion. "With that, we have already gone from eight teams and 35 games to effectively 16 teams and almost 100 games," Everard told ESPNcricinfo this month. "Given the importance the WBBL plays in broadening our fanbase with half the population, that is a legitimate form of expansion in its own right."

Adam Voges instantly described Friday's announcement as "inevitable", and a look at the numbers and effect on CA's target market - anyone who is not already a cricket fan - suggest he is right, and that there is an appetite for more games.

Twenty of this season's 35 games were sold-out, and there was an average of more than 30,000 people at the ground for each game. Of games at venues with a capacity under 30,000, only one match did not sell out - and that (at Bellerive Oval) fell short by 250 people. Among the venues with larger capacities, the MCG averaged 49,578, Adelaide Oval 41,360, and the Gabba - with five sold-out games having never before sold one out before - 34,375. Some 40% of these people are women, almost 30% are at their first game of cricket and 65% are families. CA's target market has been tapped to perfection - more through the treatment of BBL as entertainment than cricket itself - and Australians are lapping up the competition.

"Are CA getting greedy and killing the goose that laid their golden egg? Is it sensible to expand the programme in an Ashes summer? Does it further marginalise the Sheffield Shield and signal the latest nail in long-form cricket's coffin?"

As Everard told ESPNcricinfo, CA were "curious as to how much upside we had ahead of us after the success of last year". BBL5, marked starkly by the 80,883 that poured into the MCG for the Melbourne derby on the second day of 2016, was a huge leap forward, with attendances 25% up on season four, which in turn was up 20% on season three.

This year has seen a rise: the millionth fan passed through the gates a game earlier, and there have been seven more sellouts. Without the benefits of finals at the MCG or Adelaide (the fifth season's BBL5 finals drew around 50,000 more fans than this year's, due to the stadia involved), overall attendance will be up about 25,000 people. "We are really happy," Everard said. "This has been a year of consolidation off a high water mark. That puts us in a good position."

Expansion may have been inevitable, but it is a risk. Are CA getting greedy and killing the goose that laid their golden egg? Is it sensible to expand the programme in an Ashes summer? Does it further marginalise the Sheffield Shield and signal the latest nail in long-form cricket's coffin?

Of that final question, players are conflicted. They do not want Shield and Matador Cup cricket forgotten, as Brad Haddin wrote in a recent ESPNcricinfo column against premature BBL expansion. The Shield remains the breeding ground for Test cricketers, and should not be undermined further. But there is also a sense - as Moises Henriques and Voges flagged on Friday - that the BBL could be done and dusted quicker, and that the schedule is (even if it leaves fans wanting more each year) a little cumbersome.

They may have a point: Voges' Scorchers played four games in 11 days at the start, then their last four group games took 23, while Sixers played their fifth game on January 3, and their eighth 20 days later. As Henriques said, the Shield section of the summer is far more physically taxing than the BBL, there is definitely scope for the regular season to be condensed considerably - particularly as Sixers are likely to play on Christmas Eve next season, and Melbourne Renegades are working on playing on Christmas Day, removing two rest days. The collision course that the BBL is on with the January ODIs may also open up five more dates in future years.

CA seem convinced that the Ashes will be a boon for BBL. "I am convinced that BBL benefited from the halo effect of heightened interest in cricket in 2013-14," Everard said of the competition's third season, which also saw a big step forward. He predicts that next summer will be BBL's biggest yet.

Haddin cited the A-League and National Basketball League as Australian sports leagues that were forced to sheepishly contract after premature expansion did not reap the anticipated rewards. CA have expanded the competition, without fundamentally changing, but one of the problems is that no one quite knows how BBL's endgame looks, in terms of date, length or location. "In the past 12-18 months, we have found that the more successful BBL has become, the more opportunities have come our way. There are a lot of ideas floating around," Everard said.

Among the options Everard went on to mention were a full home-and-away programme of 14 games for each of the eight teams, additional teams from within Australia or even expanding to New Zealand, as well as the possibility of taking games offshore to Asian cities like Hong Kong and Singapore, which the AFL is doing with Port Adelaide playing in Guangzhou this year. Hong Kong Cricket are keen on welcoming the BBL, and Cricket NSW CEO Andrew Jones seems particularly interested in heading there.

These are radical ideas, and CA have chosen to take a little step first. All the evidence suggests that they are right to have done so, as long as they stick to the fundamentals that have fed the BBL's success, particularly regarding the relative brevity of its timeframe. Compromising that might just be getting greedy and self-destructive. The BBL has taken giant strides in its first six years, but as the fog clears on the road ahead, babysteps will do.