<
>

Australia figures leave England agog

Tim Bresnan picked up three wickets Getty Images

The English counties must look at the popularity of Australia's Big Bash League figures with a sense of wonderment. Imagine a land where cricket leaves football far behind (its own national league anyway), where average T20 crowds have swollen significantly to more than 20,000 and where a free-to-air channel is pretty content at the results. That is T20 cricket, Australia style.

It would be simplistic to look at so many spectators - young and old, men and women - enjoying the sunshine of an Australian summer and want to replicate the whole thing without considering the specific challenges faced in England.

In terms of surpassing football at least, it would be farcical even to dream about it.

But that does not alter the fact that the Big Bash League has now achieved a connection with the Australian public far beyond that so far achieved by T20 cricket in England.

The ECB wasted no time in pronouncing that the NatWest Blast attendances were a record in 2014 after 704,205 spectators watched 122 matches. But with the number of matches rising from 94 to 122, the average attendance had actually declined from 6,503 per game in 2013 to 5,772 a year later - a drop of around 11%.

That was hardly a resounding success for the sport that has long proudly held the title of England's summer game.

Behind the paywall, there was little source of comfort for Sky TV in the viewing figures for T20. The final at Edgbaston achieved decent figures, attracting ratings of 360,000 according to figures supplied by BARB, the Broadcasters Audience Research Board. That put the final between Birmingham and Lancashire third for Sky viewing figures for cricket in August.

Football, as would be expected dominates. For the week August 18-24, the top three Premier League football matches ranging from 866,000 to 1.24m.

But beyond Finals Day - which also encompasses the semi-finals so the ECB can be confident of filling the stadium - there was little sense of a nation engrossed in a new product.

Consider cricket for the whole of June and England international cricket took nine of the top 10 places with between 222,000 and 412,000 viewers. A single NatWest Blast tie - a compelling Roses clash between Lancashire and Yorkshire at Old Trafford - joined such exalted company with 253,000 viewers, but it was a rare example.

No wonder that many county chief executives, whilst they recognise that Sky have taken cricket coverage to new levels and that cricket could not survive without subscription broadcasting, are now desperate for their coverage to be supported by some form of free-to-air coverage - not forgetting the opportunities available on the Internet.

Compare those concerns to the optimism felt within the BBL. At the time of writing, attendances are up 19% from 2013/4, although it is possible that figure might slip slightly as some Australia players return to the international fold for the tri-series against England and India.

The competition works brilliantly because it is played almost entirely during summer holidays and there is a game on Channel Ten, a free-to-air channel, virtually every night for six weeks. Such exposure has given Australian cricket the chance to connect with a new audience.

Perth has been sold out every match - it only holds 20,000, which makes it comparable to the biggest English grounds, Lord's apart - new domestic crowd records have been set during the past fortnight in Sydney (33,000 at the Olympic Stadium) and Adelaide (where 43,000 turned out on New Year's Eve. That is the same Adelaide which was once held by some to be far too conservative to care much about such an instant game.

That cricket in the UK has benefited financially from subscription broadcasting is a given. Many county cricket grounds have been rebuilt on the back of it - although there is the little matter of combined debts of 120m to think of.

But it is not surprising that the counties are increasingly desperate for some form of coverage available to all. There remain two pressing questions: firstly, under the terms of their contract, with the option to continue until 2019 recently secured, can Sky legally block it; secondly, is any free-to-air channel interested anyway?

If there is a slight negative in the BBL's figures it is that ratings have slipped around 3% from last year's figures, with a knock-on effect on advertisers. Having paid about 11m a year for the rights to the BBL, Ten will be disappointed that the ratings have not tracked the rise in attendances.

That could be influenced to a large degree by Ten's decision to show several matches on delayed stream so as not to interrupt news programmes, a dubious approach in the days of social media where every development is enthusiastically debated live-time on Twitter. A warning also of falling standards once sports coverage is removed from specialist sports channels.

The audience averages, nevertheless, would warm county cricket's heart is they were ever replicated in England. BBL achieves about 70% of the audience given to Australia's national side. England's T20 competition does not achieve half that.

The Big Bash League is a story of a sport now making an impact at international and domestic level, in long form and short. It is a story of a sport that is connecting with the nation in new ways.

The debate can sound over whether it is a success story for England slavishly to copy, but at the very least it is a success story they must envy.