'We really want to build fan tribalism' - BBL Head Kim McConnie

Cricket Australia Head of Big Bash, Kim McConnie speaks during the Women's Big Bash League fixture announcement Cricket Australia/Getty Images

In her second season as head of the Big Bash League, Kim McConnie will be presiding over a tournament that has grown enormously in size and was responsible for a greatly increased value proportion of the AUD 1.18 billion (USD 870 million) broadcast rights contracts with Seven Network and Fox Sports when compared to the previous Cricket Australia deal in 2013. She spoke to ESPNcricinfo about expanding to a full home and away season, the move of games to the Gold Coast, and a downward trend in attendances and television ratings.

You've launched the vastly expanded competition on the Gold Coast and you're going to have a Melbourne Stars "home" game there. How did you reach that decision?

The Gold Coast is an unusual market when you think about it. It's the sixth-largest city in Australia and at that time of the year [in December], it is a very different market; the influx they have of tourism means the landscape changes pretty significantly. A lot of those tourists are from Sydney and Melbourne, so when we looked at it we thought 'let's do something a bit different and bring another team there as well'. It would've been easy to have a match-up with the Brisbane Heat, but it wouldn't have felt like a different team. So it really had to be a neutral game, and it was going to be either a Sydney or a Melbourne team. And the Stars were pretty bold, put their hand up and said 'we want to give this a try'.

As far as the Melbourne and Sydney-based fans of those clubs are concerned, did you feel that in expanding to a full home and away season you could do that with the extra games and not hurt them much by taking games away?

Spot on, you've obviously seen our strategy document! It is important because full home and away for us is about playing the long-term plan. It's not about just building strength in the metro markets. We'll do that, but it's really about building new markets, new fans and expanding. That was part of the reason for taking the Stars to the Gold Coast as well, starting to build fans beyond the traditional core metro markets.

To join the dots further strategically on that point, does it become ultimately about getting more people following the game and perhaps in the end, playing for a BBL club or for Australia? Is that the bedrock?

Both WBBL and BBL, we talk about it as the shopfront window. It is what inspires kids to want to play cricket. They see the "Bash Brothers" [Chris Lynn and Brendon McCullum], they want to go out into the backyard and be the Bash Brothers. So it's really important for us to drive participation.

There has been a gentle plateau of TV ratings and crowds over the past few years, apart from Perth Scorchers moving to a new stadium last season, and an issue where the Melbourne and Sydney teams in the major markets are being outperformed by the likes of Adelaide, Perth and Hobart. Is that an area of concern for you or do you feel like that's the maturing of the competition after an initial spike in interest?

I think it's just the natural evolution of the competition. You're never going to get away from the variability of team performance, and every sport lives and breathes that. So that's a variable you can't control, but we do feel like there's a maturing of the league and for us that's ok. It is about the long-term and we don't have such a traditional focus on making sure that we're driving those attendances up. If that was the case we would never go to Alice Springs, we'd never take the Stars to [Gold Coast]. So it is really important for us to make sure we're building BBL as the national sport and we're taking it throughout Australia, and that has been part of our long-term strategy. Therefore we do expect there will be some attendances that come off as a result of that, and that's ok in the short term.

So is it in the lap of individual clubs (in terms of their crowds) or your new broadcasters Seven Network and Fox Sports in terms of getting as many eyeballs as possible on TV?

Exactly. We'll still expect, as we go to these new markets, there'll be some strong ratings as well.

What about the logistical and scheduling challenge of adding an extra 16 games to the season and the tight squeeze. For the first time you have got a scheduled day's Test cricket where a game starts before stumps, and a number of Perth games starting quite late for the east coast. Did you feel that was unavoidable?

I think it is unavoidable going to a full home and away [schedule] and where we can, we've leveraged it to the best of our advantage. Channel Seven have talked about these 13 "mega days" which create a whole day of cricket, so that has really helped us. The Perth piece helps in terms of the new stadium, because it really comes to its strength at night time. So part of working with the Scorchers was that they were keen to have some later games to really show off the stadium and to the best of its capability. But there are other areas where we've had to be a bit tighter to fit all the cricket into the schedule.

You stated at the launch that there are no plans to expand the number of BBL teams for at least the next three years. Do you think the number of matches you have after going to a full home and away season will remain stable because it has grown bit by bit over the past couple of years, and then the big increase this year?

Definitely. We feel like the next couple of years for BBL are about embedding. You can't do it all in one year, we're going to have some wins this season, we're going to have some learnings from this season. Definitely we feel the next few years are about focusing on the schedule we've got, the 59 games, and really starting to build fan tribalism. We want fans to feel an attachment for the Brisbane Heat, for the Sydney Sixers, and consistency is going to be part of that.

One thing that changes a little bit this season is that there's less overlap with international cricket at the end of the BBL. Are you hopeful that you would have Australian players available for the BBL finals?

That would always be something we'd love to see. I think the league has been developed some of its own stars, people you didn't expect in the competition have done really well. So we've seen historically it works really well whether we have Australian players there or not. Ultimately what people want to see are the big hits and the drama that unfolds in the finals.

Thursday and Friday semi-finals into a Sunday afternoon final. Is that the kind of season climax you were hoping to get to or is that something we'll see evolve still further into being on consecutive weekends or similar?

That is something we'll continue to evolve. We do think there's headroom and upside in evolving the finals. Whether or not we fix it Superbowl style, whether we have more of a gap between the semis and the final to build the hype. I think that's probably the next phase we'll have a look at, how do we make the finals bigger and bigger and end the season on a crescendo. We start really strong, we want to make sure we're ending the season just as strong.

While the BBL will be consolidating at 59 matches, the WBBL is still very much in transition from what it was initially to being a standalone tournament at the front end of summer in 2019. What are you looking for from the WBBL this season ahead of that move?

One of the things we're most excited about is Channel Seven broadcasting 23 games. I think that's really important - you can't be what you can't see. That's what Channel Seven's really going to help us fix because it is really important the next generation of young girls starts to see their heroes on TV. We need to make sure we're driving that awareness this season. The other thing we'll be doing is creating more festival weekends. We did a few last season, opening weekend, Lilac Hill, Mackay, those were some of our most successful and we're doing more of those. That's going to be the future of WBBL once we move to standalone. Something for all the family's entertainment that is beyond just cricket.

Lastly, one change this season is that you've got 16 games exclusive to Fox Sports, with Seven broadcasting 43 on free-to-air. How did you go about deciding which games would be solely on Fox? One each of the Melbourne and Sydney derbies are behind the paywall, for example.

It was to make sure there was a fair distribution. We wanted to make sure that across all our clubs, they were getting the ability to be on Fox Sports and also that it was spread across the country as well. We've got new markets and we wanted to give Fox Sports the opportunity to cover those. So equality was a core principle we looked at.