Pressure from broadcasters, clubs and a trend of declining attendances and television audiences has resulted in the addition of a fifth team to an expanded Big Bash League finals series for next summer, to be played over five matches after the regular season is compressed into 56 matches in 42 days.
The full BBL fixtures for 2019-20 were released on Thursday and, in addition to a more condensed home-and-away schedule, the finals series will now include five teams and feature five finals, in a similar set-up to the IPL, albeit with a slight twist.
Teams finishing fourth and fifth will play the Eliminator on January 30, three days after the final league game on January 27. The winner will progress to play the third-placed team in the Knockout on February 1. First and second will play the Qualifier on January 31 with the winner qualifying to host the BBL final on February 8.
The loser of the Qualifier will get a second chance and host the winner of the Knockout in the Challenger February 6. All finals will be played at night, with the exception of games in Perth, which will be twilight fixtures, after last year's epic final between Melbourne Renegades and Melbourne Stars was played on Sunday afternoon.
The BBL's rights holders Seven and Fox Sports are believed to have pushed hard for the addition of a fifth team in the finals to reduce the number of "dead" fixtures at the back end of the tournament, meaning 56 games will eliminate only three competing clubs from the competition. Their desire for change followed a season in which the vastly expanded competition continued seeing a gentle slide in attendances and broadcast audiences that has been consistent since the BBL peaked in 2015-16.
That summer the tournament took up a lot of the slack left by a relatively low box-office international schedule featuring New Zealand and West Indies, and the BBL is again expected to take up much of the responsibility for drawing fans to the game, particularly given that the Australian ODI team will be completely absent in January due to a tour of India.
Clubs had also complained over several years that there was not enough reward for teams finishing higher up after the home-and-away round. Hobart Hurricanes dominated last season's BBL, winning ten of 14 matches to finish two games clear on top of the table, only to lose a knockout semi-final to Stars, who made the finals with a 7-7 record.
Two teams have won the BBL after finishing fourth and winning two knockout finals - Brisbane Heat in BBL02 and Sydney Thunder in BBL05 - while two other BBLs have been won by the third-placed team. Perth Scorchers are the only side to ever win the title after finishing first, when they won in 2016-17.
New head of the BBL, Alistair Dobson, said the finals revamp was the most important feature of the new fixture.
"The No. 1 element is to make it the best chance for the teams finishing first and second to make it through," Dobson said. "It's an amazing quirk of history that the team finishing first at the end of the season has only won it once and the team finishing third or fourth has for some reason won it more often.
"So we want to reward the teams finishing first and second as well as we can. There is an element though of making the finals more accessible for the fans, and this model also gives us a chance for the team hosting the final to have more preparation going in."
Last season, there were less than 48 hours between second semi-final and the final, with groundsmen at both Marvel Stadium in Melbourne and the SCG unsure until the end of the semi on Friday night as to who would be hosting Sunday's final. The final was played on a used surface at Marvel during the day and slowed up significantly in the second innings.
The eight-day gap between the qualifier and the final allows for better pitch preparation as well as a chance to build up ticket sales for the host venue.
"[It will be] a lot different around preparation time, the hype building into it and the finals structure itself leads to a lot more excitement," Dobson said. "It's been a big focus to end the season in the appropriate fashion."
Dobson said there were no concerns about five teams making the finals instead of four because it was much tougher for the lower-ranked teams to win the title under the new format.
"It's actually harder for fifth to win this year than it was for fourth to win it in the previous season," Dobson said. "You have to win four finals to win it from fifth and if a team can go on a run like that at the end of a season they've probably earned the right to win it. But having another team being part of it keeps the season alive and we're really excited about the finals."
One issue that hasn't been solved is how to decide the title should the final end in a tie and then a tied Super Over, as it happened in the 2019 World Cup when England were crowned champions by virtue of the boundary countback rule. An IPL game between Rajasthan Royals and Kolkata Knight Riders in 2014 was decided the same way. The BBL is currently working through what is the best solution for such an event and will announce that in due course.
"[There has been] lots of chatter about it," Dobson said. "It was an amazing game. If we could have a BBL season that could end with a tie and Super Over, it would be a great way to finish. It's available to be discussed with the clubs. We haven't locked it in either way. At the moment it's a similar finish to what we saw at the World Cup and we'll work through that over the next period of time.
"The league and the clubs will collaboratively work on that alongside our broadcasters and there's a whole range of stakeholders we'll have to consult on that."