All sports in Australia look at BBL 'with a degree of envy' - Alistair Dobson

Alistair Dobson at a BBL event Getty Images

When Alistair Dobson speaks about the effect that the Big Bash League has had on the Australian sporting landscape, he does so with the experience of having been a part of the rival sports impacted.

Dobson was about halfway through a long stint at the AFL in various marketing and fan development roles when the BBL burst onto the Australian sporting scene in 2011. In a few short years, it allowed Cricket Australia to effectively double the game's broadcast and spectator audiences, while also pushing the game towards children and families in a way that many have wanted to emulate since.

Certainly, Dobson can recall that for just about the first time in his years at the headquarters of Australian football, the advent of the BBL and the subsequent addition of the WBBL had the game's decision-makers thinking about playing catch-up to cricket.

"The ability for the Big Bash at the time and still largely today to be so single-minded on targeting kids and families with a new format and a new product and being able to deliver that so successfully was something that I think all sports will be looking at with a degree of envy," Dobson told ESPNcricinfo. "The ability to be so single-minded on that and to do it in such a way that is such fun and colour and entertainment was something I remember reflecting on that at the AFL, and I think all sports will be looking at it the same way."

The final few years Dobson spent at the AFL were to bear witness to those catch-up attempts, from the fast-tracking of the AFLW competition without anything like the same degree of long-term planning and investment made by cricket, to the creation of a "second generation" format for junior and overseas markets - AFLX. Yet, for all the flurry of activity, the BBL had stolen a vital march on the competition, so much so that in May this year, Dobson chose to move across from football to cricket, replacing Kim McConnie as the head of Big Bash Leagues.

"The similarities are really clear in terms of two really professional, well-run organisations that put on the best possible sporting events in the country," he said. "The culture of excellence and high performance at both organisations is really strong. I've really enjoyed the change in environment, everyone's been really welcoming, particularly in the sense that everyone loves the Big Bash and to come and work on a competition that people want to talk to you about and love having conversations about it, it's a really fun place to come to work.

"Lots of similarities to previous roles in relation to a league, working with clubs, trying to get to know the clubs well, what are their pressure points, what are their opportunities and how can we as a league provide the best value possible. The role of the league is to make sure our clubs are healthy and strong and successful so spend a fair bit of time getting to know their businesses better and really looking forward to the next eight weeks."

The success of a move to a standalone WBBL, complete with a raucous conclusion to the tournament when the Brisbane Heat sent a noisy Queensland crowd delirious at Allan Border Field by besting the Adelaide Strikers in the final, has provided Dobson and his department with a highly promising start to a season in which the ninth edition of the men's event is expected to do more heavy lifting than usual.

"A great way to finish it with a sell-out crowd in Brisbane," he said. "I had a few people there who were involved in cricket for a while who'd never seen such a parochial crowd watching a WBBL game. This was how you imagined evolving WBBL cricket to be, really passionate local crowds cheering on their teams. So that was a real milestone day I reckon for the WBBL, to have a sell-out crowd with a passionate, parochial home audience.

"It's now about fine-tuning some parts of it, whether that's specifics around start times and day games versus night games and weekends versus midweek, it's really trying to listen to our players and fans and over the next month or two we'll do lots of consultation around which of those in the mix around day games and night games, weekends and midweek worked. They all come with different dynamics, particularly when you're not in a school holiday period, you've got other considerations around families and kids being able to go. So I think the work next is around fine-tuning those parts.

"New ideas can come from different places, a lot of these ideas have come from our clubs, our fans or our broadcast partners. If they've been successful in other leagues then that certainly plays a role"

"In addition to being the right move for the WBBL on its own, it's also a really important strategic opportunity for cricket and particularly for our BBL clubs who have got their brand and their product in market now for the best part of four months instead of only a couple. Brisbane Heat, for example, are now a brand in Brisbane from October right through to February, which creates so much momentum and opportunities for our clubs as well as Australian cricket broadly now has good, strong, consistent product in market for that whole time."

That lengthening of the season in terms of Big Bash teams and tournaments has arrived parallel to plenty of tweaks for the men's BBL, namely the compressing of the regular season so that it concludes before the end of the school holidays, and then the expansion of the finals series to allow for five teams and more permutations to be contemplated by the clubs and analysed by broadcasters, media and fans.

"Primarily this year we listened to our fans who told us last year that the duration of the season was too long, and to be able to bring the regular season back within the school holiday period was our No. 1 priority," Dobson said. "That comes with some flow on effects around travel and other considerations, but overall we're really happy with how that's resulted.

"The players had told us they wanted to play more games in less days. They felt last year there were times where they were sitting around for too long between matches and the ACA [Australian Cricketers' Association] was right on board with some of those priorities we had around the fixture. That said we'll learn again this year and see how it goes and continue to make whatever changes are required. But shortening the duration was a priority, and we think it sets us up really well."

In a season when the Australian team will be off-Broadway playing limited-overs matches in India through much of January, the BBL will provide the most high-profile cricket being played at home around the Australia Day long weekend, something organisers have capitalised on by scheduling seven games in four days around a game at Adelaide Oval on the January 26 itself. This will in turn serve as a lead-in to the tournament finals and its addition of a fifth competing team, while also adding greater value to the prize for finishing first or second.

"There's a massive chance that over that weekend every one of those seven games is live in some respect into the new finals series," Dobson explained. "It was a combination of making sure the teams that finish first and second have got the appropriate benefit from that position and history will show that in the final four model we had, that wasn't playing out that way, so we wanted to make sure the teams at the top had due opportunity.

"At the same time, now if you finish fourth or fifth you've got to win four games in a row. While more teams can make it, it's actually harder to win notionally from fourth than it was in the past. Easier for first and second and harder for fourth, and we think that's the right model. At the same time, having five teams in the finals gives more fans the opportunity to be part of action, it keeps more games live late in the season, but certainly not at the expense of the legitimacy of the finals series, where the top two teams get the best possible chance to win it."

There is evidence, too, of the creeping influence of the IPL. For the first time, the BBL will feature strategic time-outs - essentially giving broadcasters an extra 90-second window for advertising - while gold caps will be worn by the league's leading run-scorer and wicket-taker in what has been termed a "yellow jersey" style award.

"New ideas can come from different places, a lot of these ideas have come from our clubs, our fans or our broadcast partners," Dobson said. "If they've been successful in other leagues then that certainly plays a role. We've got a couple really exciting innovations there that may have history in other leagues but will have a unique BBL flavour to them this year. It will add some good interest for the fans and the players and we're looking forward to seeing how they roll out."

The IPL may itself add another complication to the league if the expansion of the Indian event to ten teams and an earlier start date come to fruition, but for now Dobson and CA are hopeful that this edition of the BBL, bolstered as it is by the presence of AB de Villiers and the increased availability of the likes of Steven Smith, Aaron Finch, Glenn Maxwell and Chris Lynn will allow the tournament to scale heights not seen since 2015-16, the last time the league was required to form the centrepiece of the summer opposite a lower key international schedule.

"We think this is a great year with the schedule and the window we've got, whether that's to be able to bring international players in our equally some great clear windows for Australian players to be able to play in the BBL - that does set the competition up really well," Dobson said. "I think the place the BBL has found in the summer of cricket, being late December, through January is now a really strong, traditional window where families can settle in and watch.

"This year is a unique one in the context of other countries coming in and playing international cricket, so we think it's a great year for the BBL to have a big season."