'Want to make the BBL the No. 1 sports league in Australia'

Kim McConnie, the new head of the Big Bash, talks about how the league has its eyes on becoming the biggest game in town

Tim Wigmore
Tim Wigmore
Spectators watch an exhibition BBL game in Albury, New South Wales, December 12, 2017

Let's spread the love: spectators watch an exhibition BBL game in Albury, New South Wales  •  Getty Images

This time will be different: 2017-18 is the season in which the Big Bash becomes a Bigger Bash. The increase from 35 fixtures to 43, with regular season games played at four new venues, is the Bash's first expansion in its seventh year - a sign that it is not content to be limited to merely a six-week bonanza but desires something more.
Other Australian sports leagues - the A-League soccer competition and the National Basketball League - have floundered when expanding. But Kim McConnie, two months into the job as the new head of the Big Bash, does not believe there is any risk of the same fate befalling the BBL this year: "Looking at the current ticket sales, I would say absolutely not." One expansion market, Canberra, has already sold out its game.
And so this year's expansion should be viewed more as a staging post in the BBL's growth than a destination in its own right. "We've added a game this season and we're going to see how that goes," McConnie says.
"What I want to do is learn a lot, get a lot closer to the players, get a lot closer - more importantly - to the fans, see how these expansion markets are going. That, to me, is going to be the most interesting. It'll give us some really good information to sit down at the end of the season with all key stakeholders and go, 'Okay, let's sort of write the future here.'"
Two of the new venues - Geelong and Canberra - are potential hosts of new teams, and their BBL games will double as a trial of their suitability.
"We just need to make sure that we don't race too fast," McConnie says. "But I think at some point in our future, you could probably see another team being added." She believes that around five years is the most likely time frame for a ninth side to join the league.
Growing the number of games, while keeping the same number of teams, is a way for Cricket Australia to manage the expansion process, by gradually taking more existing teams to new markets and gauging the level of demand. This more cautious approach alleviates the risk of expansion teams collapsing, as has become such a feature of the National Basketball League; the Wikipedia entry "List of defunct National Basketball League (Australia) teams" now includes 24 such clubs.
"New markets - do you play overseas, do you play domestically? New teams? Do you play on Christmas Day, Christmas Eve? Do you play more games? The options are limitless and that's what really excited me to this position"
Kim McConnie
Many who have long been involved in the BBL believe that in its current form it does not fully capitalise on its popularity.
"Cricket needs to occupy more of the calendar," says Andrew Jones, the chief executive of Cricket New South Wales. "We want to be entertaining fans until the end of February, middle of March." He suggests that the BBL could become a full home-and-away league - with 14 group games per team, rather than ten this year - from 2020-21 and that the Women's Big Bash League and the BBL could together occupy five full months of summer, from the start of October until the end of February.
Jones also advocates "a full round in one or two of Hong Kong, Singapore and China - a Hong Kong Sevens-style event, taking all eight teams up for a weekend". McConnie has "an open mind" to matches played abroad, but maintains Cricket Australia's stance that having teams based overseas "is very far off in the future, if at all".
In 2010, when English cricket was considering setting up its own version of the IPL, a leaked email from Yorkshire chief executive Stewart Regan was widely derided. The IPL, Regan wrote, "have launched the word 'CRICKETAINMENT' which I think is really innovative".
Yet for McConnie there is no tension between sport and entertainment. "Sport is entertainment. So what we're seeing, even from a cricket purist who loves to watch the Big Bash because they love the competition, they also like the entertainment and the fact they can bring their kids. It's increasingly maybe a little bit of a myth that there are these people who like one thing or the other. They want to be entertained and make sure they're getting more for their dollar."
The philosophy is in keeping with her background, working for PepisCo, where she led the company's sports-marketing strategy for professional leagues in the US, including the NFL and NBA. It is a world where there is no division between sports and entertainment: games need to have both if they are to thrive in the cut-throat American market.
And it is this approach that McConnie intends to bring even more of to the BBL. "I come from where sports is entertainment - working on things like the NFL half-time show," she explains. "How do we build not only the best competition, because we've got the best cricketers, but also wrap it around an entertainment platform?
"A lot of the focus [is on] how do we bring those two together - sport and entertainment - and really take it to a whole new level. Definitely I can see more and more of that happening as we evolve the season and the years."
The BBL is building on its partnership with Nickelodeon, the children's TV channel, this year. Between some double-headers - when women's matches take place before men's - screens will show episodes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
McConnie's American experience also informs her belief that the Big Bash can use digital technology far more effectively. Twenty-four to 36 hours ahead of some Melbourne Stars games this season, the Cricket Australia mobile phone app is being used to drive ticket sales and interest. She would also like to imitate how Major League Baseball - "the best in class globally" - uses apps to engage fans, both watching in the stadium and following the game from afar. "We're talking to a number of different companies and really brainstorming - what is some of the innovation we can bring next season?"
Whatever the exact shape of the BBL, the coming years loom as a time of bold, persistent experimentation.
"There's lots of opportunities," says McConnie. "New markets - do you play overseas, do you play domestically? New teams? Do you play on Christmas Day, Christmas Eve? Do you play more games? The options are limitless, and that's what really excited me to this position. I think it's a matter of keeping close to our stakeholders, keeping close to what our fans want and collectively creating a schedule that makes sense and really helps us make the BBL the No. 1 sports league in Australia."
That is an arduous task, given the behemoth that is the Australian Football League. And it will surely remain a fantastical aim while the BBL is second to Australia's low-key ODIs - in terms of personnel, if not profile. Consider last summer, when Chris Lynn, the biggest star in the BBL, was selected for the ODI squad, rendering him unavailable for Brisbane Heat. The new Future Tours Programme involves a rationalisation of the ODI calendar, which could facilitate the closing fortnight of the BBL, say, avoiding any clashes with Australia matches, and so ensuring that all the country's best players are free to feature.
Greater availability "would be great" says McConnie. "It's something that we're very conscious of and as we look at expansion its very much forefront… How do we enable a schedule that helps us keep the players with BBL teams?"
If such a new schedule materialises, then the new BBL TV deal, which kicks in from 2018-19 and is expected to be finalised in the early months of 2018, might prove even more lucrative than the envisaged three-four times increase on the current A$20-million-a-year contract.
And so, while this is the start of an era of a Bigger Bash, in a sense it might also be the end of an era in which the BBL must still notionally defer to Australian ODI cricket. The day is nearing when - the Ashes and visits by India apart - the BBL is the undisputed main event of the Australian cricketing summer. This coming year will give a sense of just how rapidly it expands further.

Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts