News Analysis

What next for the BBL?

The tournament has had to navigate two disrupted seasons but there were warning signs before the pandemic

The BBL still produced some spectacular performances, but the tournament is facing big questions  •  Getty Images

The BBL still produced some spectacular performances, but the tournament is facing big questions  •  Getty Images

In the aftermath of a gruelling season, where the BBL was mired in Covid-19 chaos amid sagging interest, power brokers and key stakeholders in Australian cricket will soon convene to thrash out the maligned T20 competition's future.
From implementing an overseas players draft to shortening the season, everything appears to be on the table to revitalise the BBL which managed to complete its 11th edition on schedule but for some critics it came at a cost. Crowd numbers were a far cry from its heyday five years ago albeit with Covid-19 hesitancy in the community and television ratings - still strong admittedly compared to rival sports - declined.
The challenges of the pandemic became extreme this season with some little-known players fielded to keep the competition going but the absence of Australia's top names was again brought to the fore. Some international stars had shunned the BBL altogether due to its lengthy season, which stretches almost two months, and the country's pandemic restrictions.
It led to inevitable doomsday punditry over its future in the shadow of Cricket Australia's current billion dollar broadcast deal expiring after 2023-24. Those in the BBL's inner sanctum know some hard questions need to be debated when officials and stakeholders get together. Starting with the most fundamental - What is the purpose of the BBL?
Did the bubble burst?
"We have to be very clear on what the BBL needs to be," Cricket Victoria chief executive Nick Cummins told ESPNcricinfo. "A lot of the commentary is assessing whether it is better than the IPL or not. It was never positioned as being the best T20 cricket tournament in the world.
"The BBL was about fun, family entertainment. It was built around having a great night out with your family. We need to start with the BBL's principles and what we want from it."
With kids and their families lapping up the unparalleled match-day experience, the BBL exploded in the middle of last decade perhaps memorably peaking in 2016 when over 80,000 fans attended the MCG for the Melbourne Derby followed by 71,000 at the same fixture 12 months later. Back then, the BBL boasted a 35-game regular season and its entire length spanned around 40 days.
Given the tournament's growing heft and with some belief it was on the cusp of overtaking international cricket in popularity, an expanded BBL was a key staple in CA's billion dollar broadcast deal in 2018 with Channel Seven and Fox Sports.
It led to a 56-match regular season in 2018-19 over 60 days rivalling the bloated IPL as CA cleared space in February - a month in the Australian sports calendar that is somewhat up for grabs. But the prolonged tournament contributed to player and fan fatigue, while some international stars opted to sit out and seek less taxing opportunities elsewhere.
It's not on life support. People can't lose sight that there is no other sports league in Australia that draws a higher average of viewers than the BBL
Nick Cummins
With the broadcast deal still in place, the BBL has maintained its number of matches but pegged back the length to 54 days in the recently completed season. Finding the right schedule - which satisfies players, fans and commercial interests - looms as a continual headache for BBL officials.
"In 2016-17 we expected international cricket would decline and there would be more league cricket," said Cummins, who back then was Sydney Thunder's general manager. "But international cricket has held or expanded while T20 league cricket has also expanded.
"In BBL 05 there were basically no competitors [T20 or T10 leagues]. We can't ignore that the environment has changed. How do we carve our niche in the cricket calendar with the proliferation of T20 leagues and international cricket?"
CA does attempt to make room for the BBL's climax in late January, during the all-important school holidays having scrapped playing into February, as underlined this season when Australia's postponed ODI series against New Zealand was scheduled to start two days after the BBL final. But cricket's congested calendar makes it almost impossible for the BBL to have a standalone window annually.
"The hard thing is that CA is part of the Future Tour Programme," Cummins said. "World cricket is structured for bilateral cricket, so it's about how can we all co-exist but make sure there isn't cannibalisation."
Even though there were signs of wane before the pandemic, Cummins believed the impact of Covid-19 on the BBL's match-day experience should not be underestimated especially for children used to engaging with their heroes.
"When my son was eight years old he asked me what BBL team Bradman played for," Cummins said. "Kids have no concept of cricket before the BBL. Our target is 8-16 year olds and their families. But because of Covid there has been a shift away from fan engagement like players not being able to sign autographs.
"Some matches had to be played at family unfriendly time slots, which means the BBL is not delivering on its key deliverables."
The overseas question
An easing of Covid-19 restrictions is hoped to recapture some of the BBL's famous pizzazz by next season, but off-field initiatives like an overseas players draft are being considered in a bid to spark more interest in a tournament that launched with little fanfare this season.
"I'm very supportive of an overseas draft because theoretically every player in the draft could play for your team and we know everyone loves pretending to be a general manager, so it adds interest," Cummins said. "It's a great way to launch a season."
Some BBL clubs, however, have been against an overseas draft believing it would negate a connection players have built with teams and their fans - such as Afghanistan spinner Rashid Khan's indelible association with Adelaide Strikers - making it more transient like the IPL.
While any implementation of an overseas draft would likely include a mechanism for teams having the right to match offers on their players, those hesitant believe the current setup better rewards savvy list management.
"The ability to take a punt on a Laurie Evans or bring in Tymal [Mills], I think that was a good combo for us," Perth Scorchers general manager Kade Harvey said in the aftermath of the club's fourth BBL title on the back of their women's triumph. "That third overseas player as a bit of a floater…I thought we used that really well.
"I still think part of the skill of a T20 tournament is how you list manage, how you put your squad together, how you have your depth and I think teams should get rewarded for having those relationships with players.
"Players, ultimately, I don't think want to be moving around every year like they do in the IPL," he added.
A local players draft, previously touted by Melbourne Stars coach David Hussey, is widely viewed as an equalisation measure and has less mainstream support. Clubs have traditionally built a core through their state-based players with some enjoying more success - and demanding loyalty - than others.
It was known during the Scorchers' heyday under coach Justin Langer that some WA-contracted players received rebukes for accepting BBL offers elsewhere. There has been, however, a gradual acceptance of player movement but clubs are still juggling developing home grown players with finding on-field success.
"Brisbane Heat would love to have a Queensland flavour but we know we have to look beyond our backyard when appropriate," Heat coach Wade Seccombe said. "It's a performance environment, not a development environment. Ideally we would like to develop within but there will always be shortcomings on your list and that means recruiting at the expense of local players."
Australia's international stars
Seccombe is part of growing support for CA's contracted players to be outside the BBL's salary cap in the wake of the controversy surrounding Sydney Sixers' failed late bid for Steven Smith to play in the finals.
"It's very difficult to have Australian players on your books taking up salary cap and they aren't available," he said. "When they are available we want to see the likes of Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith playing."
While some change is inevitable, there is still a feeling of optimism from officials over the BBL that perhaps contradicts its wider perception. "It's not on life support," Cummins said. "People can't lose sight that there is no other sports league in Australia that draws a higher average of viewers than the BBL.
"Could it be better? Absolutely. For example, the BBL should work closely with cricket leagues like The Hundred, PSL and Super Smash. How do we supply talent so in return they support the BBL? Could that mean the likes of Boult and Southee play BBL games?
"The BBL is not broken. We just need to find ways to enhance the competition."
Still there is a sense that the BBL is at a pivotal juncture after a turbulent season. "Next season is really important for the BBL…probably one of the most important we've ever had," BBL general manager Alistair Dobson told ESPNcricinfo recently.
"Hopefully we can get our fans back into the stadiums safely and unfurl some invention and fun. Get back to what everyone loves about the BBL.
"On the back of a couple of tough years, everyone is motivated to bounce back really hard."

Tristan Lavalette is a journalist based in Perth