Recently, we received the news that amidst a time of major upheaval for cricket in Australia, the CA and BBL bosses have decided to stick with the 56-game regular season and five-game finals series format for the upcoming season.
The current format of the BBL came into existence in April 2018 when Cricket Australia announced a new record six-year deal with Seven and Fox Sports worth $1.182 billion. CA were understandably chuffed with this outcome, but evidence suggests that they completely underestimated the true implications of this agreement.
The deal comprised of a rights bundle that included Australian men’s cricket, an expanded BBL season, as well as a landmark agreement for women’s cricket. More consequentially, though, the deal also heralded cricket’s partial move away from Free to Air TV for the first time. Australian Men’s ODIss and T20ss were put behind the Fox Sports paywall.
Free-to-air cricket on network television has been a cultural cornerstone of Australian life for many decades. To many passionate cricket fans, the sight of cricket on TV signifies the end of the cooler months and the glorious onset of hot and sunny days, beach trips, BBQss and backyard cricket.
In light of this, it was understandable that many people were outraged by the pay walling of ODIs and T20s from 2018 onwards. However, unlike England where cricket disappeared from free-to-air TV and public consciousness for the better part of a decade and a half, at least the CA bosses had the common sense to keep Tests, a handful of World Cup games and half the BBL season on free-to-air TV.
However, this article is not a rehashing of the free-to-air vs Pay TV debate. That issue has been discussed extensively before; instead, I want to focus on the fateful decision to expand the BBL season.
By all accounts, this expansion of the BBL has been a failure for Cricket Australia. Average crowds and TV ratings have fallen for the third season in a row, and the overwhelming feedback from fans has been that of viewer fatigue.
Originally designed as a short and sharp, fun format of eight teams playing 31 games in total, the expansion to 61 games (a full home and away season, and an enlarged finals series) represents a radical departure.
The falling BBL crowd numbers have alarmed CA bosses, but after consultation with relevant stakeholders they have decided to keep ploughing on with the 61-game season. That is because any reduction in the number of BBL games would mean less broadcasting money for the board.
One can understand the decision in the light of losses brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is a short sighted decision, and I am afraid that it risks killing off CA’s golden goose for good. Instead, the BBL’s managers and CA Events Executive Anthony Everard have proposed a raft of tweaks to playing conditions to spice up the BBL tournament.
Let us look at some of these proposed changes below:
- Bonus points available to teams for their progress at the 10-over point of an innings.
- Substitutions also allowed within that same period.
- Powerplay split between the first four overs of the innings and two overs floating elsewhere.
- Free-hits for the bowling of wides.
- The addition of extra breaks for advertisements and player strategy after every five overs.
- A draft for overseas players is also expected to be up for consideration.
Frankly speaking, each of these proposals borders on the farcical. And crucially, they will do nothing to arrest the slide in BBL viewership ratings.
The proposals, if implemented, are going to add an extra layer of gimmickyness to the existing cartoonish nature of BBL which already features bat flips, yellow caps, 90-second ad breaks, mic’d up players and in-game player interviews.
Already, the BBL comes a distant fourth in actual quality behind the Indian Premier League (IPL), Caribbean Premier League (CPL) and Pakistan Super League (PSL). Rather than looking at these tournaments for inspiration, it seems that CA is determined to Americanise the BBL as much as possible in search of that elusive pot of gold.
Despite the infusion of cheerleaders, Bollywood celebrities and over the top glitz, the IPL works really well as a product due to its main focus being on the quality of cricket itself, rather than the supplemental entertainment. I should add, however, that any comparison of BBL to IPL is indeed unfair as Australia does not possess the population size of India nor the billion strong cricket-mad fanbase.
Furthermore, the BBL also does not have the luxury of an International window, which means that the best foreign players in the world as well as domestic Australian stars such as Pat Cummins, Steven Smith, David Warner and Mitchell Starc are unavailable for extended periods during a BBL tournament. Therefore, I will refrain from any comparison of the BBL with the IPL, and instead use the CPL as an example that the BBL can emulate.
As a tournament, the CPL is actually far more disadvantaged than the BBL. It only services a domestic broadcast market of seven million and is an expensive undertaking necessitating travel and hosting of games between 6-8 different countries.
Similar to the BBL, the CPL also does not possess the luxury of a dedicated international window. Furthermore, the game of cricket in the Caribbean increasingly faces competition from football and basketball due to various reasons such as the decline of the all-conquering West Indies team, the proximity of the giant USA sports market and the ready availability of superstar basketballers in the NBA.
Despite all this, the CPL has been a tremendous success ratings-wise (both in domestic and overseas markets) and is even expected to turn a profit in the coming years. Viewing numbers for the inaugural tournament numbered 36 million in 2013. Since then, those numbers have exploded and in 2019 alone, the total viewership numbered 312 million, an almost 10-time increase since 2013. These numbers are plain staggering.
The organisers deserve a lot of credit. COO Pete Russell recently reiterated his firm belief that the CPL is comfortably the second-best domestic T20 tournament after the IPL. And with future plans of setting up an USA franchise, a fully-fledged women’s league and further digital expansion , few would disagree with Russell's contention. The future does indeed look very bright for the CPL.
So, rather than looking at the NFL & NBA, I humbly request that CA should seek to learn a lesson or two from the folks at CPL. Keeping that in mind, I will lay out a list of recommendations for BBL, which I believe, will help with reversing the slide in BBL ratings and also improve the overall product of the tournament.
Five recommendations to make BBL a better tournament:
1) Reduce the group games to 9-10 per season from the current level 14
Sometimes, less is more. Audiences started declining sharply when the group games in the BBL went up to 14 a season from 10 in 2018-19. When audiences are presented with a larger selection of games to choose from, they naturally become more selective as they don’t have enough time or money to attend every single BBL game.
This in turn has a flow-on effect of deflating the average attendance per game figures of the BBL. Furthermore, when you expand the BBL to 61 games from 43 in just a two-year period; spectator fatigue is bound to kick in at some point.
I do acknowledge the unfortunate reality that CA is caught between a rock and a hard place with regards to the BBL. They got greedy, chased the dollar and signed lucrative deals with Channel 10 and Fox Sports on the premise of a 61-game season.
So now they are stuck to this long, drawn out format in order to meet broadcaster commitments. This is highly unfortunate as a reduction in the number of games in the BBL is urgently required to revive spectator interest.
2) Expand the competition to ten franchises
Sounds crazy in the current climate, right? Well, not really, if you consider my idea carefully.
The sensible way to pull this off is to expand the BBL to ten teams, while also reducing the total games per season at the same time. Canberra deserves its own franchise. Currently, they only have two teams (at least on the men’s side), which they can call their own: The Brumbies in Rugby Union and Raiders in Rugby League.
So, it’s a market with lots of growth potential, and the summer slot is entirely vacant. Healthy crowds at neutral Big Bash games, as well as Australian men’s games at Manuka Oval show that there is a robust appetite for cricket in the chilly capital city. So, expansion of the BBL to Canberra is a no-brainer for me.
Another exciting expansion option is a combined Pacific Islands Team featuring players from Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea.
Papua New Guinea recently qualified for the T20 World Cup and they possess some genuine, good quality all-round players. They have the largest school cricket programme in the East Asia Pacific - the 2020 BSP School Kriket program - that reached an estimated 1.5 million kids.
Papua New Guinea represents an exciting growth market for cricket in general and the BBL in particular. They have a population of 8.9 million people, which is larger than West Indies and New Zealand. Getting them involved in the BBL will not only do wonders for their cricket but also expand BBL’s broadcast audience.
Combining Papua New Guinea's talent with the very best from Vanuatu (who also feature some potential T20 stars) will make for an exciting BBL franchise team with solid support and also add a distinctive Pacifica flavour to the BBL.
For the sake of convenience and economy, this combined Pacific BBL team may be based in Townsville for the duration of the BBL tournament, thereby avoiding overseas travel.
A single round-robin 10-Team BBL league with a 5-game finals series would feature 50 games, which is still 11 games less than the current 61-game format. By doing so, you would reduce the number of games per BBL season while also expanding cricket’s footprint into new areas and exposing the tournament to new broadcast markets.
3) Increase the starting XI Overseas player quota to three to four
The Australian cricket fraternity has long complained that the BBL talent pool is stretched too thin. Due to the BBL season overlapping with that of the Australian International men’s calender, superstar players such as Pat Cummins, Steve Smith, David Warner, Glenn Maxwell and Mitchell Starc are mostly unavailable to play for their BBL franchises.
Coupled with the BBL’s inability to attract genuine international stars to the competition, these problems get magnified even further.
I understand that adding an additional two franchises to the competition does not sound ideal, but these can be counterbalanced by including a combined Pacific team (as discussed above) and upping the starting XI Overseas Players quota from two to three or four.
There is a mistaken belief among Full Member countries that teams need to field the best players from these traditional nations in order to increase the quality of the competition. This cannot be further from the truth.
There is talent out there in the Associate world which is hungry to perform on the grand stage. Imagine a BBL topped up by the cream of Associate talent such as Oman’s Bilal Khan, UAE’s Rohan Mustafa, Scotland’s George Munsey, Kyle Coetzer or Calum MacLeod, Netherland’s Paul van Meekeren, Pieter Seelaar, Brandon Glover or Max O’Dowd and Namibia’s Gerhard Erasmus and JJ Smit.
Instead of featuring third tier Full member players, these associate cricketers would add so much to the BBL tournament by giving it an unique flavour and make a point of difference.
There are many who are plain tired of seeing Chris Gayle or Andre Russell turn up to play for their 100th franchise. Once again, BBL can look to the CPL for inspiration, The CPL currently has a reserved spot for ICC Americas players, meaning that at least six associate players from that region get to showcase their skills in front of good crowds.
4) Get rid of the ‘silly’ gimmicks
Say what you want about the IPL, CPL or PSL. None of these aforementioned tournaments incorporate gimmicks to the level that BBL do.
There are no bat flips replacing traditional tosses, players getting mic’d up during play, wearing yellow caps and doing chummy in-game interviews with commentators. It adds a layer of cringe factor to the BBL and distracts from the seriousness of the competition.
Let the actual quality of the play with its various ebbs and flows speak for themselves. You do not require contrived accompaniments and gimmicks to liven it up. For me, it honestly smacks of a kind of insecurity that CA seem to have about the BBL competition.
If (heaven forbid), the BBL includes additional gimmicks like in -game substitutions, split powerplays, bonus points and free hits for wides, the tournament risks becoming even more cartoonish and an instant turnoff for many fans.
5) Stop the constant tinkering with the BBL tournament and finals format
Despite operating in a limited broadcast market, the CPL has managed to increase the average fan attendance per game every year from 2016. Also, bear in mind that the total number of games played per season in that competition has stayed the same.
The CPL success proves that you don’t need to engage in constant tinkering with the competition format to retain spectator loyalty.
Instead, by constantly changing the format and the dates of the competition, CA is not letting the BBL establish itself permanently in the Australian psyche. I would advise the BBL to engage in a strategic expansion, implement a simple round-robin season with ten teams and 50 games and stick to it for a while, to see what happens on the spectator front.
A 5-team finals series for a 8-team competition is also frankly ridiculous as it rewards mediocrity. A 5-team finals series would actually work much better in a 10-team competition, where only half the teams will be able to contest for the finals.
So, is the BBL destined to follow Super Rugby into a black hole? Or is there some life still left in the BBL ? Please share your thoughts below about my suggestions to improve the tournament.