Big Bash League: Cricket Australia’s challenge to get people caring more

The Big Bash League has staked its success on being light, disposable entertainment. Is more player movement the key to unlock greater passion? DANIEL CHERNY reports.

The BBL is changing the way overseas players are brought in by clubs. Picture: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
The BBL is changing the way overseas players are brought in by clubs. Picture: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

What’s the most memorable Big Bash League trade of all-time?

If you can even name one, congratulations: you have been given automatic inclusion into the cricket nuffie hall of fame.

For the record there have been just four trades in the competition’s 11-year history. The most recent came in late 2020 when Daniel Worrall moved to the Adelaide Strikers in a straight swap which sent Billy Stanlake to the Melbourne Stars.

The previous trades were Michael Beer to the Stars for James Muirhead, who went to Perth, Adelaide obtaining Ben Dunk from Hobart for Hamish Kingston, and the Hurricanes sending Beau Webster to the Melbourne Renegades for Matthew Wade. That’s actually quite a bit of talent in that list, with six of the eight players to have moved in trades having played for Australia at some stage. But you’d be hard pressed remembering any of that unless you were directly involved. And even then.

Matthew Wade’s trade from the Renegades to the Hurricanes is one of just four to have happened in the BBL. Picture: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images
Matthew Wade’s trade from the Renegades to the Hurricanes is one of just four to have happened in the BBL. Picture: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

That is why Wednesday’s confirmation of the inaugural BBL overseas player draft – a concept two years in the making but delayed repeatedly because of Covid-19 – is a significant step on several fronts.

Cricket Australia hopes that the draft will help ensure the best overseas talent – with the obvious expect of Indian players who remain denied BCCI approval to play away from the Indian Premier League – makes itself available for the BBL, at least in part staving off the serious threats posed from overlapping T20 competitions in South Africa and the United Arab Emirates.

It is conceivable that a top T20 franchise player could make himself available for only a portion of the BBL because of commitments in the UAE, meaning BBL clubs will need to determine whether that player is worth selecting from one of the four ranking bands: platinum, gold, silver and bronze. CA says the pay scale has been set at globally competitive rates.

But perhaps even more important is the matter of legitimacy and relevance for the BBL. The league is on most measures among the most – if not the most – popular domestic sporting competitions in Australia. But it lasts two months at most (many say that is too long) and is then quickly forgotten by pretty much everyone.

The BBL gets next to no media coverage during its 10-month off-season, save for the occasional piece of news about a schedule announcement or player departure (Chris Lynn’s exit from Brisbane Heat created a ripple).

Chris Lynn’s Brisbane Heat exit caused the rarest of BBL off-season ripples. Picture: Chris Hyde/CA/Cricket Australia via Getty Images
Chris Lynn’s Brisbane Heat exit caused the rarest of BBL off-season ripples. Picture: Chris Hyde/CA/Cricket Australia via Getty Images

It would be unrealistic to expect the BBL would in the short-term receive the saturation coverage of the major football codes. But at least having something else to sell between mid-February and the start of December, like a draft, will provide significantly more engagement than what has been on average one trade every two or more years.

There is to an extent a chicken and egg phenomenon. CA positioned the BBL from the outset as lighthearted, easily digestible but quickly disposable summer entertainment. It was not marketed – even down to the name “Big Bash” – as a product for which club diehards would spend hours on fan forums debating the merits of keeping the 17th or 18th player on a club’s list, or whether their club should chase some obscure Afghan spinner.

There are several reasons for this.

The inherent and most central issue is that unlike in the AFL or the NBA, the BBL is not the pinnacle of the sport. The competition lives in a state of natural subordination behind international cricket. As long as it does not have a stand-alone window, it will always have the stench of being a second-rate product. This is not CA or anyone’s fault, it’s just the nature of the cricket ecosystem.

That is not an easily solved problem although CA is preparing to further marginalise home men’s one-day internationals in a bid to free the nation’s top players to play in the BBL.

BBL clubs, little over a decade old, have also not had nearly as long as most of their AFL or NRL counterparts to become entrenched in the hearts and minds of the sporting public. But a child who was seven when the BBL started is now entering adulthood and theoretically has years of memories and team ups and downs, the type of experience upon which sports fandom is based.

The AFL draft helps keep its media landscape ticking over. Picture: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images
The AFL draft helps keep its media landscape ticking over. Picture: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

However, having initially actively sought to play down the pure sporting importance of the BBL, CA is now seeking ways to engage fans in a more substantial and conventional way, with the types of heroes, villains and storylines that captivate supporters in the AFL and NRL.

In this respect the overseas player draft may just be the tip of the iceberg. Options for coming years include allowing draft picks to be traded for players, which would encourage a more active trade period, and foster engagement.

“We did look at different options at building some of those things in, and made the call that we wanted to keep it relatively simple,” says BBL chief Alistair Dobson of the thinking behind the 2022 draft, which will have no such trade mechanism.

“That said there’s some obvious ways it might evolve over the coming years. All those options create a more dynamic draft and keep everyone on their toes.”

A draft for CA-centrally contracted players is another future consideration, but will require the buy-in of the Australian Cricketers’ Association and likely to feature as part of negotiations for the next memorandum of understanding; a one-year deal having been signed earlier this year.

“The ACA have been great around this draft, and how we put this together so I just think it will grow holistically,” says CA consultant Trent Woodhill.

There are however no plans, says Dobson, for CA to publicise BBL player salaries, despite that being the done thing in the IPL, where the eye-watering pay days for players are central to the theatre of the annual auction. It would appear that in Australia, the cultural normalisation of player pay packets remaining confidential – despite the best efforts of the media to figure out who is making what – is too entrenched for the BBL to go down the IPL route.

The BBL will not be following the IPL in making salaries public information.
The BBL will not be following the IPL in making salaries public information.

The truth is that at least for now, some of the BBL’s initiatives will feel contrived. That is nothing new for the competition, whose gimmickry has always had the tendency to irk traditionalists.

But CA is determined to keep trying things.

“The BBL is still such a great entertainment proposition,” Dobson says.

“We have to keep working with our players and our clubs to grow the connection so that not only do fans want to come and experience it, they want to start really caring about the outcome of their team, the players. While there’s a heap of people that already do that, a big focus for us is working with everyone to try to fast-track that … that’s a huge focus for us. It starts with attendance.”

The stakes are high entering into the fifth season of a six-year broadcast rights deal. The primary focus, says Dobson, is maximising crowds after two summers affected by the pandemic.

Television ratings and attendance are generally, but not entirely aligned, making more a delicate balance.

“Our broadcasters tell us really loudly and clearly that big stadiums equals a great TV broadcast at the same time. There’s always points in the scheduling process where there are trade-offs … far more often they’re aligned.”

Daniel Cherny
Daniel ChernyStaff writer

Daniel Cherny is a Melbourne sportswriter, focusing on AFL and cricket. Having started his career at Back Page Lead, Daniel spent eight years at The Age, during which time he covered Australian Test cricket tours of Bangladesh and the UAE, as well as the 2016 Rio Olympics. He has been recognised for both his AFL and cricket writing, including winning the Clinton Grybas Rising Star Award at the 2019 Australian Football Media Association Awards. He is also a compulsive Simpsons quoter.