BBL popularity a product of Scorchers’ success

It was pleasing to see the Perth Scorchers romp to victory over the Sixers in last night’s BBL decider and lift the trophy for the third time in the competitions six-year history. As a Brisbane fan, you might think that I’m still bitter from Friday nights epic which saw the Sydney based franchise overcome the Heat on their home patch, in front of a record-breaking domestic crowd and during a super-over that had more twists and turns than a Bollywood drama. But I’m not. Last night typified exactly why this competition continues to go from strength to strength in terms of popularity while other t20 competitions around the world are stagnating. Teams like the Perth Scorchers, on beautifully sunny summer evenings at intimate grounds like the WACA, are what defines the competition. The three trophies the Scorchers now have stowed away in their trophy cabinet have not only set a precedent for the other franchises, but layed the foundations for future rivalries, traditions and has given the BBL a sense of history and context.

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Perth Scorchers, three titles in four years.

Given that t20 domestic league fixtures give fans instant gratification, but rarely last long in the memory, shows what the success of the Perth Scorchers in the third, fourth and sixth edition have done to give the BBL a platform from which it can grow its brand, allowing the fan to buy into the history of a contrived competition whose aim will always be to raise revenue and subsidise the less popular formats, but has managed to grow an unprecedented backing simultaneously.

Next year the competition will grow, with CA confirming in the days just past that each team will play an extra game, increasing the competition from 32 matches to 40. This is a win for both the fan, who craves more of the history that this years’ BBL has created, and the administrators, who use it as a vehicle for increased revenue and participation rates. Only one of the aforementioned by-products doesn’t promise to trigger a self implosion.

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A packed Gabba crowd watch the opening BBL fixture.

The Australian Open TV ratings have been smashed by those of the Big Bash this year and this comes as no surprise when you consider how CA have marketed its love child. The casual tennis fan couldn’t recall who won the 1976 Australian Open because its history, while steeped in glory, stretches right back to just after the turn of the nineteenth century and not a lot has changed since. Not the coverage, the fan or the structure. The BBL, on the other hand, is hip, modern and resonates with the young and old because of team’s like the Perth Scorchers, that have given a previously listless competition relevance and delivered excitement around match results in an era where immediacy determines a viewers enjoyment levels.

For now, the Big Bash will be in the back of our minds as the end of the cricket season signals the rather swift transition into the marathon football season which begins to warm up next weekend. But as soon as the 2017/18 competition rolls around – with its new look and expanded geographical reach that keeps it from becoming repetitive and hence unattractive to the viewer who tunes into the cricket for one and a half months every year – all of the memories of season’s past return to give the competition context, prompting excitement in a way that only test matches against the big three have been able to previously.

Technological innovations are both a blessing and a curse for t20 cricket

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Brad Hodge on the mic during the IPL – Photo: Wisden India

Cricket has a lot to thank for the introduction of various technological innovations that have made the t2o format a more engaging and entertaining product. From helmet cams – that were brought in as a way of allowing the viewers to share the players view from the sanctity of their own living room – to on-field mic’s – which have allowed each and every person that tunes into the television coverage to get a sense of what is going through a captains mind, or what area of the ground a batsman is looking to target – cricket has gone through many different stages of development and now looks more technically savvy than ever. These have led to some of the most memorable moments in the brief history of t20 franchise cricket. But just last week, BBL host broadcasters Channel Ten crossed the fine line that divides entertainment and contest integrity, which must be upheld if the hit-and-giggle format is to maintain a semblance of legitimacy and be taken seriously.

The access to the players that Channel Ten and their viewers are granted during each contest is groundbreaking and undoubtedly one of the great pleasures of tuning into a franchise slog-fest. Listening to Kevin Pietersen as he describes his approach to the art of batting, albeit in the t20 format, is as close as you can get to a money can’t buy experience and gives both the casual observer, who mightn’t have the foggiest idea about the intricacies and strategies behind scoring runs, and the traditionalist a unique insight that helps one study their own approach against that of a well-trained professional who has succeeded at the top level. But the on-field mic, which was designed for t20 cricket and has become a mainstay ever since, is a gimmick that should remain exclusive to t2o cricket. There is no place for it in the longer formats where a players attention must go undivided and where, like stealing pages from the playbook, on-field comments could be noted down and used to strategise in the oppositions next team meeting. Fancy having David Warner or Alastair Cook micd up during the first over of an Ashes test match. The players piecing together their thoughts and emotions like a jigsaw puzzle in a pressure cooker environment would be a remarkably insightful experience, but its hard to argue that it would not have some kind of influence on their concentration levels or put their decision making off kilter. And that’s without even mentioning how tacky and modern it would make the coverage of a traditional rivalry, which thrives off the charm of its history, appear to the millions of viewers that expect the cricket be played in its purist form.

The events of last week, which saw a Channel Ten commentator deliver statistics to the micd up Brad Hodge at a crucial junction during the BBL clash between the Thunder and Strikers, caused a stir amongst fans and led to CA issuing a rather candid statement, but, quite strangely, failed to mention that they would be taking any action on the matter. It is also the perfect example of why player mics, helmet cams and anything that may influence or change the course of events should be limited to the shortest form only, ensuring that the integrity of a game is never compromised by stats, dossiers or otherwise.

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The scene of the crime

The comments made on air rolled heads at the time they were made, including that of Kevin Pietersen who has been vocal on the need to ensure that the entertainment factor of t20 cricket is upheld at all times as this is, by and large, what has allowed the format to reach out to a new audience. But even his umbrage towards the exchanging of information was plain to see when he repeated the phrase ‘very naughty’ and began to giggle uncontrollably as Brad Hodge signalled to Ben Laughlin that he would be bowling to his ‘bunny’ Shane Watson in the very next over.

Of course, players are given access to the kind of data that was disseminated to Brad Hodge by the Channel Ten commentary team before each game and its hard to imagine that he wasn’t already aware that Shane Watson had a weakness to the off-pace bowling of Ben Laughlin. Particularly when the statistical outlier is so obvious it would be staring the teams’ statistician in the face when he runs through the ‘Form Guide’ in the lead up to the game. But the fact that the information which passed hands changed the course of events, and was given during a crucial period in the game by a third party that has no business in relaying information to players, makes this an easy case to solve.

Setting up a network between well informed commentator and under pressure captain is not what we want to see the player mics used for. Just like we wouldn’t want our footballers to be tipped off about a goal kickers record from a particular angle prior to a conversion attempt by Ray Warren or Phil Gould. Not only would it detract from the legitimacy of the game, it could change who steps up to take the kick.

The role of the broadcaster is to educate the viewer if they manage to stumble upon a statistical anomaly in their dimly lit commentary box that looks more like the Big Brother confession chamber than a place of opinion filled by those who are most qualified to comment. They mustn’t abuse their access to the big name players or have that privilege taken away from them like a misbehaving spoilt child who has their favourite toy confiscated by their parents. Channel Ten have done wonders for the game of cricket in this country and their coverage and commentary is to be applauded. But their ignorance and inexperience in this case has shown that cricket’s broadcasters must tip toe with caution across the tightrope that divides technological innovations and the integrity of a tournament that is quickly gaining validity amongst fans, but continues to have some of the traditional rules and regulations bent because its primary goal is to entertain the masses and maximise revenue.

Hottest ticket in town: how the Brisbane Heat have become fan favourites

We’ve reached the halfway mark of BBL six. The Brisbane Heat are top of the pops and the support from their fans is following suit. Like any great franchise with adequate financial support and exposure to a thriving sports market, success equals greater interest and that is exactly what the Heat have achieved this season.

Lynn and McCullum, coined the ‘Bash Brothers’ for their unique six-hitting ability and the game-breaking partnerships they have, will be separated in the coming week which will see some of the Heat’s young guns vie for a position. Reardon, Heazlett, Labuschagne and Doolan are all in line for the number three spot to be vacated by Lynn this Wednesday night when the Heat take on the Scorchers at the Gabba.

Lynn’s departure from the Heat to join the ODI squad has come as a shock to none given his scores this season which included a remarkable, game winning knock against the Sydney Thunder. He’s given the Heat the spark they needed to show the competition they are capable of mixing it with the marquee clubs, while McCullum’s experience alongside Peirson at the top of the order has proven the difference between the mediocre totals they were able to produce last year in his absence, and the big runs they’ve racked up in BBL|06.

There is no question that these two players, and the feats they achieve on a game by game basis without fail, put bums on seats at the Gabba. Their ability to clear the ropes more often than many of their peers is considered a desirable quality among modern viewers who would rather sit on their porch and watch paint dry than buy a ticket to a six hour day of test match cricket. In many ways we should be concerned that the oldest form of the game is being viewed in this way, but if t20 is the format keeping cricket afloat in this country, we must embrace the change and let it blossom like a flower in the sunlight and never let it whither.

The loss of a major player can often turn many fans away from heading to the ground to see their team in the flesh. It may also cause them to think twice about their chances of making the Americanised “play-off” stage and then the “Big Final”. But the Heat are quickly rising to prominence and are now a sporting brand as popular as the Brisbane Lions who, for five short years, were the indisputable rulers of the supporter base roost in Brisbane.

The Big Bash’s positioning during the school holidays, which has allowed adults to bring along their child to the cricket to see their heroes in action with the promise of a party-like atmosphere in-between, has been the biggest contributor to the Heat’s popularity and has sent crowd figures through the roof. The fact that a supporter can now ride the highs and lows of their side through an entire season on terrestrial television, unlike the other major sporting codes in Australia where fans may go weeks without seeing their team play if they don’t have access to pay TV, has inspired a generation and created a product whose narrative is easy to follow.

When word was released by the major newspaper chains that tickets to their opening home game were being scalped through online dealers, cricket and the Heat brand had officially reached its peak. Only the Lions during their pomp saw fans take more drastic measures to get their hands on the hottest ticket in town.

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The Brisbane Heat’s first home game against the Hobart Hurricanes in front of 36,000 fans

Such was their dominance at the time, the demand for tickets meant the beating heart of the Lions and the Gabba was moved off site for the sake of 5,000 seats, raising the capacity to 42,000. But the Brisbane Lions haven’t experienced the same success since and the Gabba has gone unfilled for the majority of the last decade. Even the test matches hosted in Brisbane, including the recently concluded day/ night phenomenon, have failed to pack out the Gabba in the same way the Heat do. Perhaps this says more about the format and the league than the team. But it is difficult to argue that the Heat, and the brand it has created, is not at least a factor in the continued support from the Brisbane public.

The domestic cricket crowd records at the Gabba have been smashed since the Heat came into existence six years ago and if they continue their exciting style of play more will be set. Only the Sheffield Shield final of 1994/95, which saw AB captain Queensland to their first title in front of a boisterous and die-hard-filled crowd in the days before the Gabba was turned into a concrete amphitheater, would be a bigger moment in the history of Queensland cricket. The success the Shield side experienced during 2011 and 2012, which culminated in a home final at the Gabba, were sparsely attended and are now barely remembered thanks to t20 cricket. But if the Heat make it all the way to the final in late January – pending performance, injury and the myriad variables which all play a role in how far a side can prolong its campaign – fans will flock to the ticket gates, members will race to grab the most prized seats in the house and the Gabba will see crowd numbers eclipse 40,000 for the first time since the grandstands were built.

It’s difficult to think that AB and his boys wouldn’t have attracted a sizable crowd had the stands been built during the nineties. There was no t20 to compete with, domestic cricket had a spiking pulse and corporate greed wasn’t taking the game to the brink of extinction like it is today. Being at the Gabba when AB raced around the outfield with the Shield held aloft will forever be the most cherished moment in Queensland cricket’s history. It may even be the most memorable at the Gabba. But there is no doubting that the atmosphere inside the ground if the Heat were to make a Big Bash final this year, or in the future, would give the larrikans who populated the Gabba hill on the final day of the 1994/95 Sheffield Shield final a run for their money in the prestige stakes. “I was their when the Bulls won their first Shield” might be a more revered statement than “I saw the Heat take out the Big Bash title” for the time being. But with the BBL continuing to grow in popularity on a worldwide scale, the ignorance of the t20 minded follower may drown out the voices of those who believe winning a Shield is the pinnacle of domestic cricket in Australia. Particularly when you consider which would receive greater media coverage.

Brendan McCullum may be hoisting a nondescript trophy with little historical relevance on the very same patch of grass that AB received that all important Shield 22 years ago, and there are question marks over which will hold greater importance to the average fan. It’s an interesting thought that the memories of that final may fade from history with the patrons who hold onto them as a result of the popularity of a format that wasn’t even conceived when the game that defined cricket in Queensland was played. But we must roll with the times and if t20 cricket titles, played in a Baseball style league, are held in higher regard than a Sheffield Shield crown, than this is a sad reality that Australian cricket must face. Even if these monumental shifts in focus spell trouble for the future successes of the Australian test side.

How the BBL’s unprecedented rise is endangering the popularity and relevance of test cricket in Australia

Andre Russell’s black painted bat, which he brandished during the Sydney Smash three nights ago, is another blatant example of cricket’s bold journey into uncharted territory.

The t20 format’s brief history is rife with groundbreaking innovations that have made the game a more attractive product that appeals to a wider range of audiences and Dre Russ’ colourful blade, when the chinks are worked out, will undoubtedly continue this legacy.

Zing Bails, boundary-side dancers, music played after each delivery, flamethrowers and rocket men are just some of the features that have made the shortest form as unique and flashy as many of America’s major sporting codes. And these are the components of cricket that will become commonplace amongst each and every format of the game when Australia’s next generation – who will be totally unaware of how the Big Bash rose to prominence after its humble beginnings on pay TV as a state based competition – are introduced to the game.

Channel Ten’s advertising campaign sprouts the idea that the beginning of the Big Bash season marks the true start of summer, just as the Boxing Day test once put a punctuation mark on the festive season. And they might just be on the money with this assumption.

It’s no longer test cricket that steals the limelight at this time of year and any matches played prior to the beginning of the t20 season are in danger of loosing their relevance in the not to distant future. After all, most concertgoers skip the front bands in favour of the local pub because they are only really interested in the main event.

Can you name the fights that preceded the Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather bout in 2015? No? That’s because they held far less importance in the context of the event as a whole.

The Australian reported recently that BBL player payments will increase under CA’s new payment scheme in a move that is likely to have major ramifications for the Sheffield Shield and Matdor BBQ’s ODC competitions.

When the BBL television rights are once again put up for sale next year, the $20 million price tag Channel Ten snapped them up for last time they were on the open market is tipped to increase astronomically.

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Cricket’s bold journey into a new and uncertain decade. Getty Images

A raise in BBL player payments, to a level that well and truly supersedes the average retainer for a state cricketer, will force players to question which career route is the most viable for them and what benefits the can derive from participating in all three formats. A decision that may be affected by a number of variables.

The short life span of fast bowlers in the longer forms of the game is likely to sway their thinking while living arrangements and age are two other factors that will influence a players career move.

Expanding the competition into other Australian regions and increasing the number of fixtures played across the summer is the ideal way to grow the competition, expand its geographical reach and give more players the opportunity to compete at a professional level. But cricket is a case unto itself. Other popular sports around the world don’t have multiple formats and are incapable of cutting off their noses despite their face in a way that cricket can by giving the most profitable format all the resources and attention it needs to outperform the others. And this is exactly what CA are risking by increasing the number of games in a season and by giving its players greater incentive to pursue a lucrative career in the shorter form of the game, which is over in just three hours and provides as many opportunities as a long career in the Baggy Green, less the injuries.

The West Indies is home to a swathe of specialist franchise players and the national side, in all formats outside of t20 cricket, has seen sharp declines in performance as a result of the unavailability of their star players, who have been lost to the world’s biggest tournaments.

Gayle, Bravo and Russel, some of the West Indies most gifted cricketers, have spent their careers traveling from country-to-country like cricketing gypsies to take part in the various franchise competitions and have made as much, if not more, than their test-playing counterparts in doing so. In this case though, it was the board’s failure to pay its players an adequate wage that set them on the rebel path to franchise stardom, it wasn’t a matter of the governing body putting all their eggs in one basket and leaving its other formats to die off without anyone raising an eyebrow – although there are multiple parallels that can be drawn between the irresponsibility of the two cases.

Australia does not want to experience a mass exodus on a West Indian like scale.

CA has created a popular product and deserves to lap up their new found fortunes but could make minced meat of test cricket’s popularity in this country and its major breeding ground (Sheffield Shield) if the Big Bash continues to grow without restraint.

Television and t20 cricket are a more dynamic pairing than Starsky and Hutch and this partnership doesn’t look like taking a dive anytime soon. The NRL and AFL received in excess of $1 billion following their last broadcast rights deal and by the time the Big Bash manages to eclipse these numbers the cricketing landscape will have experienced dramatic rearrangements and scheduling changes that benefit both the broadcaster and CA, who require the revenue generated by the Big Bash to subsidise their investments in the Shield and domestic one day competitions – the running of which provides CA with little financial gain.

The BBL has become far more popular than test match cricket in Australia and this is a truth the traditionalists must accept.

Its move to FTA television three years ago has given it the legs to overtake the traditional form in terms of TV viewership and crowd figures. But we risk diluting the pool of talent at state level and test cricket’s importance if BBL games are let to spread across the summer like a super virus.

CA’s new found admiration for the shortest format is obvious but it must allow all formats to coexist if we are to maintain interest across the board. And that starts with keeping the schedule as it is – so not to disrupt the Sheffield Shield any more than is currently the case – and keeping player wages equal across all formats to disparage specialisation.

T20 innovations have made an imprint on test cricket and are the precursor to a entirely different cricketing landscape that is already beginning to take shape.