As the BBL signing window for 2012-13 comes to a close, the competition’s boss Anthony Everard talks to Tony Harper about the success of year one and his future goals.
Cricket Australia revamped its flagship Twenty20 competition, the Big Bash League before last season, with state teams replaced by franchises, a bright colour palette and a level of hype and hyperactivity more X-Games than gentleman’s game.
CA looked to the United States, world leaders in fan engagement, and brought a new experience to an old sport. It was a risk, and they were panned by many in the establishment media, who gagged on the mere mention of “franchise” and “cricket” in the same sentence.
CA found a new home for it on Fox Sports, who produced an award winning coverage, the teams’ media reps (notably Stephen Gray at Brisbane Heat and Jess Cook at Melbourne Stars) brought fresh enthusiasm and a lot of fun to the concept, and most players embraced it too.
David Warner’s Test commitments kept him from playing a significant on-field role but he joined the spirit off it, stripping down to the waist to pose on the cover of Inside Cricket magazine, photoshopped to look like the Incredible Hulk. State teammates found themselves on rival city franchises and engaged in excited banter for our entertainment on Twitter.
There were some issues with availability, and some squads appeared desperately thin with the big boys missing.
But it was a hit, a Chris Gayle-sized hit. Average audience ratings on Fox Sports were up over 80 percent on the previous state-based T20 competition. Attendance for all BBL matches was 550,328 (80 percent greater than the previous record) and 10 percent of fans were attending their first cricket match.
The freshness of the concept resulted in an estimated $94.5m in media exposure value against $13m in 2011 and that brought a significant rise in national awareness. It was an online success, too, with more than a million visits to the Big Bash website.
This year CA is launching T20 Blast – a junior competition they expect will help drive more commitment and fans to the BBL. The franchises are promising some advances in fan engagement following a study tour to the US and input from an American consultancy.
The competition has been back in the news this week with Friday signalling the end of the player transfer window, a process that has generated plenty of chatter around BBL 02.
The man in charge of delivering a successful competition is BBL Manager Anthony Everard. He worked in cricket in the days of the Australian Cricket Board, left the game and came back onto the fold after a period as general manager of netball’s trans Tasman competition, where he had a similar experience of launching a new league.
Everard spoke to SB Insider about the outlook for 2012-13 and beyond, including expansion plans and tactics around the next TV deal.
SB Insider: If you go by the stats, BBL was a breakout hit last season. Why did it resonate?
Anthony Everard: The fact that we play our games at a great time of year, that the games are scheduled through the middle of the school holiday period when people have time on their hands, that it’s a value for money proposition and once you are there it’s three hours of non-stop entertainment. The anecdotal feedback and the deeper research indicates people who go to games have a fun experience and that’s why it has such strong appeal.
We’re happy with the results from year one but there’s upside as well. We play in big venues and we want to make sure those seats are filled. There’s no question we have gotten off to a great start but there’s no doubt we have greater aspirations for the future.
SB Insider: Were the results for season one above your expectations, and is there a pressure now to push on further?
AE: There’s no question we were delighted with a lot of the metrics from the first year of the Big Bash. It’s always difficult when launching a new competition to set realistic expectations. But almost without exception – attendances, TV ratings, the overall interest levels and positive feedback and momentum – it’s fair to say were ahead of our expectations.
To a certain degree the pressure is on us to better that. In the first year you have the luxury of not knowing where the numbers will end up. We now have record pay TV ratings and a number of venues had sold out games. There is no question we have on-going high expectations for the Big Bash. What we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks with the signings window is a fantastic mix of up-and-coming talent with great overseas talent and some legends of the sport in Australia as well. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to continue with great results in the coming season.
SB Insider: There was some snobbery directed at the competition last season. Should that disappear now?
AE: People are always going to be entitled to their opinions and any time you launch a new league you’ll get a variety of feedback. The important thing for us was to try make people understand why the BBL was launched the way it was last year. We had a product available that broadens the appeal of our sport. Cricket is fortunate to have three forms of the game and each has different levels of interest from different demographics.
We wanted to make sure via the Big Bash that we got more young people, families and females involved in the game. We’ve had some good success, albeit in a short time, and we’re confident the strategy is the right one.
SB Insider: The only major issue I had with the BBL last season was the fixture window. Several players were a major part of the pre-BBL hype but barely sighted because of national team commitments.
AE: It’s just a reality that we have a short window to schedule the season and we also have other important aspects around the Australian team that occupy the same time. Wherever possible we avoid direct conflict. Test cricket is during the day, the BBL at night and we’ve tried not to schedule them in the same markets.
But we also found that the fans were happy with the squads. The league is not relying on the availability of those guys right the way through.
SB Insider: There is a distinct American accent to what you are doing, with bands and kiss-cams. You recently joined some other CA staff on a fact-finding mission to the US and have hired American consultants. What is the strategy there?
AE: What is particularly appealing to us from what the US leagues and teams have done is the way they focus their events, and experiences of the events, around the requirements of their fans. One of the key priorities of the BBL is that fans are central to what we do.
We consider ourselves very much an entertainment proposition and believe fans come to the games to have a great experience. We have looked at the States – Major League Baseball, LA Galaxy games in MLS and the X-Games are all events we attended. It was a great opportunity to see how those American sports make fans a central part of the entertainment experience, through a number of ways – vision screens, the way they bring fans into the venues.
We expect to see at the upcoming BBL a number of initiatives the teams have learned from that and can adapt to give our fans a greater experience at BB games.
SB Insider: Success inevitably brings talk of expansion. What’s your timetable for more teams?
AE: We haven’t locked ourselves into a timetable. We’ve only had one season and we’re still a few months away from the second. We still feel there’s a job to do in establishing the existing teams in their local markets. One of our overarching objectives is to attract new audiences. We feel there is still plenty of upside in doing that with the number of teams and games we have now. I would suggest we’re a little way off pushing into new markets with new teams. Down the track, once we have a solid foundation, yes we certainly have aspirations to grow the league and grow the game.
SB Insider: You explored a private ownership model and a Sydney and Melbourne team were put up for bids, before CA decided to not go down that path. Does the success of year one mean that private ownership is back on the agenda?
AE: A huge amount of work was done in the 12 months leading up to the first year around understanding what private investment might involve and what impact it might have on the teams, the league and the broader sport in general. It was determined as a result of that research to put private investment on hold in the short to medium term. That position hasn’t changed irrespective of the first year success.
No one is saying it will never be part of the league but now our focus is on establishing the existing teams, bedding down the foundation within that structure. Private investment is not something we’re looking at in the immediate short term.
There are examples of sports and leagues around the world where private investment is introduced and the focus becomes more on the commercial side and profitability. We’re not saying that’s not important but being able to control our own destiny as a sport is important to us.
SB Insider: Is the A-League a cautionary tale for you? It started with a bang but in the past 12 months went though a miserable time, much of it to do with private ownership issues.
AE: We keep a close eye on what other leagues within Australia and around the word are doing but often there are different circumstances in those sports that may or may not be relevant to cricket.
SB Insider: The TV success last year led to stories that free-to-air stations including Nine were interested in taking some of the BBL pie. What is the latest on TV rights?
AE: Nothing is changing there. We have one more year under our existing agreement with Fox Sports. We had fantastic results with them last year and our focus is about building on that momentum.
We’d like to see some more audience records this year. We’re delighted they won an award for best sports telecast for the BBL at the Astra Awards and we want to help deliver another great season via Fox. What the future holds, who knows?
There are other Cricket Australia rights up for renewal within a similar time frame so there’s a broader discussion to take place around how the different forms will be telecast in future.
SB Insider: So the deal might be done as a package of the three forms, rather than separately?
AE: That’s the plan but how that pans out with the broadcasters remains to be seen. Big Bash is a product of CA and there are other products on the table at the same time so it’s likely discussions will be around those products as a single entity.