Lavalette column: Big bash losing its mojo in dismal summer

Having covered a fair amount of the Big Bash League (BBL) over the years, I’ve always been struck by its fragility despite the undoubted fanfare behind it. Its swift rise has been one of the most remarkable success stories in Australian sport, but the BBL’s overwhelming popularity felt like a fad.

With Cricket Australia and broadcasters straining its money spinner, the overstretched and watered down BBL is now on the nose. It was particularly jarring seeing the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) almost barren for a pivotal late-season match.

A crowd of just over 8,000 watched last week’s clash between Sydney Sixers and Adelaide Strikers in the lowest ever attended BBL match at the SCG. The paltry attendance added fuel to the sudden national obsession of attempting to fix the slumping BBL.

After reportedly being in damage control with concerned broadcasters, Cricket Australia (CA) is plotting changes to next season and a potential remedy could include starting the season a week later to Boxing Day. It’s a far cry to when the BBL was riding a surge of momentum just a few years
ago and buoyed by huge crowds and strong television ratings.

Its decline in popularity has been gradual the past couple of seasons and now seemingly reached a critical juncture where everyone is trying to be a problem solver. To be clear, the BBL
is still strong and no one could have imagined this goldmine injection into Australian cricket a decade ago.

Most probably it only needs some tweaking but, still, it is undeniably concerning that the BBL is starting to grate. The main bone of contention revolves around the BBL’s elongated scheduling with this season stretched out to 59 matches, an increase of 16 matches as part of the (AUD) $1.1 billion television deal with Fox Sports and Channel 7.

The eight teams play 14 games each in a proper home-and-away format, which makes a great deal of sense, except is has blown out the season to two months and well past the prime period of the school holidays. The BBL has been invaluable in luring a new wave of fans to the sport, especially kids and families, but they don’t particularly want the tournament to go well into February when school returns.

The miserable Sixers-Strikers crowd figure shouldn’t surprise with it held the night before school returned. Most of the matches in February are on weekends but, still, quite a number of people have told me that they were not going to attend the Perth Scorchers’ match on Sunday February 3, which starts at 6.15pm local time.

One teenaged Scorchers fan told me it was too difficult to attend because he wouldn’t get home until after 11.30pm.

It is a sentiment echoed by several others I talked to at a recent Scorchers game and obviously manifests into a bit of general apathy towards the tournament on the whole. Many of these fans have been recent converts to cricket because of the BBL and if you start alienating them then there is the risk that they will be lost from the sport forever. Maybe some already have been.

The other common criticism I’ve heard from fans has centered on the declining standard of the BBL
– exacerbated by several slow-paced pitches. International headliners such as AB de Villiers and Andre Russell have chosen the lucrative and shortened Bangladesh Premier League ahead of the BBL, which has always suffered from the absence of its best Australian players due to scheduling conflicts.

ESPNcricinfo reported that BBL chiefs want overseas players to be paid outside of the salary cap, which is currently a modest (AUD) $1.7 million. That might lure more international stars but, undoubtedly, Australian fans are also craving their top players in the BBL.

With the busy international summer concurrently held, it has not been possible for Australia’s best players to be part of the BBL. The only solution would be to dedicate a BBL-only window, much like the Indian Premier League. Perhaps the month of January could be entirely dedicated to the BBL but, of course, outcry would ensue that it is getting precedence over international cricket. There is probably no magical formula and the current home-and-away season is locked in for the six-year duration of the broadcasting agreement.

Watching closely, surely, is the ECB which will unveil its mysterious ‘The Hundred’ competition in 2020 alongside the T20 Blast. One wonders how such a mishmash of an-already crowded England summer will have any cohesion.

A more practical approach seems to be either continuing to build the T20 Blast or putting all the chips on the table and ensuring the new 100-ball competition is done properly.

The ECB should take heed over Australia’s erratic scheduling which has caused wider issues and forced CA into a potential overhaul in a desperate bid to better integrate the neglected Sheffield Shield and forgotten 50-over tournament. If this BBL season can be viewed as a cautionary tale, a simplistic formula of success can be boiled down to this: it should be short and sharp headlined by marquee international and local players with matches played on livelier pitches.

Take note, ECB.

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