If you’ve been following resident ABC statistician Ric Finlay’s Twitter account, which of course absolutely everyone should, you’ll be aware that crowds for the current Big Bash season are down on last year. Quite a bit down as it turns out: in the region of 15% or so. This is a sizeable dip, but not one that has gone noticed much elsewhere. If you were just following the Channel Ten coverage, or on the Cricket Australia website, you’d hear little other than this year’s tournament being another massive success. In reality, things seem to be becoming a little…stale. It just doesn’t quite feel like such a momentous event anymore.
We’d be the first ones to champion all things Big Bash, being longtime devotees to the concept. Stretching back to its earliest days when the Sydney Thunder played at Homebush Stadium in front of three people and a couple of mangy dogs. Back when the explosive Chris Rogers was one of their ‘big names’ (seriously).
Since then the standard of the competition has risen sharply but seems to have fluctuated quite a bit subsequently, largely dependent on the quality of overseas imports. This year the standard has been there or thereabouts. Not particularly earth-shattering, but at least Trent Lawford isn’t getting a game anymore, so things can’t be too bad.
But it cannot be denied that the lustre of the competition has dulled somewhat. This is partly owing to the Ashes of course, and the fact that the current ODI series, ahead of the next World Cup, is actually interesting for once. The opposing narratives of Australia rebuilding and England fine-tuning makes for compelling viewing. An ODI series having actual meaning is so rare it feels like a novelty.
Of course, a further factor is the absence of Chris Lynn. Although he only played half of last season he dominated the tournament, and without him, the competition seriously lacks a drawcard player. It still contains a lot of ‘big’ names, like Johnson, McCullum, Bravo and Wade (lol) but nobody who is going to draw a big crowd all on their own like Lynn can.
In this respect it feels like the competition has plateaued, and given Indian players will never feature in it, it’s hard to see how it could further improve without the injection of some serious overseas talent on the scale of Steyn, de Villiers et al. Mystery foreign leggies might be carving up opposition batting lineups but people tend to gravitate towards the simpler things in life: players who bowl really, really fast or smack the ball a long way.
But the big issue is the length of the competition. This season saw it expanded with a ‘regional’ round, which we would argue was a very good idea in theory. But it can’t be denied that the tournament already feels bloated. It’s already struggling to fit into its natural window between Christmas and the end of January, and, like most who overindulge in the new year, is beginning to stretch out unseemingly on either side.
In the wise words of Ed Cowan, the Big Bash risks becoming a G&T with too much gin. Or, in our experience, too little tonic. Future expansion plans will only throw this balance out further, resulting in a misshapen monstrosity played in half-empty stadia.
This is all occurring in the shadow of a new round of TV rights negotiations, and the reality that Channel Ten will almost certainly be outbid by one of its rivals. The Big Bash on Channel Nine sounds like a death sentence to us, and it being on Channel Seven sounds hardly any better. But these are the only serious competitors with the financial clout necessary to stump up the sort of dough Cricket Australia dreams about.
The problem, as we’ve argued before, is that Cricket Australia risks crippling its most valuable asset through overindulgence. The domestic cricket calendar has already been dismembered to make way for the Big Bash. Increasing it in size will only exacerbate that further, pushing the Sheffield Shield even further into the margins (if that were even possible…). Additionally audience interest, outside of the key Christmas period, just doesn’t seem to be there. Except in Perth of course, where they’ll turn up in droves to watch anything that distracts them from the horror of their everyday lives under the iron fist of mining magnates.
As this season is proving, if you take away the massive crowds (the MCG has barely come close to selling out, for instance, but that might be because the Melbourne Stars are utter crap), a lot of the appeal of the competition diminishes. It becomes just another attraction in a landscape that is absolutely saturated with them. The Big Bash is increasingly entangled in a competition for attention with the international calendar, the Australian Open, the A-League, fearmongering over African gangs and Zelda on the Nintendo Switch. And it’s a competition the Big Bash is not necessarily going to win anymore.
If this trend continues, and it’s hard to see why it wouldn’t, the Big Bash would lose a lot of what made it distinctive: massive crowds and intense competition. To retain that sense of occasion there is really only the one solution: keep it short and keep it simple. And if that doesn’t work, they could try what the A-League did and get a few marquee players on board. What’s Emile Heskey doing these days?