Last week I received an email from Simon Cousins, an Australian Kent fan living in Sydney. We got chatting about the Big Bash and whether Harrison’s Harebrained Have A Hit would be a success. Simon’s responses were so detailed and enlightening that I felt compelled to share them. He makes some very good points. Here’s what he had to say …
Much is made by supporters of the new ECB T20 city-based tournament of the success of the Australian Big Bash. Unfortunately, however, they often use misleading statistics.
Comparing attendances between the current county T20 tournament and the Big Bash is futile. All the Australian Big Bash games are played at massive capital city stadiums. Most of the county games are played at much smaller provincial county headquarters. A better measure, if available, would be the attendances as a percentage of stadium capacities.
Although many claim that the Big Bash is thriving in Australia without hurting test cricket, I’m not so sure. And I say this as a resident of Sydney. For starters, I’m not convinced that attendances and television viewing figures for test cricket are holding up. After doing some research I discovered that figures can be used to show two very contrasting stories – that test cricket down under is both declining and in rude health. It depends what evidence one looks for.
Many argue that viewing figures for test cricket have held up well since the Big Bash was introduced. However, these statistics are boosted significantly by Ashes series (Aussies love nothing more than watching their cricketers whitewash the Poms) plus one-off events like day/night tests. But will the novelty value of these occasions last?
I’m also not convinced that the Big Bash has led to a renewed love affair with cricket in Australia, nor that a similar model would work in the UK. The Big Bash has an advantage that no similar English competition could ever enjoy – it’s shown exclusively on free to air television (not just a few token games). It’s therefore accessible to practically every home in the country.
What’s more, the Big Bash is also played during the long summer holiday. At that time of year, Australian broadcasters traditionally do not show high-rating television programmes. Big Bash cricket is therefore largely unchallenged as the choice of evening entertainment for families across the nation – at least until the Australian Open tennis starts in mid-January. Broadcaster Channel 10 makes the most of this, with levels of promotion both before and during the tournament which mean that few people in the country cannot be aware that it is taking place.
There is no such television shutdown during the English summer that would allow T20 cricket to be the nation’s unchallenged favourite entertainment. Indeed, in early August, right when an English T20 tournament would be reaching its climax, the behemoth that is the Premier League returns from its three-month break, crushing all rival sports.
I’m also not sure whether the Big Bash is a true sporting competition. At times it’s more like exhibition cricket. I know people who attended a match but were unable to tell me the next morning which team won. I wonder whether a majority of Australian cricket ‘tragics’ could actually tell you who won the last edition of the Big Bash. The tournament is almost a holiday tradition, in the same way that secular societies sing Christmas carols with gusto: it’s all good fun but there’s no real meaning behind it. People watch the Big Bash but do they really develop a passion and a deeper affinity for the game?
Perhaps I could summarise my feelings thus: I can walk to the shops and see people wearing rugby league, Australian Rules and even football shirts. But I’ve never seen anyone outside a stadium wearing a replica T20 top. After all, how can anyone develop an affection for a team that exists for just six weeks every year and whose personnel transform from one year to the next? At least a county T20 tournament can build on existing loyalties.
Finally, the geographic differences between Australia and England are significant. The majority of the Australian population lives within one hour of the vast capital city stadiums which host Big Bash games. A much smaller population lives within a similar catchment area of England’s (less sizeable) test grounds. Cricket supporters outside the major English cities will therefore be deprived of live top quality T20 cricket when the city-based tournament starts. How is this going to grow the game?
Having said all the above, there is much to learn from the success of the Big Bash in Australia. Low ticket prices combined with free to air television coverage have introduced cricket to new audiences. Cricket Australia has shrewdly capitalised on this with programmes to get youngsters involved in the game that are already bearing fruit, particularly amongst girls who may be inspired by the excellent Women’s Big Bash.
I just wish that administrators around the world would put as much effort into promoting test cricket as T20 cricket. In January of this year, Cricket Australia made entry free for the final day of the Sydney test match. They expected such a low crowd that only one side of the ground was opened. By midday they were so overwhelmed by families coming in (including mine) that the entire ground had to be opened.
With kids’ entertainment all around the SCG, the atmosphere was fantastic. Whatever revenue was lost from ticket sales was, I am fairly confident, offset by sale of merchandise. Surely that shows that there is a demand for test cricket across all demographics that administrators need to tap in to?