SWINGING FOR THE FENCES
Updated: Jul 10, 2020
This article was originally published on March 6th, 2019.
Australia is currently in the middle of one of the most remarkable sporting success stories, and it comes from the cricket field.
Cricket has been one of the main sports in Australia for over 100 years and it has recently received a makeover, with The Big Bash League (BBL).
The new league that launched in 2011, is now a regular feature of the Australian summer. The BBL has been attracting new audiences in record numbers, becoming a hit, particularly with women and children, across the country.
Decline of Cricket
In 2010, cricket in Australia was at the crossroads. It had lost a generation of Test and One-Day International champions, and was struggling on and off the field.
Cricket Australia (CA), the national governing body of cricket, was forced to address a core question: was the game as it was then structured well-placed to compete in the emerging Australian sports market?
The answer was a resounding ‘no.’ Cricket was too middle-aged, white, and ‘blokey’. According to research conducted by CA cricket was losing the youth market.
For boys aged under 15, cricket was their seventh favorite sport and for girls, it was their 14th.
CA decided to create a tournament to attract and engage new fans. Focusing mainly on introducing the youth, families, and female audiences to the sport of cricket, in a bid to protect the future of the game.
“Cricket is very popular here in Australia and abroad, but there was a significant part of our population that was not engaged in the sport. This is due in large part to an increasingly larger proportion of immigrants coming to Australia from countries that don’t play cricket. Therefore, our core goal was to launch a product specifically targeted towards people who did not care much for the sport,” explains Anthony Everard (@AnthonyEverard5), Head of the BBL.
Glitz, Glamour and Pyrotechnics
CA identified early on that fans often forgot the results of games but always remembered the show.
Therefore, they identified that they should deliver entertainment that also happened to have a cricket match involved.
The result was the Big Bash League, a quick three-hour entertainment spectacular with enough glitz, glamour and pyrotechnics to hook the family into returning for more, a perfect fusion of sport and entertainment. Which some have described as combining 'a Major League Baseball game with a visit to Disney World.'
Although cricket remained its core product, value-added entertainment initiatives became critical to keep the younger fans interested. Traditionally, test cricket has been a game you leave on the TV all day at home, sitting down every now and again to check the score and watch the highlights. BBL’s snackable content means parents are happy to take their children to the event and share the ‘’collective experience’’ of entertainment.
It suits kids perfectly, it’s a shorter format with plenty of other entertainment, fireworks, cheerleaders, mascots, big screens, prizes, international cricket stars, commentary directly from the players – the whole package appeals to young people who are used to constant stimulation.
Kids are exposed to and at times demand, instant gratification. The BBL delivers this almost every night of the summer – a time of the year when, traditionally, there have been few sporting options.
The BBL decided early on it wasn’t going to be all things to all consumers,. The strategy was simple: own families. Fortunately, the BBL was disciplined enough to know that to own families, teams need to nurture fans before they can engage with them. From the league’s inception, they scaled a simple approach to family fan engagement that was rooted in the repeatable process of:
1) Grow; 2) Engage, and 3) Transact.
Every aspect of Big Bash has been organized around maximizing the opportunity for fans to attend games. The season starts when the school year finishes and finishes when the school year starts. With an absence of cost-effective things to do during the summer months in Australia, a family of four can attend a BBL game for just $40.
Above all, when league attendance the first few years was modest, Big Bash continued to focus on developing enduring relationships with its targeted fan base instead of using short-term marketing gimmicks that could fill seats but would hurt the league's brand in the long run.
The BBL has been a triumph in marketing, however, its biggest weakness remains its alienation of the traditional cricket audiences. Who have been turned off by the adrenaline-charged version of the game that hasn’t changed much in the last century?
However, the BBL never had the intention of catering to them anyway. This is precisely why the league has been so incredibly successful. but is also counter-intuitive to how every other professional sports league in the world operates. Unlike the BBL, most upstart sports leagues don’t intentionally try to alienate traditional fans of the game, an approach that is almost guaranteed to end in disaster.
The BBL has continued to push the boundaries of innovative fan engagement. The BBL introduced flashing wickets which light up when the bails are dislodged. They are now being used in international matches.
The league is famous for its fluorescent team colors, which are now widely seen being worn by kids across Australia, something that traditional cricket uniforms could never do.
The event was also the first to experiment with player microphones, where commentators can chat to players and helmet cameras.
More innovation arrived this previous season as organizers decided to break with tradition and scrap the coin toss to decide who bats first. Instead, team captains will flip a bat, calling "hills" or "flats" rather than heads or tails, a practice which is straight out of children’s backyard cricket game.
Drive-to-school days with star players to monster-truck promotions and endless post-game autograph signing sessions, the BBL has cultivated the mum and kid’s market.
In doing so, CA has collaborated with entertainment industry heavyweights. During the 2015/16 season, CA and Warner Brothers joined forces to promote the film Batman v Superman during BBL games.
BBL also joined forces with the children’s entertainment network Nickelodeon, in 2016, to produce Crash the Bash. A kids show with a Big Bash flavor.
Cricket’s a man’s sport, right? Wrong…
Aside from capturing the imagination and interest of young Australians, BBL has also attracted a huge female audience.
Part of the league’s ongoing growth strategy was the launch of the WBBL in 2015. A women’s league that replicates the men’s competition closely. The branding of the clubs is the same, and often the women and men play doubleheaders. Not surprisingly, the WBBL was so well received that broadcast partners added additional games to the schedule this season. In fact, the recent WBBL Melbourne derby earlier this month drew 12,901 spectators, with a peak TV audience of 439,000 viewers and a national average of 372,000. By comparison, the WNBA drew an average of 7,318 fans a game, while combined television viewership fell by 14% to 202,000 viewers.
The direction chosen for the BBL was an immediate success with solid crowds, massive TV viewership figures and even the successful launch of the Women's BBL in 2015 the competition is going from strength to strength.
After only it's sixth season the BBL had become the fifth-most attended sports league in the world. On average 30,000 attended each game, with total attendances topping the million mark.
The surge in popularity can be attributed to BBL’s ability to snugly fit a three-hour game into primetime television. The BBL has proved “a great television product” which captures onscreen “the fan experience” of being at the match.
Around 1.13 million viewers watched each game, with 35% being females, indicating that the BBL’s marketing strategy had cut through.
As a result, the coverage has increased viewers' demand to experience the BBL live. Furthermore, the length of the BBL season has proved successful, as it slots neatly into the school holiday period. From its inception, tickets were pegged at affordable prices to attract kids and families.
In terms of participation rates, cricket now outstrips all other sports, according to CA’s recent National Cricket Census. Over 1.3 million played some form of the game during the 2015-16 season, of whom 24% were women.
The BBL’s popularity has fed into this. But whether this feeds into long-term support for more traditional forms of the game is yet to be seen.
As kids have grown with up with the T20 market, unlike cricket traditionalists, they consider Big Bash teams real teams. They have a greater affinity with a BBL franchise than a state or national team. This generational shift will solidify T20’s place as the main form of the game in the coming decades.
It has provided CA with much-needed revenue to plug shortfalls in the game’s traditional international market.
The Australian cities of Melbourne, Sydney, Hobart, Brisbane, Perth, and Adelaide are all represented in the BBL. However, cities such as Canberra, Geelong, Fremantle, and Townsville are seeking a slice of the action.
However, CA is resisting the calls, for now, warning early expansion is a path littered with notable failures. The A-League, Super Rugby and National Basketball League are among many to expand and struggle, with new teams forming and folding.
Instead, BBL's priorities remain to grow the WBBL and continuing to develop hard-core fan bases around the existing clubs. The expansion has not been ruled out, but the time is not right just yet.
That is not to say the game is not making moves into new markets, games have been taken to Launceston, Geelong, Alice Springs, and Canberra.
The immense success of the Big Bash teaches sports leagues around the world a valuable lesson - you can’t attempt to create and sustain revenue-producing business opportunities in sports without evolving. The BBL has constantly focused on being innovative and has purposely strived to take as many risks as possible while making sure to stand for something and create long-lasting memories for its fans.
While it’s still early, because of keen strategic forethought and synergistic partnerships, the Big Bash has positioned itself to become one of the most successful professional sports leagues in the world.