Big Bash League: An innovative, inclusive competition international cricket can learn from

In the world of franchise-based T20 leagues, the Big Bash League was just one of the many followers to the IPL. Today, after 6 full seasons, the league is on its own trailblazing path, a smashing success that is only set to get bigger in the coming years. TV ratings are through the roof, attendance figures are at an all-time national high, and according to some reports, it is already among the top 10 sporting leagues in the world, ahead of the Italian Serie A and Japan’s pro baseball league. More importantly for the game itself, the league’s inclusive nature is starting to stand out more and more, given cricket’s historic reluctance to embrace novelty and spread its wings far and wide.

Last year, in its first attempt at expansion, the Women’s BBL began, and as the league’s manager Anthony Everard puts it, “8 teams became 16 all of a sudden”. Along with it came the league’s rookie player policy, targeted at women cricketers from outside the game’s traditional, test-playing nations. As part of this, the league’s scouts would identify 8 promising cricketers from a smattering of cricket’s Associate nations, who would get a chance to train with the squads, and in case of an injury, be used as replacements, with the benefit of being considered “local” players. Women from Papua New Guinea, Ireland, Scotland, Nepal, Hong Kong and even China, got a chance to train as part of this programme.

And the result? Stories like that of 20-year old Irishwoman Kim Garth, delivered a crucial spell for champions Sydney Sixers in Saturday’s final, ending with 4-0-19-1, including the prized wicket of Nicole Bolton. Garth has been one of this edition’s late success stories, becoming her captain’s go-to bowler at crucial junctures, such as delivering the Super Over at the SCG in front of a crowd of 17,500 people. For the record, she got the nod in place of Ellyse Perry, one of the game’s global superstars. As Garth herself said, “it is absolutely incredible and I would have believed it in a million years if you’d told me this a month ago”. Such instances are common in other sports like football, but cricket’s step-motherly treatment to nations on the fringes, makes such successes all the more noteworthy.

Big Bash League trophy. Twitter/ @CricketAus

Big Bash League trophy. Twitter/ @CricketAus

While smashing all these records, the BBL’s success is in line with its original motive – to get non-fans of cricket to get into the game. Clashing with the annual vacation period for schools, it is getting the youngest generation to come to grounds and soak in the game’s newest format. First-time watchers, people with little investment in cricket otherwise, citizens coming out for their local franchise, to enjoy an evening out amidst carnival atmosphere at big stadia – they are all in it now.

The experience at the grounds itself is evolving all the time, with an American sport-style JumboTron at one of the games in Melbourne’s Etihad Stadium, the home of the Renegades. Franchises are innovating continuously, vying with each other to offer the best evening out possible for their fan bases. Coming from a country that has pretty much transformed cricket broadcasting and technology usage over the years, none of this is surprising in the least.

But it is the league’s unwillingness to stop at just that and get even more inclusive that is most laudable. In a world where hassles over TV and streaming rights are all too common, the league is available on free-to-air TV in Australia, apart from a host of broadcast partnerships across the world. The WBBL has become Australia’s first standalone women’s sporting competition to be broadcast prime-time on a commercial free-to-air TV network’s primary channel.

The quality of coverage has also been way above par, considering how in-jokey and partisan international cricket coverage in Australia has become in the past few years. With a handpicked, expert panel comprising sharp, articulate minds like Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist and Mel Jones, along with what seems like an avant-garde approach to broadcasting, comprising extended periods with the same trio in the box, mid shots of the commentary team between balls and overs as they analyse the game, it has made for some compelling television coverage in these past few weeks.

Apart from television, in the geo-blocked world of social media and the internet at large, videos and free content are put up, highlights are easily available, TV ratings and attendances updated at the end of every match day, and there’s even an official tournament podcast. In short, it is everything international cricket is not, and the widespread warmth and embracement across the board should not go unnoticed by the game’s big bosses.

The League has already announced its next steps for the 2017-18 season, increasing the number of games, taking them to the country’s inner towns and smaller cities. In many ways, it is barely believable that the competition is only 6 seasons old, and with its continuing willingness to innovate, embrace new frontiers, it is difficult to predict what the future holds and how much bigger this could get. One thing is certain though, and that is the fact that the Big Bash League is a great portent and a sneak peek into cricket’s future and how it must engage with newer audiences, if it is to grow globally at scale.

Published Date: Jan 30, 2017 19:57 PM | Updated Date: Jan 30, 2017 20:42 PM

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