Opinion: The Big Bash recipe for success our counties can emulate

12 Jan 2017

By: Sport Industry Group

Senior Consultant at PHA Media, Tim Jotischky addresses the debate on how to maximise the interest in cricket across the UK and argues that until the introduction of a new franchise competition here, the Natwest T20 Blast still has significant potential. He looks at the rise of the Big Bash (BBL) and how it has led to questions over whether a similar city-based franchise system should be implemented in the UK in an attempt to replicate the success of the BBL, a plan that the English counties are split on.

Despite overcast skies and intermittent rain, the Big Bash Derby between Melbourne Renegades and Melbourne Stars on New Year’s Day attracted more than 71,000 spectators – down on last year’s 80,000 crowd, given the conditions, but still an attendance figure that marketing directors in England can only dream about.

The Big Bash continues to be the inspiration for cricket administrators in this country, the Holy Grail of T20 tournaments. The average attendance was 29,443 in 2016 - up 22% on the previous year – and seven of the eight teams broke attendance records for domestic matches in Australia. TV ratings were up 18% with an average audience of 1.13 million and one in three viewers was female. In 2011, Channel Ten bought the rights for $15m per year; they are now valued at around $40m.

Meanwhile, the rise and rise of T20 on the world stage continues unabated, with the ICC’s World Twenty20 generating more than $150m in 2014 and 2016.

In England, domestic cricket is at a crossroads. The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) is pushing ahead with plans for a new city-based T20 franchise competition, in the face of opposition from a handful of counties, but has delayed its inception until 2020. That means another three seasons for the NatWest T20 Blast, but has the ECB’s obvious enthusiasm for a new competition made it a lame duck – the cricketing equivalent of President Obama’s dog days in the White House before handing over to Donald Trump?

At this point, I must declare an interest. As a member of the ECB’s commercial and communications committee, I have closely followed the debate over the future of T20; equally, I worked with Surrey last summer on a campaign to promote ticket sales for its T20 matches at The Oval.

The ECB is concerned that a ‘lost generation’ of teenagers has no interest in cricket, regardless of format. Research carried out for the governing body suggests that most can’t identify any of today’s top cricketers and there is more awareness of Sir Ian Botham and Shane Warne than Alistair Cook or Joe Root. Only 2% of 7-15-year-olds say cricket is their favourite sport.

NatWest T20 Blast

Cricket’s governing body hopes that a new competition, with a franchise format to attract leading players from around the world, will capture the imagination. It may be difficult to win over today’s teenagers, but the teenagers of tomorrow are not yet a lost cause.

But, leaving aside for a moment the wider debate about the future of the county structure – important though it is - it strikes me that there is plenty of life left in the NatWest T20 Blast. There were plenty of success stories from last season: a record domestic attendance of 27,119 for Middlesex vs Surrey at Lord’s; an increase in overall attendances of almost 5% on 2015 and the third successive year of growth; and a first ever sell-out for Finals Day before all the semi-finalists had been confirmed. This season’s competition is expected to attract more than one million spectators for the first time.

However, the picture was a mixed one. Somerset and Worcestershire sold out their home matches, but in late July the Daily Telegraph reported Durham had an occupancy rate of just 24%, Hampshire 27%, and Glamorgan 29%.

So, what are the lessons that can be learned from both the domestic success stories and from Australia’s Big Bash, which could help struggling counties sell more tickets?

The Big Bash has explicitly targeted new markets, especially women and children. The season starts when the schools break up and ticket prices are deliberately kept low: typically, adult tickets are $20 (less than £12), kids just $5 and a family of four can go along for $42.50. 

The entire match day experience is geared towards youngsters; indeed, you could call it harnessing pester power. The kits are fluorescent and distinctive, there are fireworks and plenty of gimmicks, such as Brisbane Heat’s virtual reality experience, allowing fans to tour the dressing rooms before walking out on to the Gabba to face an over from Ben Cutting.

There are adverts for monster trucks; advertising alcohol or gambling is banned. The league has formed partnerships with brands such as Warner Bros, who have allowed players to wear superhero costumes during matches to promote Batman vs Superman. Children play in Big Bash competitions to link with the brand and generate more interest in playing the game. This is having a palpable impact at grassroots level, more than 1.3 million played some form of cricket in Australia in 2015-16, of which 24% were women.

Children are a focus of The Big Bash

Not all the Big Bash’s initiatives would work in England and the competition has some in-built advantages which cannot be replicated here – matches broadcast on free-to-air TV, for instance – but the need to reach beyond core audiences is the most important message.

Surrey chief executive Richard Gould says: “Over the last four years, half a million people have seen Surrey play T20 cricket at The Oval. Sixty-five per cent of those people had never previously attended a professional cricket match and one in four were either women or Under 16s.”

Working with Surrey, we were not asked to focus our profile-raising campaign on the cricket media or even the sports media more generally; the club’s communications team has strong relationships with those journalists already. Instead, we were asked to target non-cricket and non-sports outlets; we appealed to mummy bloggers, family-friendly websites, women’s titles and media outlets consumed by ethnic minorities and ex-patriates, running competitions and offering ticket giveaways. Surrey’s match against Essex was a Saturday Family Day and a key priority for the club; on the day the attendance topped 20,000, far exceeding expectations.

Surrey’s ‘Kids for A Quid’ offer was a great selling point; similarly, the Birmingham Bears gave free entry for Under 16s when accompanied by an adult and welcomed more than 8,000 youngsters to matches, backing it up with a council-backed community programme to distribute 1,000 plastic cricket bats to school children and offering free Friday night coaching at local parks.

One of the Big Bash’s advantages has been its consistent place in Australia’s cricket calendar. We all know the difficulties of achieving anything similar in our over-crowded domestic calendar, but with the NatWest T20 Blast taking place in July and August this year – crucially, giving it plenty of exposure during the school holidays – there has never been a better opportunity for counties to entice new audiences into their grounds.