What the numbers say: future of the BBL should lie in local interest

Dan Christian poses with the trophy Getty Images

Among the biggest talking points of this Big Bash season is the indisuptable fact that the average crowd size is down. Way down. Not just a little bit, like last season when the overall average was dragged a little by regional fixtures. But down a lot, across every venue except Perth, where the capacity of Optus Stadium finally meets the demand of Scorchers fans.

However, the reasons why are likely more complex than a mere extension of the season into February beyond the end of the summer school holidays in Australia. Not least, because the decline in average crowds started in early January, when the season was still fresh. Something about the season did not gel as it has in the past.

Is there really a holiday peak?

Assessing the change is not as simple as merely dividing the total by the number of games. Crowds are typically impacted by a range of factors: school holidays, the size of the local market (and the stadium), team performance, the marketing and exposure of the tournament, and competition from other events and codes. If BBL crowds had only declined because the season had drifted into February or were playing in smaller markets, that would be understandable, and perhaps even to be applauded. But that isn't the case. If we compare crowds in each game against the average crowd across the free-to-air period at that venue, it tells a worrying story.

In the highest averaging seasons (2015-16 and 2016-17), BBL crowds were remarkable for their consistency: a slow week before Christmas - when both time and money is in short supply - was followed by an extended run of high crowds throughout January. The claim that crowds are strong over the holidays then drop is not well founded. Both 2014-15 and 2017-18 had low ebbs in mid-January before picking up before the finals as school returned. And while the 2017-18 ebb neatly corresponds with the Australian Open as a possible factor, the 2014-15 increase ran across the first week of the tournament.

The 2018-19 BBL had a different trend altogether, and the disinterest seemed to plague the season from the start. With the exception of a couple of high-profile matches around New Year's Eve, crowds stayed consistently at around 80 percent of their stadium averages, declining to barely over 50 percent in the last week of school holidays before recovering a little towards the end of the season.

These figures don't match a narrative that the season was too long, or that the end of the holidays impeded interest. The peak for interest occurred much earlier in the season and was matched by the TV ratings, which fell significantly after January 6.

When is my team playing?

Without comparing to previous seasons it is not possible to say whether this is typical, but the drop in ratings has broadly the same shape as the crowds, picking up only around finals time when Melbourne viewers tuned in in large numbers.

If the length of the season is not the issue - and it is hard to see how it is when crowds dropped in week three - then other factors must be at play. The primary candidates are the change in broadcaster, and the change in both domestic and international scheduling. While in theory Seven is able to cross-promote both international and domestic cricket, their marketing had to choose what to promote in a way that Ten did not. January Test matches occupy a larger proportion of screen time than January ODIs and T20s, and may have dulled the key message that gets fans to the next match: knowledge of when it is happening.

Other factors in the schedule have an unclear impact. Average crowds dropped away both for teams that played several matches out of town at regional venues (such as Geelong and Moe) and for those who played seven games in their local capital. Adelaide and Perth fans had a full set of matches and crowds tailed off markedly, but they also had rare losing seasons. Melbourne fans had winning teams and fewer matches in the capital but were equally averse to attending. All three cities had large crowds at headline matches, but those may counter-intuitively encourage people to attend just one match per season.

One thing we can glean from the data, which may point the way forward, is to recognise the inherently local nature of BBL fandom. From its inception it has been pitched as a night-in, night-out event to pull viewers to the television. For a short tournament - no more than a few weeks - this make sense. Few people will commit to two months of nightly cricket watching, though. The more people have become committed to following their team, the more focused they've become on following only their team. As such, when local sides are playing, there is a 30-50% increase in local viewers.

Think local

This has a range of consequences for BBL administrators. Firstly, if viewers are indifferent to the teams playing, then having some matches off free-to-air won't impact their viewing habits. Viewers predominantly interested in their local team, however, will not watch at all, and a significant portion of the fan-base will miss out on seeing their team. A schedule that ensures that every match is aired on free-to-air stations within the market of the competing teams will reach significantly more viewers than a schedule that is indifferent to local preferences.

Secondly, and importantly, if fans are not watching every match, then their knowledge of the next match they should attend will be more limited. In a typical Australian sporting league this is not an issue. The schedule is constructed in "rounds" with a guarantee that a team will play at some point that weekend, whether home or away. This creates an ongoing narrative for fans, whether they are fully engaged; attending or watching the occasional match; or merely following via a work tipping competition and a scan of results.

The BBL is a far more confusing proposition for the casual fan. There are no weekly programs that recap results and highlights, or preview the following round of matches, because the BBL beats to an incessant nightly drum. And while this won't be the reason people have turned off - the BBL has always been constructed this way - it does make it harder to keep the bulk of the fan-base on board over an extended season. As the table below shows, home games can be as frequent as every three or four days, followed by a two-week gap. Keeping track of when your team plays is not necessarily difficult, but it is harder than it should be, and at the margin that stops people going to games or watching the coverage.

So what could work?

The obvious solution would be to tighten the season: play 14 rounds of matches over seven weeks, with each round either on the weekend (four matches across Friday, Saturday or Sunday) or mid-week (four matches across Tuesday and Wednesday). The total broadcast content free-to-air would remain the same (43 games), but be tailored to local markets, to ensure local fans see every game their team plays. The in-between nights would allow players to travel, committed fans to rest, internationals to be played, and broadcasters to provide the de rigueur content-filler of modern sport: panel and recap shows.

Since its introduction to free-to-air television, the BBL has been wildly successful, but the burgeoning crowds and ratings may have hidden a few structural flaws. Expansion is only possible if schedules overlap. Not only will fans be unable to watch every match, they will be exhausted if they try.

The league has to shift, from an event, to a league based around local fans supporting local teams. The means to achieve that is to restructure in a way that emphasises the local within an overarching narrative that also de-emphasises nightly viewing. It is a shift that couldn't have been achieved in the formative years, because fans loyalties were new. The big derby crowds and disparate TV ratings show that fans are now loyal, and that a bigger, longer competition is necessary to cater for their needs.