Every sport wants a Twenty20.
From an inauspicious beginning in English County Cricket in 2003, the Twenty20 format has been the lighting rod to transition Cricket from its traditional male, pale and stale customer base, to the green (and very lucrative) pastures of young adults, women, kids and families.
This summer’s Big Bash League (BBL) is Cricket Australia’s 6th iteration of the tournament. In 2011, BBL01 struggled to attract a TV audience of over 100,000 per game on Fox Sports. Last season, the average audience was greater than 1m per game (39% of those were female), while the final peaked at over 2m viewers - by comparison, the 2016 AFL Grand Final was the highest rating since 2007 and peaked at just over 5m.
It is no wonder that in 2013 Channel 10 paid $100m for the BBL rights over 5 years. This number certainly dropped some jaws at the time, but in hindsight looks like a steal.
Cricket Australia achieved all of this with the vast majority of the country’s best known cricketers having very little involvement in the BBL (due to the national team’s commitments).
The story gets even better, as last year Cricket Australia launched the inaugural Women’s Big Bash league (WBBL), attracted a league naming rights sponsor in rebel sport (in a partnership put together by Bastion) and had games peak at over 400,000 viewers on Channel 10.
In comparison, the more-traditional 50-over Matador BBQ's One-Day Cup attracted an average national audience of 96,000 last summer.
So, if every sport wants a Twenty20, how do you build long term equity in short season formats, while not completely cannibalising the traditional structure of the sport?
Lets start with what is out there:
Last week saw Netball Australia host the Fast5 Netball World Series (6,500 attendees in Melbourne) while Athletics Australia (and Bastion) launched Nitro Athletics with Usain Bolt.
The ARU last year moved their 7’s Tournament from the Gold Coast to Sydney (36,000 attendees) while the Australian Women’s 7’s team won Gold in Rio. (There is also a Global 10’s Tournament launching in Brisbane in February.)
The NRL has the Auckland Nines, Tennis has Fast4, Soccer has Futsal, Basketball has 3x3 (which is looking to be included in the Tokyo Olympics) and the AFL has AFL 9’s.
Throw on top of this the relatively recent expansion of Women’s Leagues in major codes (AFLW, WBBL, W-League (Soccer) and the new Super Netball League)
Australia is one of the most competitive sports markets in the world and there are only so many eyeballs, pairs of feet, sponsor dollars, broadcast slots and Four’N Twenty pies to go round. New short season formats have, in many cases, relegated the traditional formats of the sport to near obscurity.
So what to do? Well, it’s a balancing act between retaining the integrity and elite performance of the best players of the traditional forms (and keeping the rusted on supporters happy), while fishing where the fish are in new markets.
All sports need to pursue new, innovative forms of the game to remain relevant in a changing world, otherwise they risk being left out in the cold. This is particularly the case with Olympic sports, where relevance every 4 years and relying on Winning Edge Funding can be particularly sobering on the (alcohol-free) flight home from Rio.
However, sports risk creating a flash in the pan if they don’t stay true to the integrity of the game in the first place. Fireworks and gimmicks get old quickly and the risk is that unless the virtues of competition and entertainment are presented in-balance, short season formats risk ending up on the scrap heap with old game-shows.
The Twenty20 approach is one of evolution, not revolution, and this keeps fans tuning in year after year.
(Feature Image via KFC Big Bash League)