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Australians are T20 champions, but their Big Bash League is a shambles

The BBL will battle for survival this upcoming season; changes are underway


Australia were not supposed to win the T20 World Cup last year. The team was ranked sixth heading into the tournament, and had failed to sway the bookmakers. The pitches in the UAE were slow and aided turn; a far cry from those in Perth or Adelaide. Yet, on the back of a consistent run from David Warner and Adam Zampa, and captain Aaron Finch's lucky outings at coin tosses, Australia won their first T20 World Cup.

Back home, though, the domestic T20 league was doing anything but winning. The Big Bash League, one of the earlier domestic T20 competitions with foreign superstars, has off late become a shadow of itself.

The reasons are myriad. Longer seasons, pandemic restrictions, lack of superstars… the list goes on.

While Covid restrictions affected attendance in the past two seasons—reportedly, only 6,763 fans on average attended the games last year, compared with 18,575 in the pre-pandemic season—they also stopped willing international superstars from coming down. Australia had strict Covid restrictions, maybe more so than most places. Ask Novak Djokovic.

And while the CA has maintained that the BBL is an Australian “summer staple” and that the viewing has held strong compared to other sporting events, a Daily Telegraph report said that, on average, only 630,000 viewers tuned in last season. At its peak in 2016, 1.1 million people saw each game.

While the huge hit to audience numbers can mostly be attributed to the virus, it is also important to note that the numbers had reportedly been going down for a couple of years before the pandemic. The best the administrators can hope for is that the current T20 World Cup, being hosted in their backyard, can infuse some passion into the somewhat lapsed fans. The final is on November 13; the BBL starts about three weeks after.

But, there’s another problem. The BBL this time will clash with the SA20, which has South African offshoots of IPL franchises, and features top-tier players. The BBL starts in December; the SA20, January. Then there’s also the new league in the UAE, which starts in January.

Which leads to the other major problem—the declining quality of international signings in the BBL. With other leagues popping up, players can actually earn more by playing fewer games. The BBL is 61-matches long and lasts two months. The Pakistan Super League had 34 matches in about a month in 2021.

A cricket.com.au article from earlier this year read: “They currently rely heavily on the cash injection from broadcast agreements and commercial deals to survive financially. A shorter BBL season would mean less content for broadcasters, which would likely mean a reduction in value of the broadcast rights, which would result in less funding for these programs (domestic cricket, women’s cricket, grassroots development). It needs to be acknowledged that a 61-game BBL season and the money it has helped generate has been hugely important for the sport and the impact of a shorter tournament would be felt right through the game.”

But opinions vary. Australian batter Chris Lynn, the leading run scorer in BBL, recently told the media, “Put yourself in someone like Andre Russell’s shoes, who can go to the Emirates or go to South Africa and different leagues, with less tax in certain countries.”

Why then would a journeyman cricketer fly all the way to Australia? Especially when some Australians themselves are not turning up. Mitchell Starc, for instance, has decided to skip the BBL despite being available. As an all-format player for Australia, he wants to focus on being fit for the national side. Also, it was after much discussion that David Warner, who got an offer from the UAE league, agreed to return to the BBL for the first time since 2013. He will be available for a handful of matches for Sydney Thunder.

But more importantly, to attract more foreigners, the BBL introduced a new foreign player draft this year, with more money on offer. The players, who nominated themselves for the draft, were divided into four categories, with those put in the platinum band by BBL official getting $340,000. Earlier, teams signed foreign players privately. English all-rounder Liam Livingstone went first, for $340,000. Other prominent names include Rashid Khan, Trent Boult, Shadab Khan and Chris Jordan.

One of the reasons the BBL is not throwing around as much money as some of the other leagues is that, unlike in the IPL, private individuals do not own the teams. Cricket Australia owns the teams; state associations run them. The concept of private money in the BBL has been an idea that has been toyed with at times. About a decade ago, it was close to being a reality. Apparently, there was some interest from the Delhi Daredevils for a stake in one of the Sydney teams. But it did not happen.

“There's a lot of cogs that make the decisions but personally you shouldn't be afraid of moving the game forward even if that means that you let go a little bit on the reins,” Australian batter Usman Khawaja had said in July. “If you don't keep up with that, and there's a small window for the Big Bash to privatise in the next few years, and I'm afraid if we don't do that we'll fall behind.”

Channel Seven, the free-to-air broadcast partner for the BBL, recently took Cricket Australia to court citing “multiple quality and standards breaches”.

The deal with Seven ends 2024, and CA is already said to be looking for someone else.

It has also taken some steps to improve what it feels is a pivotal season for the BBL. Other than the foreign players’ draft, the league is finally embracing the concept of the DRS, and has introduced a penalty for a slow over rate, among other innovations. But it remains to be seen whether these changes actually revitalise the league or whether it will be too late to play catch up with the newer, shinier products around the world.

P.S. The star import Livingstone has been called up to play Tests for England. Talk about a wrench in the plans.

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