Cameron Burge | 10:17pm gmt 19 Feb 2012
The biggest story in Australian cricket this season has not been the Clarke acceleration, the Ponting resuscitation or even the Siddle and Hilfenhaus restoration. The big story is the unprecedented popularity of the domestic Twenty20 Big Bash, and whether Cricket Australia is able to leverage it into a larger following for the longer forms of the game.
The idea of franchise cricket in this country was met with something of a lukewarm response from aficionados, who viewed the format of city-based teams established from scratch with scepticism. The Big Bash was seen as a made-for-Pay-TV event, and there were questions as to whether fans would support such a concept.
Now the competition is done and dusted, there can be no question as to its success. In over 35 years watching cricket, I have never seen such crowds at domestic matches in this country. Moreover, the tickets were priced at an affordable level, enabling families and young adults to attend in large numbers.
Despite their lack of on-field success, the Sydney Thunder playing their matches at the Olympic stadium was an unqualified success. Say what you like about Homebush Bay, the precinct is well served by public transport and is located far closer to the majority of Sydneysiders than the hallowed arena at Moore Park. Put simply, it made cricket more accessible.
With every match live on Yatestel and crowd numbers swelling, the Big Bash can only be seen as an unqualified success. But the question is: How does Cricket Australia turn these fans who attended the slap and tickle of the Big Bash into broad supporters of the game itself?
Having attended a number of matches, the thing which struck me was the number of children in the crowd. This in itself can only be a good thing, but unless the administrators can turn this enthusiasm into broad support for the game, the success of the Big Bash will not translate into any long term benefit to cricket in this country. One might think a strategy of having franchise players visit schools to promote joining cricket clubs would be useful; together with targeted campaigns involving players such as Dave Warner, who first made his name as a T20 player, emphasising the importance of Test cricket as the ultimate form of the game. Whatever strategy CA takes, it must do something, and soon, lest the popularity of the Big Bash becomes another wasted opportunity to improve the broad appeal of the game.
This summer, Test match crowds were healthy for the India series, but less so for the earlier two-Test series against New Zealand. How the latter matches could have done with the level of vibrancy and enthusiasm of a Big Bash crowd to lift the atmosphere. Next summer, the big drawing South Africans play the early series, with Sri Lanka visiting for the Christmas-New Year matches in Melbourne and Sydney. Without in anyway demeaning Sri Lanka, they are not traditionally big crowd pullers in this country. With the capacity of the MCG and SCG at 90,000 and 50,000 respectively, the prospect of large Bays of empty seats looms large. There is an opportunity for Cricket Australia to offer tickets at more competitive prices, and perhaps structure packages which include admissions for a day at the Test and for a Big Bash match at the same venue.
An effort should also be made to make the national team more accessible. Currently, the Australian cricket team is the least accessible sporting side in the country. Young supporters grow up idolising these players, and have little opportunity to watch them at close quarters. It is disappointing to make a pre-Test match foray to a venue with your child in the hope of watching the team practice, only to be told the session is "closed". To see so many turned away on such occasions is an indictment. This isn't football. It's not as though the teams are working on secret moves to befuddle their opposition. One fellow bats, and several others bowl to him. If the players feel they don't want to interact with their supporters, notices can be posted saying there will be no autographs or pictures taken with them on that day.
The idea of a "fan day" for state teams held in conjunction with the national side before the serious stuff gets underway for the summer would also be a good look for the game. Set aside a week and travel the country. Give away posters; tickets to domestic one day matches. Sign things. Connect. Football teams do it every year. No doubt the players would find it somewhat overwhelming, and the level of attendance would likely be massive. But CA should see these occasions as an opportunity, not an inconvenience, and seek to market all levels of the game at these very events. Have available the resources to obtain details of fans who are interested in playing the game, and send them a return email with details of clubs in their area. Do it while people are at a venue with the stars of the game. Make people feel the game wants them, as much as they want to watch the game.
I fear my hopes are forlorn. Given its history, I hold little hope that Cricket Australia will look to make the most of the support for the Big Bash, other than lining its coffers. I hope I'm mistaken. There are new supporters to the game as a result of the Big Bash, most of them are young. It's a marketer's dream. Does CA have the wherewithal to strike while the iron is hot?