More international firepower is needed to ensure the expanded Big Bash League can grow its audience after a recent downturn, while Melbourne Stars and Sydney Sixers must perform strongly enough to reignite interest in Australia’s two largest cities.
These are the views of the new Seven network head of cricket, David Barham, who helmed Ten’s widely lauded BBL coverage for five years before being recruited to the rival broadcaster when it scooped the free-to-air portion of Cricket Australia’s A$1.18 billion television and digital rights deal in April.
With Wednesday’s revelation that Mitchell Johnson is withdrawing from the BBL due to the increased length – now 14 games per side – of the competition, Barham is acutely conscious of the tournament needing to get its big market teams functioning strongly and its playing roster strengthened by more overseas star power. The race has well and truly begun for the signature of AB de Villiers, to name one.
“Last year it was all down to the Melbourne Stars, they couldn’t get out of their own way [losing their first five games]. And if you have one team with a lot of the big names in it not firing a shot, that hurt,” Barham told ESPNcricinfo. “The Stars are important, and Sydney [Sixers] were shocking as well, they lost their first six, so neither of them could win a game. That really had a big impact.
“Provided everyone’s up and alive…that was probably the first year where you had a competition with games that weren’t relevant. You knew the Stars after five games were gone. The draw was a bit around them, so that hurt and I suppose that can happen again. But I think as the standard keeps improving, and that’s what cricket’s got to do, the standard’s got to keep improving … I think in the end they’ve got to bring in more internationals and I think they will as they go.
“International players will be playing for a number of games in certain places. So you might have Joe Root for four games and swap him for Dwayne Bravo or someone for the back end. Or you might be able to get de Villiers for four games at the back end of the summer. If you start rolling a couple of these blokes in late in the tournament [it will help].”
Another major change Barham pointed to is the fact that after seven seasons of sitting on different networks, Test matches and the BBL would run seamlessly from one broadcast to the other under the Seven banner. Commentators talking about BBL games was almost unheard of on Nine’s Test coverage: not so anymore.
“The other thing that’s really important this year that no-one’s really factored in from a Seven and cricket point of view is there’s a lot more cross-promotion,” Barham said. “Not knocking Nine at all or Ten for that matter, but Nine didn’t promote the BBL for five years, so you had this situation where BBL stood out on its own and Test cricket was there [separate]. We’ve got this whole summer where we’re talking about each other the whole way.
“I look at it and go – you’ve got a big group of people who follow BBL who are younger, a big group of people at Test cricket, and this group in the middle. If we can make the group in the middle [follow both], the game will grow, television audiences will grow, everything will grow. That’s part of the strategy for me, because I want the commentators to do everything [Tests and BBL] as well.
“So we won’t just have a Test commentary team, we’ll have Ricky doing both, Michael Slater doing both, only a few specifically doing one form. I hope that means young people will look at Michael Slater and go ‘he’s good, I like him, might watch a Test match’. That’s the strategy.”
An example of this will be the extremely tight crossover between matches during the day/night Test between Australia and Sri Lanka in Brisbane in late January. Barham described the scheduling of a BBL fixture in Melbourne to start in the final session of the fourth day at the Gabba was a sort of “insurance policy”.
“How long will that Sri Lanka Test go in Brisbane?” he asked. “You’d imagine it’ll be a swinging ball, day/night, will it go to the end of that fourth day, will it get to a fifth day? So in some ways, because we want to have cricket on all summer, it was a good way of guaranteeing we do.
“And if we end up having a problem with a magnificent Test match going down to the wire and we have a BBL game which s really exciting, and we’ve got two channels going, happy days. It’ll just be a matter of someone else [in programming] to decide what they want to put where.”
Some queries have been raised over whether the tournament’s expansion would create a sense of fatigue among its followers, who have averaged in the region of 1 million a night on Ten’s coverage from 2013 to this year, peaking in 2015-16 before starting a gradual decline that has also been reflected in attendances. However, Barham noted that beyond the conclusion of school holidays at the end of January, the tournament would largely revert to a Thursday-Sunday pattern akin to football fixtures.
“They’ve been pretty smart with how the scheduling is. On every night through the school holidays, then it pretty much slips into a pattern of Thursday, Friday, Sunday,” he said. “I reckon that’s a pretty good strategy. Thursday, Friday, Sunday for the last two or three weekends in February, pretty good sport viewing times, people are used to watching footy and other sports in those times, I think you can stack it up and make it work.
“I think it’ll stop the fatigue thing too. It’ll give you a bit of a break between and you can look forward to Thursday, Friday and Sunday. You also get a build up to a finals series, which…the whole thing used to scream along at 100 miles an hour and you’d go ‘oh finals.’ There was no space.”