Fan favourite: A record crowd of 80,883 for domestic cricket at the MCG. Photo: SuppliedSomewhere in the MCG stands on Sunday there will be a kid at the cricket for the first time: a teenager, wowed by the colour, buzz and big hitting, finally giving the game a chance; or perhaps a mother joining her husband and sons to see for herself their fascination with the game.
That they are at the cricket at all, however, is a win for the sport, says Cricket Australia.
If you can imagine cricket as a department store, then Twenty20, with its loud music, pyrotechnics and cheaper tickets, is the $9.99 door front special luring the shopper in to be exposed to the more substantial items inside, Test cricket.
This will not be easy. It’s one thing catching the attention of the curious for three hours, another for them to invest, financially and emotionally, for a full day, let alone five.
Whether or not the Big Bash League will save cricket, assuming the game indeed needs saving, is debatable, but authorities are confident the competition is spreading the gospel.
CA say participation figures have almost doubled from 2010 – the last year before the Big Bash was turned into a city-based competition – to 2015, from 651,871 to 1,208,360. Female participation has more than trebled, from 87,500 to 290,000. Nearly one in four cricket participants are now female, CA say.
Getting people playing cricket is a key part in CA’s growth strategy.
“We’re absolutely sure the Big Bash League is driving participation in the game and that itself creates a long-term legacy – to have fans of the game, and fans down the track who will be parents are in exactly the same position,” Cricket Australia chief James Sutherland says.
According to CA research, 21 per cent of people attending the BBL last summer were attending elite cricket for the first time. Judging by the massive crowds for BBL05, over 20per cent higher than last summer, there’s a strong likelihood many have returned.
But how many have converted to Test cricket? CA does not have that data but says it is too “short-term” to look at the issue that way. It will be a slow burn.
“This is generational stuff, this is about making sure the next generation of Australian kids have a deep affinity and affection for the game of cricket,” Sutherland says.
“We’ve always said the Big Bash League is about growing cricket’s fan and participant base. It’s about casting the net as widely as possible around the community and to give people the opportunity in the first place sample cricket but then to grow a proper interest in the game.
“We’ve seen metrics that show a lot of people who have come over the last couple of years have been coming to cricket matches for the first time ever.
“It’d be interesting to see at the end of this season whether that sort of rate of turning up for the first time is still as high as it has been or not.” The traditionalists have found it harder to accept Twenty20 as a legitimate form of the game, but Sutherland feels the younger generation “honestly believe this is all cricket”.
“They compartmentalise it in ways that traditionalists can’t,” Sutherland, a father of three, says. “They know and understand where it sits, they know and understand that still playing for your country is the ultimate and they have significant respect for those that do.”
Sometimes more is less, but cricket is not at that stage yet. Pre-BBL, in a standard summer of five Tests and a one-day series there might be 30 to 40 days of international cricket drawing the fans in. Now there’s an extra 35 “high-profile” matches drawing average crowds of 28,000 and more than 1 million television viewers each night.
Once, the washed-out SCG Test, which drew 62,555, would have been the only chance for fans to see live cricket at the peak of the holiday period. This year another 261,575 fans across the state capitals walked through the turnstiles.
“I think cricket is in the consciousness,” Sutherland says. “What the Big Bash League has shown again … at this time of year more cricket is never enough.”
CA’s research is telling them the three formats are equally popular, which Sutherland calls a good starting point. Ominously for Test cricket, that balance may change with time as the older generation, the traditional form’s main audience, passes away.
“We’re not saying people have to love all three formats,” Sutherland says. “But we do honestly believe that as a starting point the best entree to the game of cricket for young kids is a short, bite-sized piece of entertainment that’s easily accessible.
“From our perspective it’s bringing new people to the game and graduating that interest.”
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