T20 has to attract the next generation first, and the blazers will follow the kids | Andy Bull

Andy Bull
Let the fireworks begin: Chris Gayle and Aaron Finch head out to open for the Melbourne Renegades against the Perth Scorchers in the 2015-16 Big Bash League. Photograph: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

New tournaments, old fans

When Cricket Australia first hired Dan Migala, he hardly knew a bat from a badminton racket. Migala is a baseball nut from Chicago, “the equivalent of the cricket fan who keeps score with a pencil and quotes statistics from a century ago”. And he’s also chief innovation officer at the sports marketing firm Property Consulting Group. When Cricket Australia first started work on the Big Bash League, Migala was the man they brought in to plan the marketing strategy. He had a hand in almost every last little part of it, the colour of kits, the names of the competing teams, and all the other gimcrack gimmicks. If you love cricket in the way Migala loves baseball, then you probably wince when you think about what he’s done to the game. And that’s exactly the reaction he wants you to have.

Migala likes mottos. When he was cooking up ideas for the Big Bash, he used this one a lot: “everybody in the room should feel a little uncomfortable”. He remembers the meeting when he first revealed the new BBL kits to the state association executives. Luminous green. Deep purple. Red tiger stripes. “Everybody who was in the room over the age of 50, they just sunk in their chairs.” Right now, a lot of English cricket fans are feeling something similar. Nine years after the first match in the Indian Premier League, the ECB has decided to launch a brand new T20 league of its own. Eight teams, 36 matches, 120 players, and, they hope, thousands of new fans.

Like Migala, Anthony Everard has been keeping half an eye on what the ECB is up to. Everard is the head of the BBL. And he says that there’s “something very familiar” about the debate that’s going on in England. One of the hardest parts of Everard’s job was winning over the traditionalists among the fans, players, and administrators. “It was really hard work,” Everard says. “International cricket was still going pretty well, and had good crowds, and we had an existing domestic T20 competition that was also going pretty well. So people said ‘well, what’s the problem?’”

In Australia then, as in England now, cricket had a popularity problem. Cricket Australia’s research showed that seven out of every 10 children had no interest in the sport. Everard says that there was a misconception that the Big Bash was all about the cash. It wasn’t. “A lot of the criticism at the time was that it was just a money grab,” he says, “where in fact it was a strategic investment to safeguard the future of the sport. That was the rationale that drove the competition. It was never just about making a profit in the short to medium term. Everything about the BBL was designed to grow and diversify our fanbase.”

Which is where Migala came in. “What you have to remember,” Migala says, “is that there’s a lot more people who know nothing about this sport than there are people that love it.” It was his job to win them over. Migala tried to design the league through “the eyes of a child, almost as if a kid was the CEO.” A week or so after Migala had shown off the new shirts, he met the executives again. “And those same traditionalists came back and said to me ‘you know what, my grandson loves it, good job.’” The BBL seems to have worked well. The average attendance last year was 30,114, and the average TV audience 1,021,750. And according to Cricket Australia’s own stats, participation in cricket has never been higher.

Migala is an inveterate optimist. He believes the fact that it’s taken the ECB so long to get around to launching their new league will actually work to its advantage, because “hopefully they will take the lessons everyone else learned and apply them to their own situation.” The Big Bash model doesn’t exactly map across. Australia has fewer professional teams, larger stadia, and a population that’s heavily concentrated in a small number of urban areas. But there are a couple of key points the ECB needs to heed.

It wants to have eight games out of the 36 available on some form of free-to-air TV. It may not be enough. Everard says that “free-to-air, was very, very important,” to the BBL because it believed “reach comes before revenue.” Migala agrees: “The objective with the BBL was to really open up cricket to the next generation of Australians. You have to stay laser-focused to that strategy.” Everard also points out how important it is to “not get distracted”. The ECB is planning to run two T20 competitions, the new tournament, and the existing one, one after another. For new fans, it’s confusing. A complicated game needs simple structures.

Then, as Migala and Everard have found, if you target a new audience, you risk alienating your old one. It is, Migala says, a question of salesmanship. Back in 2011, he was at a one-day international at the MCG, England v Australia. “It was a Sunday afternoon, and I was walking the concourse. There was an ice cream stand. An hour into the match I walked past, and it had been closed. And the reason it had been closed is that there wasn’t a kid to be found there.” He took a photo, showed on a big screen at a meeting, and said “there should be a line around the corner at this ice cream stand.”

“I’m a father of two kids,” Migala says. “I weigh my fear of maintaining baseball’s traditions against my fear that my kids will never embrace the sport that their dad loves. And the latter is greater.” When Migala goes back to Australia now, he goes to matches, sees those same people he once showed the garish new shirts to, “I see them holding hands with their grandchildren, eating an ice cream. Granddad is in his blazer and the kid is in a green Melbourne Stars shirt, and he’s asking him about Don Bradman. And that’s a beautiful moment. But that doesn’t happen unless you’re prepared to make yourself uncomfortable, to take that risk.”

• This is an extract taken from the Spin, the Guardian’s weekly cricket email. To subscribe just visit this page and follow the instructions.

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