As negotiations over the cricket broadcasting rights continue, Cricket Australia has defended significant falls in stadium and TV audiences for the 2012/13 Big Bash T20 tournament, promising to schedule more games in January in future seasons.
The shorter Twenty20 is seen as the most ratings friendly form of the game.
The declaration comes as the sport blamed international competition for the early scheduling of games outside the holiday season together with poor weather for the drop off in audience.
“We’ve looked at the program over the next five years and we’ll be able to schedule most of the matches in the January time frame, during the (next) holiday period,” said Mike McKenna, Cricket Australia’s general manager cricket marketing services.
“The cricket calendar is a challenge. This year we were almost forced to play as many games as we could before Christmas. It wasn’t so much by choice as by circumstance in that you want to try and wrap up the Big Bash before the T20 international starts.”
However, media buyers and analysts say there are concerns the “novelty” factor of the game is wearing off and the cricket audience is becoming too splintered.
“A couple of factors were probably behind why we were down – we had twice as many games pre-Christmas and that was certainly far too many,” McKenna said.
“It was a bit of a lesson,” the cricket marketing boss concedes. “Also of the pre-Christmas matches, about a third of them were affected by rain, either during the match or in the lead up to the game, which is unusual for that time of year. So we really did get hurt by that, and therefore we didn’t get the momentum that we had the previous year leading up to the Christmas period.”
The first season of the Big Bash in 2011/12 drew large crowds and delivered pay TV rights holder Fox Sports strong audiences to its subscription base.
But with the broadcast rights for cricket currently under negotiation for the 2013 and 2014 seasons, there are suggestions the fall in TV audiences, in some matches by as much by 40%, will impact the amount paid to the sport.
Nine currently holds the free to air cricket rights. While neither Fox Sports nor the commercial free-to-air channels would comment on the negotiations which are currently being handled by Credit Suisse, on behalf of Cricket Australia, media analyst Steve Allen says the fall-off in audience would have an impact.
“They’ve definitely cooked their goose for getting mega rights,” said Allen, director of media analysis firm Fusion Strategy.
“This section of the game was like State of Origin – it was a grab for the stars and on the basis of the crowds and the ratings this year, they will generate half the interest and therefore substantially less advertising. They really have completely misfired.”
Cricket Australia’s Mike McKenna disputes this and points to a recovery in the crowds in January.
“After Christmas, crowds were averaging around 17,000 per match which is substantially higher and pretty much what we got as an average last year,” he said.
Overall the average stadium attendance for the 2012/13 Big Bash season was 14,379 – down from 17,753 the season before.
However, many media buyers say they are concerned about an oversupply of the sport and the continued splintering of the audience.
“I definitely think it is going through a slump – there is such an oversupply of cricket regardless of whether it is one day, Big Bash or Test,” said one media buyer who declined to be named.
“They have a problem in how they are marketing the game. There are now very different audiences and the result is confusion for advertisers,” said another.
Global sports and entertainment marketing company Octagon Australasia recently commissioned a study, called Passion Drivers, which examines the various cricket audiences.
Adam Hodge, strategy director at Octagon, says the research found the splintering of the audience was not a huge problem.
“Traditional fans of the sport might describe it as ‘not really cricket’ but I don’t think that really matters to Cricket Australia,” said Hodge. “They have not really cannibalised their traditional audience – cricket fans will still continue to watch Test and one-day cricket.”
“Cricket Australia has essentially added more people to what it calls its escalator – bringing people on to the ground floor of the sport and the intention is that they get a taste and migrate up the escalator.”
Media buyer Ian Perrin, CEO of Zenith Optimedia, would not comment on the fall in audience in the 2012/13 season, but said greater segmentation could be a positive for marketers.
“I think it is an opportunity for advertisers,” Perrin told Encore. “For (a brand like) KFC it’s a perfect opportunity, they can buy a very small segment of the audience and go after people who are into Big Bash or 20/20 (international) without having to go after the audience for the longer form of cricket.”
Major brands such as CommBank and KFC have told Encore they will continue their sponsorship of the league despite the fall off in audience last season.
Nikki Lawson, chief marketing officer of KFC Australia, said the sponsorship was a long-term partnership and was part of the brand’s “overall marketing mix”.
“Like any partnership there are always highs and lows, but we believe that cricket and the KFC T20 Big Bash League is a fitting sport for KFC to be partner with,” said Lawson.
Cricket Australia’s Mike McKenna said that despite the fall in audience Big Bash still appeals to an attractive audience for advertisers.
“Big Bash is particularly a game for families and teens. That’s a hard-to-get demographic,” he said.
“In terms of the audience, the Big Bash works for us because it grows the game but it also works for buyers of advertising because they can’t always easily get to that audience and that’s worth a fair bit of money to those investing in the broadcast.”
This feature first appeared in the tablet edition of Encore. To download click on the links below.