How do you run a tournament that lasts longer than the World Cup, takes place every year, has games for both men and women, and is spread across almost 4000 kilometres and more than 25 venues?
Anthony Everard, League Manager of Big Bash Australia, is the man entrusted with the job.
Everard’s resume is impressive. He has worked in sports for 20 years, mostly in marketing. Surprisingly, he has not always been associated with cricket. His first tryst with cricket was 14 years ago – before Twenty20 cricket existed – when he was working with Cricket Australia (CA) in a marketing capacity. Between then and now, he has been on the organising committee of the World Aquatics Championships in Melbourne in 2007 besides working in sponsorship consulting. Before taking over at Big Bash, he was general manager of the ANZ Netball Championships, a start up trans-Tasman league, which till 2016 was the premier netball competition in Australia and New Zealand.
This last assignment made him the perfect choice for the start-up cricket league, because Everard specialises in start-up domestic leagues, which need a strong marketing arm. It was also a good fit for when the WBBL was launched, considering that netball is almost an exclusively female sport in Australia.
With the addition of the WBBL, the scope of his job more than doubled, considering that the WBBL has more games than the BBL, and has a wider range of venues. Wisden India caught up with Everard to discuss the growth of the women’s tournament, and plans for the future.
The WBBL has given a strong account of itself in its second year. How different was it from the first? What were the challenges involved?
The focus was around keeping momentum. We had such a great year last year, so we wanted to back that up and sustain the success. There is no doubt we have done that. If anything we have had a bigger and better competition. TV ratings are up. Overall interest in the competition is great. And on the field it’s been so close, with just a few points separating each team. There is an element of sustainability that we’re introducing in the WBBL. It wasn’t just a one-hit wonder. At this stage were on track to consolidate a hugely successful first year.
What steps did you take to consolidate that success?
Understanding the key elements, keeping those in place and building on those. One of them was the fixtures. We smoothed out the fixture, which was an issue last year. Then we really invested a lot of resources in the opening weekend at North Sydney Oval. To kickstart it, we had a media launch with good coverage. Then six games in two days, with great TV coverage, and that gave us the momentum to build from there. We had more double-headers, more games broadcast. We also got a really nice mix of games at big venues, and games at community grounds. CA made a commitment and investment to live-stream every game to make sure that the WBBL is as visible as possible to the most people; whether it is people tuning in to watch the games, or the highlights that they can see later.
The investment in live streaming every match on Facebook and the app must have been huge. How have the returns been?
The numbers are phenomenal. Our Facebook page’s likes were in the low thousands, they have gone up past 60,000 in three weeks. It’s been well beyond the expectations and the targets that we set at the start of the season. [According to a press release on January 10, live stream views were more than 700,000 and, including views of highlights, 4.6 million.]
How conservative were the targets? Did you have an idea of where you wanted to be?
That was a bit easier with TV, since we had a baseline from what it was last year. So we factored in an increase, which we are on track to achieve. The online screening is more difficult to judge because we haven’t done it last year to the standard we did this year. But, as I said, definitely ahead of what those projections were.
But that’s only one part of it.
This is a long-term commitment we made to women’s cricket. While we’re really encouraged by these specific metrics, what this is all about is a long-term play to encourage young girls to play cricket or support cricket in other forms, and change that mindset that has been in place for many, many years that it’s just a sport for boys and men. That’s a more difficult one to measure, but we know we’re making significant progress.
We only need to look at the profile that our sport now has in media coverage in mainstream press, whether it’s on the news reports at night or in the print newspapers. And that is a really key element for us, which then leads to increase in participation, which we seen in the last two years. We’ve had a 9% increase in female participation and I have no doubt that as a result of this here (points to WBBL game in progress), we will see more young girls picking up a bat and ball.
“This is a long-term commitment we made to women’s cricket. While we’re really encouraged by these specific metrics, what this is all about is a long-term play to encourage young girls to play cricket or support cricket in other forms, and change that mindset that has been in place for many, many years that it’s just a sport for boys and men. That’s a more difficult one to measure, but we know we’re making significant progress.”
This year you have tweaked the rules a bit, with only four fielders allowed outside the ring, but in internationals, it is five. Also allowing more than two wickets in the Super Over. Do you think that is fair?
I think it’s a challenge we face with both the men’s and women’s Big Bash. We want to be innovative in this form of the game, yet we need to keep that connection with international cricket, so when the athletes need to step up, it’s a similar enough game. So we’re pretty comfortable at the moment. Even though there are some slight differences, they are not enough to confuse the players or make it difficult to make that transition. They already play different formats anyway.
What was the thinking behind these rule changes?
It’s a bit like T20 generally. The game is still evolving and we’re still trying to understand what are the optimal set of playing conditions that gives the players the best chance to succeed on the field, but also is the most engaging for the fans as well. I think we’re just trying to understand with women’s cricket, given the differences in terms of boundary dimension, trying to encourage the highest scoring. It was done on a trial basis this year but it certainly seems to be working out quite well. Well review it at the end of the season, as to how it stands against the objectives set out, but so far so good.
There have been grounds where the distance between the pitch and the inner circle is more than the inner circle to the boundary. Do you feel that’s too much, and isn’tt leaving enough for the players to do?
As I said, we’re certainly conscious of finding that delicate balance between the playing conditions in the WBBL and international cricket and also being able to innovate and try different things. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we get it wrong, but we certainly will be reviewing that at the end of the season. To date though there is nothing that has really stood out to indicate that we’re particularly concerned. We do a very detailed survey with the players to get their feedback. They will normally let you know on the run if they’re not happy with things, and to date we haven’t really heard anything from them.
The WBBL teams have a lot of local players, who play for the same state as the club is based. That seems to help get the local crowd behind them. Was that intentional?
We want to see a mix there. Perhaps it’s not so relevant any more, but in the early years of men’s BBL, we were very conscious of not wanting the state team to look exactly the same as the Big Bash teams. We have been encouraged by some of the movement (like Brisbane Heat’s Grace Harris moving to Melbourne Renegades). We like the balance between the local heroes, who have gone through the state high-performance systems, and then keeping it fresh with some players moving around year to year.
One of the things we love about both competitions is a real mix of athletes we get in any game. So we have the young stars who you may not have heard of, some existing Southern Stars players, and some seasoned professionals who may have retired from international cricket, like Lisa Sthalekar and Charlotte Edwards. Then that fantastic mix of overseas players enhanced by the two Indian players (Harmanpreet Kaur and Smriti Mandhana). It’s a good mix.
We have seen other female sports like netball well established in the league format in Australia. How much did the WBBL feed off that? Or is it that the other leagues are now looking at the success of the WBBL (the Australian Rules Football League for women has been announced)?
Women’s cricket has been played in Australia for a hundred years, so there is an existing structure, high-performance pathways, quite significant growth already over the last 10-20 years. There is no doubt that we looked to the appeal of the BBL, and probably the fan engagement model of the BBL, and applied those learnings to the WBBL, more than looking outside of cricket.
No doubt that other sports are looking at the model that WBBL had in place and the success. It’s a competitive marketplace. It’s competitive in trying to get access to the best talents on the field, and it is competitive commercially, and it’s competitive for fans to share a voice. You only need to look at the model that Women’s AFL have put in place, and there are a lot of similarities to WBBL, and we take that as a compliment. We were first to market with WBBL and we wish them all the best with their competition that actually follows the WBBL.
What goes on off the field to bring people into grounds and help fan engagement?
We’ve invested an enormous amount of resource, and we really encourage the clubs to innovate; everything from the Jumbotron screens to the things we see at every game like the fireworks and the music. The atmosphere you see at a BBL game is one of the most exciting features; it’s why people want to keep coming back night after night. The crowds we’ve seen over the last few years, that’s because the fans are a part of the experience, not just what happens on the field.
That extends to WBBL as well. (For double headers) Everything is set out on the concourse for the WBBL game in the way that it would be for the men’s game. So it’s a very important part of what we’re trying to do, and we’re very mindful that we can’t just rely on the quality of the on-field cricket to meet our objective of attracting new fans.
How early does planning for a Big Bash edition start?
We’ve already started planning for next year! Because the league occupies a small window in the calendar year, and because both the WBBL and BBL are still so young, we’ve learned so much in a live environment in the first half of this season, so we’re already starting to think about next year. If we want to make any significant changes, we need to make them in the first couple of months of the year to allow broadcasters and clubs and sponsors enough time to do their own planning. It’s a full 12-month process. There is certainly no sense of complacency that we’ve made it; we want to keep improving, trying to do a better job.
“We think there is a significant commercial upside, we’ve already seen that with the clubs this year. In the second year of the WBBL, the clubs have generated over 1 million dollars in sponsorships alone. It’s a big step up from year one to year two, and we’re going to see that again in year three. With a World T20 in Australia in three years’ time, the WBBL plays a really important part in the road to it. We have separated those competitions, so we have a stand-alone women’s WT20. Getting the WBBL right in the next couple of years will be crucial for the success of that competition.”
What kind of growth do you foresee for the WBBL?
We think the sky is the limit. It’s such a young competition; we’ve not even completed our second year, and already we’ve become such an important part of the Australian summer of cricket.
We tried the opening weekend, on a weekend that was free of other forms of cricket; it was a great success, and we’ve already pencilled in a date for it next year, in an Ashes summer. It’s going to have its own window where women’s cricket will be front and centre. We had 25,000 people at the MCG for the women’s New Year’s Day game and we had 10,000 people for the Melbourne Derby at Etihad, so we’re so encouraged by the way fans are responding to what we’re doing.
We think there is a significant commercial upside, we’ve already seen that with the clubs this year. In the second year of the WBBL, the clubs have generated over 1 million dollars in sponsorships alone. It’s a big step up from year one to year two, and we’re going to see that again in year three.
With a World T20 in Australia in three years’ time, the WBBL plays a really important part in the road to it. We have separated those competitions, so we have a stand-alone women’s WT20. Getting the WBBL right in the next couple of years will be crucial for the success of that competition.
We saw you put your confidence in standalone games in the WBBL opening weekend. Do you think that’s the way forward for women’s cricket?
I quite like the format that we have at the moment. I think we have the best of a number of worlds, we have our standalone opening weekend, which works in its own right. I really like double-headers because they are on the big stage, free-to-air TV broadcast, they get crowds in. I really like the community games (smaller club venues) as well. They have got a different feel to them, a bit old school, you can go and stand by the white picket fences and get close to your heroes. So we probably haven’t formed a firm view yet as to what is the perfect model, other than to say at the moment we really like all those diff elements within a season. Were fortunate that we’ve got the flexibility to dial things up and dial things down for now, I think a combination of those elements seems to be working really well for us.
The BBL has returned a profit in its sixth year. How long before the WBBL does the same?
We haven’t put a specific date on it, but no doubt in my mind that it won’t be too far off. We’re making a significant financial commitment to this competition, just as we did to BBL in the first couple of years. Again, we don’t necessarily just assess WBBL on commercial terms; this is a long-term commitment, a long-term investment.
Women’s sport, as it grows in terms of its professionalism, is a bit of a soft target for corruption. What measures do you have in place to prevent that?
In the BBL, we have got significant arrangements in place, whether in accreditation, or the PMOA (Players and Match Officials Area) system, the red zone, handing in mobile phones; very well established, almost the world’s best practices. There is no dilution of the standards and expectations for the men. Doesn’t matter which venue you’re at; whether at Etihad, where it’s much easier to do with the infrastructure in place, or at Camberwell and Toorak Park (smaller club grounds in Melbourne), the PMOA and red zones were in place. It’s something we take very seriously. We directly mirror the arrangement that we have in BBL, which are ICC standard, and in some cases above ICC standard. It’s a huge commitment across 59 games and 26 venues.