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How the Big Bash League became the 21st century's World Series Cricket

With its high-octane mix of loud music, fireworks, dancers and quick-fire matches, the Big Bash League has knocked cricket tradition for six, writes Daniel Lane.

With matches dominated by large crowds consisting of families who are entertained by blaring music, fireworks and athletes capable of pulling off the unbelievable with classic catches and towering hits into the grandstands, the Big Bash League is being hailed as the greatest shake-up to the sport since Kerry Packer unleashed World Series Cricket.

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The game might be seen by some as cricket's answer to Monster Trucks – after all it's an adrenaline-charged game in which each team has 120 balls to bludgeon as many runs as possible – but the non-stop action has ensured full houses around Australia and brought a nightly audience to Network Ten that has already exceeded last summer's ratings bonanza by 23 per cent.

Fairfax Media has compiled statistics that show over the last calender year, Big Bash League matches attracted an average of 24,229 spectators per game compared to the traditional Test format's 19,138. While the current Test series featuring the once mighty West Indies has struggled to attract supporters at Hobart and Melbourne, the Perth Scorchers have sold out each of their four home games this summer.

Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland conceded on the ABC's Grandstand recently that the BBL has "cannibalised" the demand for international cricket. But Mike McKenna, the man charged with ensuring the BBL is the hottest ticket over summer, says no one in the sport's corridors of power is panicking about the consumers' current product of choice.

If anything it's believed the BBL phenomena will ensure the sport retains its revered place in Australia's national identity amid competition from rival codes. And the fact spectators are handed giveaways including boom sticks to hit together, and signs to hold up after a six or four is struck, means they're taking home items that connect them to the BBL.

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"The strategy of the Big Bash was to engage kids so we would protect the future of the game," said Mr McKenna, the BBL's chief executive. "We had research that showed for boys aged under 15 cricket was their seventh favourite sport and for girls it was 14th.

"They were very scary numbers for us and we've found with the Big Bash, and also the Women's Big Bash, which was launched this summer, is there's an explosion of kids playing junior cricket and they're going to help underwrite the future of the game. It's actually bounced back very fast."

So, just as World Series Cricket lured a new generation of fans to the excitement of cricket played under floodlights and superstar players wearing pastel-coloured uniforms, with those fans going on to become lovers of Test cricket, Mr McKenna predicts the kids cheering on the Sixers, Thunder, Renegades, Stars, Heat, Hurricanes, Strikers and Scorchers will as well.

"We've found the Big Bash is, for many people, the first time they attend an elite cricket match," he said. "And hopefully the experience of attending the game will encourage them to go back to more BBL games and to show interest in Test match cricket and one-day internationals."

News of the Big Bash's ability to harvest a new generation of fans – and attract family friendly sponsors such as Weet-Bix, Zooper Dooper ice blocks and KFC – hasn't gone unnoticed by the US-based Major League Baseball and National Basketball Association, which are looking for innovations to engage fans.

The BBL stumps and bails light up when they're struck by the ball, and the outlandish playing gear has also been a hit, but something that's impressed observers is how, after a game, players spend up to an hour walking around the boundary signing autographs and posing for selfies with their fans.

Perth Scorchers star Brad Hogg said the BBL players have willingly accepted their roles as entertainers.

"I'll be honest, when Twenty20 first started I was a little bit skeptical of it," said Hogg. "I was a traditionalist but as the game has developed I believe the future is in the shorter version and it will keep kids playing the game at the grassroots level.

"It's great to see the smiles on people's faces when we play and I think the one thing we have to remember is we're entertainers. We want to win but I think as long as you're having close contests – and being entertaining – people will support you."

Another key to the league's success is Cricket Australia's appealing to families who may have had no prior interest in the sport, along with the diehards who want to see cricket's most exciting skills showcased on the big stage with friendly pricing: $20 for an adult, $5 for a child and $42.50 for a family.

"The pricing was a deliberate strategy to make sure the majority of tickets – it's not every ticket – are affordable," Mr McKenna said. "It's a price range that makes it not a problem for parents to choose to go to a game.

"We've held those prices from the first season for five seasons to make sure there's no barrier for entry for families. It's a safe place and any six, four or great catch brings the crowd to life and people remember that excitement."

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