THE TWENTY20 Big Bash League has stalled at the start line of its heavily promoted second edition, with ratings down 30 per cent and crowds dipping nearly 40 per cent from the same stage of the competition last year.
In a blow for Cricket Australia and the competition's broadcaster, Fox Sports, ratings comparisons obtained by Fairfax Media reveal that interest in the city-based domestic league has fallen significantly, while plummeting attendances also point towards second-year syndrome.
After the first nine games of the tournament - up to and including last Sunday's grand final rematch between Sydney Sixers and Perth Scorchers at the SCG - the average national television audience was 237,000, a drop of 29 per cent on the same point of 2011-12, the first year of the revamped league.
Average crowds, excluding Thursday night's game between Sydney Thunder and Adelaide Strikers at ANZ Stadium, are 11,167. After the same number of matches last December, the BBL was riding high with average attendances of 17,575. There were hopes at CA that crowds would steadily increase but in the past five BBL games, only once have more than 10,000 people attended.
The numbers are a concern for CA as it prepares for final negotiations for a five-year domestic broadcast deal, particularly if the live five-city metro figures - the industry standard in free-to-air television, not pay television - are taken into account. They show only 128,000 tuning in for Brisbane Heat's game against Hobart on December 9, and less than 150,000 for at least two other matches in the first six of the competition. CA says mitigating factors - the earlier start to the competition, the weather, and several barely competitive games - have played a part in the decline.
''Out of the 11 matches now, five of them have been rain-affected. Three of them have been impacted during the match and the others prior to the game starting,'' said Mike McKenna, CA's executive general manager (commercial), who runs the BBL. ''It has a quite a profound effect on crowds and audiences when you have interruptions to games.''
Fox Sports, who will bid to retain the BBL rights, are understood to be content with the ratings despite the slide, having also used their coverage of the competition to bump up subscriber numbers. The 237,000 average national audience is still streets ahead of any other Foxtel show, although low by free-to-air standards. To offer some perspective, a repeat of Swamp People, an American reality series about Louisiana natives who hunt alligators for a living, rated 232,000 when it ran on 7Mate last Thursday.
CA has invested much faith and cash in the BBL, reportedly forecasting a loss of $10.56 million this year but anticipating that financial hit can be recouped when the new television deal is signed. With Channel Nine showing interest in simulcasting the three finals, the BBL rights have been tipped to fetch between $20m and $25m a year.
The other reason attributed to the BBL's slip in popularity is the decrease in novelty factor. The appearance of Shane Warne last season produced soaring ratings. His first match, between Melbourne Stars and the Thunder, attracted a national average audience of 478,000, at the time the fourth biggest ever on Foxtel - and McKenna says if you remove that match out of the equation, the competition is faring much better than it appears.
''If you take out the match where Warne played his first match … the averages aren't that much different,'' McKenna said. ''If you take all the games we've played to date, and you average those and you compare them with the average of last year, without the two finals and the Warne game, they're pretty close.''
CA does not anticipate a big rise in ratings throughout the summer, but does believe crowds will increase after Christmas and into the new year.
''I reckon the ratings will stay pretty consistent the way through. I reckon the attendance will pick up once we're out of the pre-Christmas mode and into the holiday mode,'' McKenna said. ''I think it's fair to say that we hoped the crowds prior to Christmas would pick up from where they were last year and they haven't. That's something that we're learning about. But certainly the expectation is that crowds will pick up as they did last year over Christmas.''
John Dyson, the Sydney Thunder general manager, said there was no need for alarm. ''I just think that the TV ratings are still excellent. They're over 200,000 per match, which shows there is a huge interest out there,'' Dyson said.
''What we're finding is that it's just an exceptionally busy time of year, with school, Christmas and people still at work. The other thing I think we all forget is it's been a difficult year financially for everyone. I think what people are doing is sitting back and getting Christmas out of the way … ''