I’ve been to the Melbourne Derby of the Big Bash League. Great atmosphere. Perfect family-friendly sporting event. Non-stop crowd engagement and loads of pyrotechnics and colour.
There were 37,000-odd people at the MCG during that game. The Melbourne Stars won by 1 run on the final delivery of the game. An ideal and exciting scenario for the Big Bash League (BBL) and their efforts to attract supporters and crowds and ratings and sponsors.
But at the same time, something was niggling at me. I couldn’t shake it.
It was the sense that the BBL is telling us that we love the BBL… not the other way around as it should be.
You see, I hate the sense that I’m being manipulated. It’s why I can’t stand overly-produced reality TV with dramatic music, manufactured drama, and scripted tension.
It’s why I can’t really enjoy comic-book movies like AntMan and Doctor Strange and Green Lantern and other heroes we had never heard of until a movie studio told us that we loved them nostalgically. I hate that sense of being manipulated.
And the BBL is manipulating us.
We are being manipulated into believing this sport has hundreds of thousands of passionate supporters who live-and-die by the performance of their beloved team, in the same vein as AFL or NRL or A-League… and I’m sorry, but that simply isn’t the case.
The BBL gets families to attend with a good product and inexpensive tickets, which is fantastic…and that should be enough… they also hand out merchandise so they can appear as though there are kids with posters of the Renegades and the Scorchers and the Hurricanes hanging in their school lockers… but are kids really talking about Aaron Finch’s strike rate at school on Monday?
OK, so I’m sure some kids do… but BBL is not AFL and it is not NRL and it is not A-League. It is a league and a format in its infancy. It has some passionate fans but the vast majority of attendees are curious and mildly interested… they are categorically not intense supporters.
For evidence, I point to their social media sites. Now you might reasonably think using social media stats as evidence is pretty meaningless, but it points to a bigger picture where the BBL is trying to convince us that us it is more popular than it actually is.
(Ed’s note: During the time between drafting this article and publishing it, each team added over 20,000 new Facebook fans within the space of a week… which is 100% suspect, wouldn’t you agree?)
Those figures give either one of the two Melbourne BBL teams more Facebook followers than any AFL team.
Excuse me while I bust out my conspiracy theory tinfoil-hat, but there is NO WAY IN HELL that either of the Melbourne BBL teams is as popular as any AFL team.
It’s just not in the realms of possibility. Not even if the BBL’s core demographic (12-year-olds) all had Facebook pages would they crack these figures. It’s not happening.
Which leads us to a simple conclusion: The BBL is fabricating these numbers, or is paying a social media consultant who is fabricating these numbers and lying to the BBL. These are Fake Likes.
And the evidence keeps coming:
When the Melbourne Stars posted their Christmas Facebook message to their “450,000 Facebook fans” they had a grand total of 353 “Likes”.
That’s one ‘Like’ for every 1200 of their Facebook followers. That’s suspiciously low.
Conversely, the AFL club the Western Bulldogs posted a similar Christmas message, in the middle of an AFL offseason and with “only” 105,000 fans following them on Facebook.
Their message received 2045 ‘Likes,’ a rate of one ‘Like’ for every 50 fans.
I also notice that during Big Bash games the social media ‘conversation’ is basically confined to (admittedly) some hardcore fans, a LOT of sports betting companies, the teams themselves, other cricket players, the sponsors, and the league itself. There is almost no running commentary from hundreds of fans, let alone thousands of fans in the same vein as the AFL or NRL or A-League.
So why does any of this matter? Who cares if their social media stats are bogus?
Well, in a way it’s similar to the antiquated and ridiculously inflated TV ratings system we have in Australia: These smoke-and-mirror tactics are in place purely to make money.
If the BBL can convince us that they really truly have a following on-par with the AFL (laughable, but bear with me), then they can convince advertisers the same thing.
If they can go to potential sponsors and say “We have this many social media followers and these awesome TV ratings” then the sponsors will pay money.
And it is totally disingenuous.
The sad part is that the BBL genuinely has a good product for families, and it’s well on its way to being a strong league in Australia. It doesn’t need to lie to us to get there, but it’s getting a bit carried away and possibly a little greedy.
Their success should (and probably would) come organically, but the more they try to use smoke-and-mirrors to inflate themselves, the more risk that it will all come crashing down when the sponsors start asking the awkward questions.
The BBL is in its infancy as a sporting league. It has an exciting product that’s clearly attracting people as casual observers and even casual fans. But the key for any new league is to turn the casual fan into a dedicated fan, or even a paying member.
That took the A-League a long, long time.
It would be a mistake for the BBL to ‘get ahead of itself’ and start acting (and spending money) as though it is an untouchable dominant summer sporting fixture in Australia before it has the dedicated fan base to sustain it.
Cheap family tickets and approachable stars will help it immensely, but they need to be careful not to assume (or pretend) that they have a large dedicated fanbase.
If they jump the gun they could well end up joining a long list of sports leagues that failed under the weight of their own hubris.