Big Bash League enters the jungle

For all the innovation, breaking down of barriers and creation of new frontiers that has characterised seven years of the Big Bash League, the final this season will have an intriguingly retro time slot. In a world where the AFL Grand Final is just about the only major Australian sporting decider still held in the afternoon, the meeting between two first-time finalists in the Adelaide Strikers and the Hobart Hurricanes will conclude before the sun has set on Adelaide Oval.

The primary reason for this relates to television, of course. In expanding the BBL by 10 games for 2017-18, Cricket Australia pushed the finals out into the first week of February, beyond the start of the official ratings period for which the rights holders at Ten use the tournament as a promotional launching pad. I'm A Celebrity ... Get Me Out Of Here is Ten's primetime flagship, and in a compromise between broadcaster and tournament, the show was not aired on Thursday night to allow the first semi-final in far-flung Perth, with the makeweight being an afternoon schedule for the women's and men's finals on Sunday.

Given the BBL's consistently high television audiences, this feels like something of a reality check. The tournament will duly fade out as viewers enter the jungle at 7.30pm, rather mirroring the fact that the end of this tournament will see it leave the certainties of a five-year rights deal with Ten. After Sunday, CA's emergent competition will enter the unknowns of negotiations between the governing body and interested parties that have begun to get more serious after a summer of informal chats at cricket grounds around the country.

"CA's many competing agendas also include a strategic objective to "own" a wider portion of the summer months, having over the past two decades faced the creep of other sports, mainly Australian football, into its traditional territory"

What's already known is that the next edition will expand in its number of games, more than likely by 14 matches to mean it is a full home-and-away schedule for the eight competing teams. The finals, meanwhile, will expand further into February, probably to be played over a pair of weekends. Adam Gilchrist, in his role as a BBL commentator, has suggested the playoffs should move to a model where the top two teams get a double chance, which would mean four playoffs games rather than three. Kim McConnie, head of the BBL, said it was vital that any decision put fans at the forefront of CA's thinking.

"This season we really wanted to pilot a few things," McConnie told ESPNcricinfo. "BBL has been built on innovation and it's really pushed new territory so this season we had four expansion markets, we went everywhere from Alice Springs to Geelong and they were some of our most successful games.

"So firstly we want to understand fans - I think the secret sauce to BBL has always been putting fans first, and this season was about saying if we took BBL to new markets is there an appetite amongst new audiences for BBL and we were really encouraged by the response. Part of the process is how did those games go, what are the opportunities in other markets. Ultimately we're about putting fans first so that's what we'll use to say 'do fans want more games, if so where, and how do we go about it'."

Opinions on whether the tournament can sustain an extra 14 games, after experiencing a marginal drop-off in audience figures for this summer's additional 10 matches, are far from uniform. Both CA and the players seem unified on the fact that any such expansion could take place without unduly stretching the tournament window, via the playing of more double and even triple-headers, and also reducing the gaps between games - most teams had at least one break of between eight and 10 days this time around, which felt too leisurely.

"I still think the competition's gone really well, from a players' point of view and speaking to our boys it feels like it's been a long, drawn out tournament - we had a 10-day break - I agree we don't want to draw the season out any longer," Melbourne Renegades captain Cameron White said. "If it is more matches, I think it needs to stay within that timeframe, that's my opinion and I get that's the feeling of our group and maybe across the board speaking to other teams as well. We had a 10-day break in this season so I don't think we need to have that long."

George Bailey, the Hobart Hurricanes' captain, pointed out that if it was possible for D'Arcy Short and Alex Carey to play for Australia in Sydney on Saturday night then return to Adelaide for the BBL final on Sunday afternoon, then there was plenty of room to manoeuvre the tournament fixture in future. "Showing that some of these guys can play an international game tonight and then step up and play a game tomorrow, that probably says there's some big gaps," he said.

"I think every team's had an eight or nine-day gap in this tournament, which is actually pretty hard to get your head around, it's a game where momentum's really important, and when you have to be stopping for a week it can be difficult. So no doubt [it can] with a few back to back games, a few double headers. The tournament's gone from strength to strength over the last couple of years. I think for domestic cricketers it's one of the great competitions, big crowds, an air of excitement throughout the whole summer."

But with a tighter BBL schedule would come further complications on other levels. The current number of games allows players to jump more or less straight from the BBL into the Sheffield Shield while managing up their training loads to ensure they do not shift from sprint to marathon without adequate preparation. More T20s would make such a process more difficult, not least for the fast bowlers who are so closely managed as it is. As White put it: "If you put more games into a season it's going to be taxing for players, you're still playing 10 Shield games and maybe a couple more one day domestic games over the next couple of years leading into a World Cup year, so it's a lot of cricket."

That's all without mentioning the likely changes to the international calendar next summer. Australia's Test series against India will not start until early December, before finishing at the SCG in early January. Two Tests against Sri Lanka, pencilled in for Brisbane and Canberra, may well both be day-night affairs, further squeezing the amount of primetime available. Then there is the fact that with a 50-over World Cup fast approaching, Australia's international needs will be for the intermediate form rather than the short one.

Hurricanes this year welcomed the mentorship of the well-traveled Gary Kirsten, who as the player of 101 Tests for South Africa, then as coach of India, South Africa and Delhi Daredevils, has seen cricket's global ebbs and flows more broadly than most. He does not profess to know the answers to questions about how the BBL should grow, if at all, but he wonders at the way CA can balance its T20 tournament with one of few nations still able to state honestly that Test match cricket is healthy.

"It's a great tournament as it is. I really enjoyed it, it's my first one, and I don't know the answer to that [expansion]. In the IPL there's 14 games, it's quite a condensed schedule," he said. "I've heard a lot of people say it's not a good thing, it's great as it is, keep it as is. I think it's about understanding the relevance of T20 in world cricket and where does it fit into the Australian schedule.

"Test cricket and one day cricket is dear to Australia, and for some other countries it's tougher to keep people excited about Test cricket. Here you can still fill the stadiums but in other parts of the world you can't, so T20 cricket is kind of taking over, taking control. It's difficult to make those decisions."

Another factor that will influence proceedings is the recent downturn in ratings and audiences for the tournament in Melbourne and Sydney, Australia's two biggest commercial and television markets. As discussed elsewhere, this can be linked to the recent underperformance of the four teams in these cities, and the advantages enjoyed by single-team states. In contrast to Major League Baseball two decades ago, the injection of twice as many teams in the big markets has helped the smaller market teams operate far more effectively, to the point that those in charge of the Sydney Sixers and Thunder, and the Melbourne Stars and Renegades, have talked about measures to redress the balance. Those big market numbers may well depend on it.

CA's many competing agendas also include a strategic objective to "own" a wider portion of the summer months, having over the past two decades faced the creep of other sports, mainly Australian football, into its traditional territory. This battle has been underlined by nothing so fundamental as the very turf on which the game is played, as drop-in pitches become the norm in the multi-purpose stadiums that can best cater to the big audiences CA and the state associations seek.

The second BBL semi-final competed for television eyeballs not with the Australian Open tennis as in the past, but with the start of the AFLW competition in Melbourne, much as the final will on Sunday. In the same breath, the AFL has unashamedly joined numerous other sports in trying to create its own "short format" variant in the shape of "AFLX", perhaps the first time the game has actively sought to ape cricket since it was first concocted in the 19th century as a way to keep cricketers fit during the winter.

In the brashness of its leadership and willingness to experiment, the BBL has more closely resembled the AFL than any other part of CA, led with pragmatic conservatism by the longtime chief executive James Sutherland. Both the BBL's inaugural chief Anthony Everard and his successor Kim McConnie have been heavily influenced by American sport and also commercial backgrounds, and are proud to say they have overseen a league doing things that others cannot.

"I know before I came into this job, looking at BBL from afar, I was amazed that it's a sport where we're miking up players as they're playing," McConnie said. "When we first saw that a few years ago when I was working in the US I remember talking about that with the NFL and it's amazing the access we give to fans. A lot of the stuff we do I know a lot of other sports look at that and go 'ok we wouldn't be able to give fans that type of access'.

"I think BBL has shown it's actually quite disruptive and it does that in order to bring new audiences into cricket, and we see that - 25% of our attendance last season was people who'd never been to a cricket game. So that's very much what we'll continue to pride ourselves on, understanding how do we put fans first. They're looking for entertainment, and sport is such a core part of that, so how do we make sure we're matching what happens out here in the stadium with the amazing games we're seeing on the pitch as well."

As far as the BBL's future is concerned, "disruptive" is a word that can be spun in several directions. For broadcasters, it is the ratings period and the rights fee, for players the schedule and the workload, for fans the number of nights out they can afford. For CA, as Kirsten said, it is about balancing the disruption with the very fabric of the game in Australia. Beyond Sunday's final afternoon, it is indeed a jungle out there.