Big Bash League and the importance of putting on a ‘damn good show’

Jonathan Howcroft

When the Big Bash League is on in Melbourne nobody pays closer attention than Jarrah Whyte. Not the players, most of whom will only be on the field around half the night. Not even the umpires, who can switch off between deliveries and overs, the precise moments Whyte is at his most attentive.

Whyte is the BBL music producer at the MCG and Marvel Stadium and he’s responsible for everything heard on matchday. The trill of the IPL trumpet to pierce a lull? That’s him. Sweet Caroline when there’s a longer than expected delay in play? Whyte. The chorus of Livin’ on a Prayer while you glance at the scoreboard and contemplate nipping to the bar? You guessed it.

Related: Sound of silence: when will common sense prevail over music at events? | Andy Bull

There are Whytes in every state, and their impact on the BBL experience is as striking as any stroke-making innovation or slower-ball variation. You may well hate what they do, colonising every fragment of silence, but they are now part of the T20 furniture and central to the brand-building of franchises ushering the next generation of cricket fans towards the live experience.

It’s no accident. “In a short space of time the BBL has become an institution of the summer school holidays period,” says Alistair Dobson, Cricket Australia’s Head of Big Bash Leagues. “Fan engagement is at the core of this – we want children and families to go home with a smile on their face after a day or night of fun. The music, lights and other fan engagement initiatives in and around the ground contribute to this.”

Young fans show their support for the Renegades at Marvel Stadium. Photograph: Rob Prezioso/AAP

The marquee fixture each season for the Melbourne Renegades is their home derby against the Stars at Marvel Stadium. This year the date landed on the second Friday in January, prime real estate for bums on seats. It mattered little that it was raining sideways in Melbourne’s docklands. If anything it enhanced the anti-traditional vibe at the multi-purpose venue named after a comic book publisher where the retractable roof was weather-sealing the playing arena (not to mention the impromptu stage for pop star Vanessa Amorosi). This was about as far removed as you could imagine from cricket’s bucolic fantasy of gentlemen in white flannels whiling away an afternoon on a village green.

If you dwell over the question whether a night at the BBL is primarily about the cricket or the razzamatazz, you’d be hard-pressed to find a definitive answer. Which is fine, because it’s a hypothetical chin-stroker that doesn’t require one. 30,388 people considered the offering worthy of their patronage. Cricket Australia’s board must be sore from repeatedly pinching itself.

Chris Gergely is head of brand, marketing and fan engagement at the Renegades, which means he’s the man responsible for the matchday experience at Marvel Stadium. He is unambiguous (perhaps surprisingly) about the balance between cricket and entertainment. “First and foremost, this is a professional team,” he states, painting an aspirational picture that a trip to the Renegades should be viewed as a young cricket fan’s first step on the way to a baggy green, before cautioning: “When you’re a start-up competition if you’re only relying on success and your on-field performance, that’s dangerous; and the BBL is still a baby.” It’s a salutary lesson for start-ups.

“You’re not always winning, and when you’re not winning you need to be putting on a damn good show.” The son et lumière is both a necessary distraction for family members unaccustomed to focussing on sport for three hours and also an insurance policy to ensure repeat customers, irrespective of wins and losses.

How do they know it’s working? Surveys – lots of them – combined with strong membership figures, impressive attendances and TV ratings the envy of most other domestic leagues.

But there are growing pains. The kids that helped make early BBL seasons such runaway successes are now teens, forcing the competition to question if it should broaden its appeal (and if so, how?), or, with 36% of total ticket sales across the competition going to families, remain focussed on youngsters taking in their first live sporting experience.

The clubs are wrestling with that conundrum while having to put on more matches to cater for the demand, without a commensurate increase in budget. “We know that the future of the BBL is not the entertainment, it’s not sustainable as the amount of games increases,” says Gergely. “You can’t keep having huge entertainment pieces – but there is an expectation that there will be fan engagement.”

Marvel Stadium on January 02, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images) Photograph: Daniel Pockett/Getty Images

At Marvel Stadium Whyte sits in a roped-off section on the third tier, roughly in line with long-off when the bowling is from the Lockett End. From here he cranes his neck and surveys the action.

His understanding of cricket is paramount. The nuts and bolts of the job involve tapping laptops and adjusting faders, but that is all predicated on an appreciation of where the night is at at any given moment. The golden rule is obvious: do not interfere with the game. Thankfully Whyte has yet to leave his fader up after the bowler has gathered at the top of his mark, nor has he clicked on the folder marked “music for sixes” before the ball has cleared Matt Renshaw in his entirety.

The playlist accessed by music producers up and down the country is centrally sourced but locally tailored. That means on a Renegades home night, scattered amongst the familiar stings there’s a greater likelihood of rock songs cropping up, while across town the mood at the Stars is more pop influenced. Think Triple M v Nova or Fox. It’s one of the many demonstrations of how the clubs distinguish their brands in a crowded sports entertainment marketplace.

The Renegades’s harder soundtrack complements the devilish red and back livery and the motorbike demonstrations. Face painting for kids? Try mock sleeve tattoos. From the name down, the Renegades marketing team lucked in with a readymade identity.

Under the roof the Renegades bat first against the Stars, and they begin promisingly, Shaun Marsh and Marcus Harris combining for 86 runs. The former welcomes Nepalese leg-spinner Sandeep Lamichhane to the crease with a clubbed six over midwicket that Whyte salutes with Higher Ground (the Red Hot Chili Peppers version, alas, not Stevie Wonder’s original). Asked if he ever struggles to decide what track to select he responds “at the Renegades, when in doubt play AC/DC, at the Stars play Michael Jackson”. Whyte’s life was made more difficult earlier this season when the king of pop was quietly retired from the playlist.

By 10pm, the hoopla and live music, mascots and fan cams have all been upstaged by Glenn Maxwell, the Stars skipper smashing 83 runs from just 45 deliveries. The rain has now relented and the wind barely a whisper, allowing everyone to file away from the ground in good cheer, little kids clapping thundersticks, bigger ones marvelling at Maxwellball, Acca Dacca on the PA system.

Whyte ends his vigil and quietly deconstructs his workstation. The vast concrete bowl settles back into silence.