This article was produced by SportBusiness International working in association with Tie Break Tens.
IT WAS NOT ONLY the fans of Sydney Thunder who were celebrating their team’s three-wicket victory over Melbourne Stars in the final of this year’s KFC Big Bash Twenty20 Cricket League.
Executives at commercial broadcaster Network Ten shared the euphoria as they basked in their biggest summer audience for over a decade as 1.66 million Australians tuned in to watch the climax of the fifth edition of a competition, which drew average crowds of over 29,000, making it the eighth most-watched sports league in the world.
T20 is the ultimate distillation of cricket with the emphasis on big-hitting and frantic finishes in a super-charged atmosphere stoked by cheerleaders and played out under lights against a pulsating audio backdrop, with a result in three hours.
While the English authorities claim credit for devising the format, it was the creation of the Indian Premier League, featuring many of the world’s leading players, which showed the others how the new approach could be a game-changer. Now more or less every cricket-playing nation has its own version and the crowds, broadcasters and sponsors love it.
Despite its rather conservative reputation, cricket has embraced change more warmly than many other sports as authorities have faced up to the waning popularity of the five-day game, except for a handful of classic Test match fixtures.
In only 13 years, T20 has become embedded in the global sporting landscape. It is a sport in its own right, no longer viewed simply as cricket-lite, a frivolous diversion for the main event.
So it is no surprise that the success of T20 has been a factor in stimulating a new wave of activity among other sports governing bodies and entrepreneurial promoters anxious to find fresh ways of making sports more attractive to consumers whose lifestyles have changed significantly over the past 30 years or so.
In July Keith Pelley, chief executive of golf’s European Tour, put his modernizer’s cards on the table.
“Let’s be honest – and scientific data proves this – attention spans are decreasing as opposed to increasing and the choice people have to consume content now is so different,” he said. “So you have to change because people’s time is so precious.”
Among Pelley’s solutions is the creation of a six-hole format which, he has said, is likely to make its professional debut in 2017 with a broader roll-out the following year.
According to Pelley, the format could create a programme of between one hour and 90 minutes.
The concept will involve a shot-clock to keep play moving swiftly, music and perhaps a more limited club selection for players who would be dressed “a little differently.”
Pelley, who took over at the European Tour from the long-serving George O’Grady in 2015, believes not only that the new six-hole format can succeed in its own right, but that it should be an option for time-starved players at every level of the game. He suggested that all new golf courses should be designed and built with three sets of six holes in mind so that players can fit six-hole rounds into their daily schedule.
According to David Law – a hugely experienced tennis media professional who commentates for BBC radio and BT Sport in the UK, as well as working as communications director for the AEGON Championships at the Queen’s Club – his own sport is far from immune from the pressures of time, which are impacting on golf.
“The fact is that not everybody has a whole day available to spend watching tennis,” he says. “People are increasingly time-poor and there’s a lot of debate around the sport about format issues and the amount of five-set tennis that should be played.”
Tie Break Tens
Among other projects, Law is advising the team behind Tie Break Tens, a fresh tennis format which was launched in London last year and was scheduled to make its second appearance ahead of an ATP World Tour event in Vienna in October.
“There have been attempts at a short form before in the shape of Turbo Tennis at the O2 in London back in 2007,” Law says. “But what I really like about Tie Break Tens is that it takes the concept of the tie-break, something which is already well-established, and builds an event around that element of the game. The tie-break is one of the cleverest scoring systems in any sport. It’s genius really.”
Tie Break Tens is quickfire, shoot-out tennis in which six players play first-to-10 tie-break matches. The six play in a round-robin format to determine the finalists, who battle for a winner-takes-all prize of $250,000 (€228,000).
According to Law, last year’s inaugural Albert Hall event proved the concept can be successful.
“The Albert Hall was absolutely packed and the atmosphere was pulsating,” he says.
“In the final, Andy Murray faced the up-and-coming British player Kyle Edmund, who beat him 10-6. The crowd knew how important it was for Edmund, who would either go home with nothing or win nearly as much money as he had in his entire career before then.
“It was a great show with players dressed all in black and really dramatic staging with players individually picked out by spotlights as they were introduced to the crowd. When they weren’t actually playing, the players were courtside watching, which kept them visible and involved.”
“The Albert Hall was a guinea pig to see whether the format worked, and it did.
“Of course we learned things along the way and one of the takeaways was that there may have been things that could be done better to make it as seamless as possible. The idea is a quickfire evening of entertainment that never stops.
“Critically, the final felt like a really important event and it is not easy to create that atmosphere from a standing start.”
For Edmund personally, it was a big deal.
“To win that amount of money in one night in December was amazing – more than I had won for the whole of 2015,” he says. “For a young player like me it was brilliant because I was able to invest in my team and in my career generally.
There are a lot of expenses involved in trying to make it in tennis, so winning Tie Break Tens played a part in me going from outside the world’s top 100 to inside the top 50 over the last 11 months.”
October’s Vienna event was an opportunity to move the project forward.
According to Law, the ATP gave the format a warm welcome and with players including Jo Wilfried Tsonga, Dominic Thiem, Tommy Haas and the veteran Goran Ivanisevic joining Murray to play, he sees it as a perfect opportunity to present the format to a large and knowledgeable audience in what is effectively an opening session of tennis ahead of the Erste Bank Open 500.
“It’s a great opportunity to take it to another level,” he says. However, Law is also careful to emphasise that Tie Break Tens is intended to complement and not replace the traditional forms of the sport.
“Tie Break Tens gives you a guaranteed product within a window of time and there is definitely a realisation within the sport that there is a gap there,” he adds. “It is not meant to replace the existing format. Like T20, it gives you another option as not everyone has a full day to watch tennis.
“You can see the stars play each other and it is all done and dusted in one night. That’s the attraction.”
Tie Break Tens also seems to create an even playing field with older players competing against established and maturing pros, and underdogs turning purple patches into life-changing pay-days. In London, a 57-year-old John McEnroe led his first match 6-0 before eventually losing, but critically the format allowed a revered star to be competitive in every game he played.
“The highest ranked players in the game such as Murray are obviously going to be incredibly good at it, but the nice thing is that there are some older champions or up-and-coming players whose styles are simply predisposed to a shorter format,” Law says. “We saw that with Edmund. It’s more even and competitive, and the crowds love that.”
Edmund and McEnroe provided the player’s view. “The format is fun,” Edmund says. “It’s quick, which means you need to go for it. That worked well for my game, and it gives more players a chance to win.” McEnroe adds: “This is unpredictable, and that’s what I think people are looking for.”
Tie Break Tens hopes to have more than one event in 2017, and to develop from there.
“These are early days, and it’s impossible to tell exactly what it will look like in the long run, but the hope is that it will ultimately build into a series of some kind,” Law says.