Giving it a Bash: Cricket Australia’s Kim McConnie on the biggest BBL so far

Australia is playing host to men’s and women’s Ashes series this summer, resuming an age-old rivalry with England, but at the heart of its cricket season are a pair of youthful events with a focus on the future. Kim McConnie, a new arrival from PepsiCo with big-time sports entertainment experience, is the new woman in charge of the Big Bash Leagues.

Giving it a Bash: Cricket Australia’s Kim McConnie on the biggest BBL so far

Australia has arguably been cricket’s major power in the last 20 years but when Twenty20 arrived, it’s fair to say they didn’t quite know what to make of it Down Under. England dished out a thumping to the men in yellow in the first T20 international in 2005, while early games against New Zealand featured retro kits and comedy moustaches.

By the time the multi-billion dollar Indian Premier League powered into life in 2008, Cricket Australia seemed at a similar loss as to what to do with T20 on a domestic level. The original KFC Twenty20 Big Bash launched in 2005, bringing the six traditional state teams into the shortest format, but struggled to capture the popular imagination.

A few years later, the governing body rethought its priorities and retooled the competition. Rather than attempting to appease traditionalists or pursue the big spenders on the subcontinent, it imagined the competition as a way into the sport for those with no prior experience.

The tournament re-emerged in 2011 as the KFC Big Bash League. It would now feature eight city-based franchise teams, with two rival sides apiece from Melbourne and Sydney. High quality and overseas signings were still encouraged but from an experience standpoint, particularly inside the venue, the event was forensically targeted at newcomers, families, and children. The competition would be played through the heart of the Australian summer – the school holidays – with healthy exposure on free-to-air television each night.

It has been a successful approach, with figures suggesting an audience that is younger and newer to cricket, and a concept that has CA’s old rivals at the England and Wales Cricket Board building their own new tournament in its image. As franchise T20 tournaments hit difficulties around the world – with the launch of South Africa’s new Global T20League postponed for a year and others finding holes in their business models – the BBL’s clear sense of its own identity and purpose is becoming an ever more powerful asset. Allied to the Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL), created in 2015 to further the professionalisation of the women’s game, it is showing early signs of being able to gather an Australian cricketing community of and for the 21st century.    

The responsibility for continuing the progress towards that goal will fall to a newcomer this season, with Anthony Everard moving up to the role of executive general manager of events and leagues. Kim McConnie (above, right) is his replacement as head of BBL and WBBL, returning home to Australia from a highly influential stint with food and beverage giant PepsiCo.

There, McConnie went from marketing director roles in the Asia Pacific region to take on the enormous task of overseeing the group’s sports marketing activities as senior director in its global office. Among her responsibilities in New York, as well as maximising the impact of PepsiCo’s many partnerships within sport, was creating plans for the biggest crossover event for sport and entertainment: the Super Bowl Halftime Show. 

McConnie will be aiming to apply the insights she has gleaned there to the task of growing the BBL in Australia and around the world. In particular, she energised by the prospect of the WBBL, the timely startup she believes “can and will be the best women’s sport in the world”.

Coming into your first season as head of the BBL and WBBL, what have some of your personal preparations involved and what do you see as your priorities for the year ahead?

I’m super excited to come into Big Bash because it’s such an amazing league and, when you think about it, it’s only our seventh season. So for me, the excitement was coming into a relatively new league. There’s not many opportunities you get to do something like that. There’s still so much headroom and growth for us, so a lot of my preparation was really… I came from the US and I spent a lot of time talking to some of the sports partners over there and understanding some of the innovation that they’ve been doing, understanding their journey.

And I think, as I come into this role, what are some of the priorities? It’s got such momentum and it’s great being able to come into a team that’s seeing such growth, and the fan engagement and excitement around Big Bash is phenomenal. It really does own summer, and that’s such an exciting journey to be on.

And now, this season, we’re actually adding more games. We’re going to more markets – so we’re going to be taking BBL to new audiences and giving new people a chance to experience BBL.

And then one of the things I’m most excited about is WBBL – the Women’s Big Bash League. That kicks off in early December and we’ve got a lot of focus on that, and the exciting part is we’ve just got more and more appetite from fans for WBBL. As a result, we’re actually going to be broadcasting 12 of those games on TV this year, which is phenomenal. There’s going to be a lot happening.

A lot of people will be struck by the fact that you’ve moved from a global role with PepsiCo back to Australia, to a nationally focused role, and across to a rights holder. What were your motivations for doing that?

I was really interested to work with a rights holder. You know, I spent my career working on the other side – on the brand side – and I felt that I had gained so much experience that one of the opportunities that really interested me was: ‘Hold on a sec, how about if I jumped over the other side? How would I approach this? What would I do?’

So actually being on the rights holder side was a piece that I felt I could really learn from and I could also add a lot of value to, having worked across all the major leagues in the US, from NHL to NFL and everything in between, across all the different sports partners and athletes. I felt like it had given me a wide range of experience, and I was really excited to jump over to the rights holder side to have a look at adding some value on that side.

And again, it’s because it was the BBL. It’s such a different approach to cricket and it still had such headroom to do more. That’s what really brought me in.

The Big Bash League has placed the fan experience at the heart of its plan, making each match a spectacle and creating unique activation opportunities for its partners

How did the opportunity present itself?

Like most of these opportunities. Sport’s actually a relatively small world – despite the fact that it spans continents and feels big from the outside. The inner workings of the sport world are very interconnected. So just through relationships and connections.

Did Cricket Australia go looking for you or did you become aware of the change in the structure there?

A bit of both. They did a really broad search – they did a global search. They were looking across all facets of sport globally, and I was also thinking it would be really interesting to move to the other side. So I think the best of both sort of combined, and then some contacts brought us into a connection.

What’s the nature of your role there? Anthony Everard, who played such a role in the growth of BBL, is still there, so how do you see yourself fitting into that structure?

Anthony’s been promoted. He now heads up events and leagues. Mike McKenna, who was in that role, has moved on and is now heading up the exciting venture of the brand new stadium at the WACA. So that obviously gave Anthony the opportunity to be recognised for all his great work and to be promoted into that role, which left an amazing opportunity to backfill his role at the Big Bash Leagues.

It’s such a different approach to cricket and it still had such headroom to do more. That’s what really brought me in.

For me, it’s the best of both worlds because I now have a boss who is intimately aware of and very passionate about the Big Bash League, and also now looks after all events and leagues across Cricket Australia.

Does that help you to think about where Big Bash sits in the wider remit of what Cricket Australia does? You have an Ashes series this year, but BBL has been something that almost self-consciously sits outside the rest of what the sport has to offer there.

Yeah, and I think where I come into it and where I look at it, we now have formats of cricket for literally all Australians. And if you think about Cricket Australia’s mission, it’s to be a sport for all Australians. In order to do that, it needs to play the portfolio, so to speak. BBL is very much laser focused on: ‘We’re for kids and familes.’

If you’re for kids and families, you need to act a little differently because your target expectation is to be fun and colourful and dynamic. So I think as a result of that, we hold that fan-first approach and that dictates how BBL comes to market.

McConnie has expressed a desire for the WBBL to be the strongest women's sports league in the world

How does it compare with some of the activations that you’ve been working on with Pepsi in the US? Is there anything that’s quite like the BBL in terms of having that family focus?

I think from a sports point of view, there probably aren’t too many properties which have that focus on family – which I think is what’s so exciting about BBL.

But I do think a lot of my experience has helped set me up. My role over there, I headed up all sport, and really it was about sport and entertainment. We leveraged our sport to engage fans in a way that was exciting. So that, I think, is something that I bring to this role: how do we morph sport and entertainment? Because, more and more, they’re merging.

If you’re for kids and families, you need to act a little differently because your target expectation is to be fun and colourful and dynamic. So I think as a result of that, we hold that fan-first approach and that dictates how BBL comes to market.

When people go to a game now, there’s such a higher expectation of what they’re looking to get out of it. So I spent a lot of time working on platforms like the Super Bowl. How do you create a half-time show which gets more viewers than the game and really create excitement around that? That’s all about appealing to teens.

I definitely think a lot of the experience I had with working on sports entertainment properties in the US which target mums, target teens, target kids; that’s experience that I think and hope I’ve been able to bring back here.

A lot of what you’re talking about is entertainment that is linked to a sporting event, whereas with the BBL you’re creating an entertaining product that drives people into the sport more generally and serves a development function. Do you have to look at things differently in that regard?

Absolutely, and I love the way that you’ve framed that up because that’s absolutely our approach – how do you create a more entertaining product so that we’re introducing new fans into the Big Bash League and therefore creating fans of cricket?

And we see that, actually. A quarter of our attendance are people who’ve never been to a cricket game, which is just fantastic. No other sport that I’ve come across can talk about the fact that a quarter of their audience have never been to a game. And the great thing is, we’re only seven years in but we’re finding that they’re continuing to come back. So it really is introducing them to the sport in a way that is fun and engaging.

They then get hooked on cricket and hopefully – and what we’re starting to see is this – that moves up and they get interested in the other forms of cricket. And then they’ll start to age and have kids and their kids will play cricket, and then all of a sudden we’ll have got this lifecycle and that will be fantastic.

Despite its accessible premise, the BBL still brings in world class talent like the Melbourne Renegades' Aaron Finch

What have you learned so far about what Cricket Australia is doing and has done to retain those people? Not just in creating messaging around the tournament but through data and how it’s managed its marketing relationships? Where do you see room for development in that?

I’m four weeks into the role so I’m learning every day. What I’ve seen so far is really that our grassroots programme is a core part of that. As people get introduced to the sport through attendance and viewership on TV, a big focus of Cricket Australia is how we build participation. How do we get kids, teens, young adults playing sport? How are we introducing them to cricket as a fun way to just run around and do some exercise? And as you get a little bit older, get a little bit more competitive and think of this as a fun competitive sport?

So definitely a big part of what I’ve learned that fits behind the product that you see on the TV and that you see in the stadiums is the commitment and focus that we’ve got to grassroots participation. It’s the number one grassroots participation sport in Australia. It very much goes back and forth on that title with soccer. I think we do a lot of great school programmes.

That’s one of the things that pleasantly surprised me as I came in. It’s the shop front you see but what we want to get behind that is how we get as many kids as possible playing the game in a format and way that is right for them – and right for them at their age.

BBL is televised around the world but is it still a nationally focused enterprise?

At this point it’s very much a nationally focused enterprise. The whole vision behind BBL was to really build a strong domestic sports programme, and that was its genesis. How do we give domestic sport a rebirth?

When you think about cricket, it’s so strong internationally here, so we have that. What it needed was a really strong domestic competition, and that’s the best of both worlds.

A quarter of our attendance are people who’ve never been to a cricket game, which is just fantastic. And the great thing is, we’re only seven years in but we’re finding that they’re continuing to come back. So it really is introducing them to the sport in a way that is fun and engaging.

We’re only seven years in, so we’re only a young league, but actually so much of our fanbase is more and more from overseas. So never say never. We’re always looking at how we expand and what that expansion model means and, ultimately, what guides us is the fans.   

What’s your experience been of returning to Australia after years of international travel?

What’s surprised me, and maybe it’s heightened because I’m coming in at World Series time for MLB, is the globalisation. NBA is so popular here. There seem to be so many more people following global sport or US sport. I think soccer has definitely always been there but when I was talking about it the other day with some of my colleagues back in the States, I’m amazed at how many people are getting behind the World Series and I’m amazed at how many people are watching the NBA.

What kind of opportunities and insights does that give you as somebody who has worked in the Asia-Pacific region and the US?

It’s early days for me yet, so I still need to think that through. It’s sort of something that I’ve put away in the filing cabinet for the moment. But I think it’s an opportunity because, for me, it says that people follow a sport globally. If you’re a cricket fan, you want to see the best cricket and you want to be engaged in that, and it doesn’t really matter where you are in the world.

The world is getting smaller – and people say that all the time but I see that more and more come from us through sport.

Targeting a younger audience for the game has been one of Cricket Australia's key objectives in recent years

Let’s go back to your work at Pepsi. What were some of the biggest variants you saw from market to market in your time there?

It’s an interesting combination because, on the one hand, sport is so global and unites people globally. But on the other side it’s so local, and it has such a strong local connection.

There’s no better place to see that than the US, right? You go somewhere that’s a hardcore Nascar market, and it’s all about motorsport and that really dominates and you struggle to even find a basketball fan there. The NBA struggles to get into that market.

In my experience in the US, we had to have almost a national-local approach. We had national sports – you talked about football, because football was national – but then you had to overlay that with a very localised strategy where in Texas, it’s all about the Cowboys. As a marketer in the US, you had to have a two-tiered approach. You had national communications and a national approach with retailers, then you had to complement that with a hyper-local approach which really tapped into the team and player affinity.

Is that something that’s more important for an FMCG brand like Pepsi, especially when you are in every shop or kitchen across the country?

Absolutely. And then you think, also, in the US, they have geographical restrictions. The Dallas Cowboys would love to promote their brand nationally but they can’t so the leagues guide a lot of that.

And then what are some of the things that hold true across every market?

I think what holds true across every market is how emotional sport is for people. And I think that holds true for the rights holder, from the brand side – really, from the brand side, the reason Pepsi were so heavily invested in sport is because people are so emotionally connected and if you can insert your brand in a meaningful way in those moments they feel more positively towards your brand.

No matter where you go, people feel sport in the heart – and that’s a really powerful thing. You’re creating emotional moments. And you can talk about any sport, right? Even coming here, talking to people and saying, ‘Why do you love cricket?’ It always comes back to these memories: ‘You know, I went with my granddad.’ ‘I went with my dad.’ ‘There was a moment where I went with my friends.’ It’s such emotional territory and that’s what I find so rich and exciting.

And that’s the way we look at BBL. With BBL, we’re creating moments for people. We’re creating moments for people during summer. It’s Christmas. We’re creating moments that are going to stay with people for their lives. We’re creating memories.

This article originally appeared in issue 97 of SportsPro Magazine. To find out more or to subscribe, click here.