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Footy Fever Buries Cricket

A typical Melbourne day was the setting for the opening match of the Super Challenge Series at Colonial Stadium, but it was far from a typical Melbourne crowd, who witnessed the non-event of the media touted "bowl off" between Pakistan's Shoaib Akhtar and Aussie speedster, Brett Lee.

Those who are familiar with Melbourne, know that it is not unsual to experience all four seasons in the one day and although the storm clouds were brewing outside the stadium with thunder and lightning threatening, the fans inside remained secure in the knowledge, the roof above the pitch would ensure the commencement of play at the designated time and further, no time would be lost due to the earlier predicted rainfall.

Shortly before the start of the match, an anouncement informed the crowd, both Akhtar and Lee would be carrying the drinks for their respective teams. As expected, the announcement drew howls of protest from the crowd, many of whom had come to see the showdown between the bowler promoted as the fastest in the world, Shoaib Akhtar and the heir apparent, Lee. However, with the crowd reassured that both players would make an appearance on the pitch during the changeover, play got underway. Now, that must have been a huge relief!

The crowd, which could only be described as one of the smallest to attend any event yet staged at Colonial Stadium and numbering around the 6,500 mark, when the first ball was bowled by the Aussies, sat disappointed amongst the sea of vacant seats in a stadium, which can seat in excess of 50,000 people for most events and regularly draws crowds of around 30,000 for AFL football matches.

Yet, here we are, with an international cricket match between Pakistan and Australia, totally ignored by all but the most die hard of one day cricket fans. One must vigorously ponder why such a lack of interest in a match that would usually be expected to attract a crowd of around 25-30,000 people.  Personally, I believe the ACB thought the crowds would rush through the gates at the last moment, as they are often known to do at Melbourne sports events and although pre-sales of tickets for the event have been described as steady, it was blatantly obvious by about 5.00 pm, the crowds weren't coming.

Pat O'Beirne, Corporate Communications Manager for the ACB said, "The official attendance for the match was 11,861 and given pre-sales of tickets, this was about the crowd we expected, with walk-up sales of 5,000, this was much higher than expected and more than those for the previous series two years ago and although attendance at the first match was disappointing, we expect a much higher crowd for the second match."

Without actually laying the blame for the the poor attendance in the lap of any one person or group, we can no doubt see a number of factors as to why Melburnians, might have avoided this match like the plague. Figuring high on the list of reasons no doubt would be, timing, live telecast of the match and the cost of attending events at Colonial Stadium.

Fittingly, the ACB should be applauded in their attempts to introduce cricket to Melbourne during the winter season, which is the domain and established home of AFL football and accepted as THE winter sport. However, to schedule a match such as the opening around of the Super Challenge Series on a weekday in winter and expect a huge crowd to turn out was nothing more than wishful thinking. Melburnians just don't go anywhere on a weekday in winter, unless their favourite AFL team is playing and even then, have second thoughts and check the television schedule before deciding. Nine out of ten times, if it's on the box (tv)....they don't go anywhere and why would you, if you could simply kick back in the comfort of your own lounge room and watch it live!

With the match scheduled to be telecast live, over a week before the game, the ACB had already allowed a huge nail to be placed into the coffin of crowd attendance. Such an announcement, should no doubt have been left until the very last minute, but I guess, the television networks would have pressured the ACB into allowing the publishing of their tv schedules as early as possible for programming purposes. Big mistake!

Unlike many other places, Melbourne has two distinct sports seasons, cricket in summer and football in winter. Once the Melbourne sports fans enter the hypnotic state of football fever, nothing and I repeat, nothing will get them out of it. They live and breath football during winter. Cricket, is not generally though of during the winter season and even the media focusses almost totally on football coverage, with the occassional token mention of cricket often relegated to the "other sports" sections of the daily papers and certainly not read by the footy fans on their daily feeding frenzy for footy news.

Bad timing on the part of the ACB, would be an understatement, but with the right promotional coverage, the heads could have been turned away from the football pages in the paper, but it certainly would have required an intensive media campaign to catch the attention of fans and get them to enter a state of "cricket mode" in the off season. The fact, the ACB never captilised on the anticipated "bowl off" between Akhtar and Lee and simply left this to the Nine Network, who had the telecast rights, may have been an indication that they knew in advance a cloud was hanging over the selection of Brett Lee, who has basically failed to impress the Aussie selectors in his last four, one day series appointments. His bowling has been very ordinary in the one day arena and it was recently confirmed by Aussie one day team captain Ricky Ponting, Lee's selection in the team is an ongoing concern due to poor form in the one dayers.

Regrettably, the ACB opted to promote the opening match of the Series, with an advertising campaign showing an AFL footballer expressing his disappointment at missing selection for the team. A childish campaign, which at the very least had some merit and may have had even more, had the ACB at least considered using a football icon cum larrikin, from one of the more popular AFL football clubs. The campaign lacked any real punch and would have been much better served by promoting the showdown between Akhtar and Lee, for the crown of the world's fastest bowler. Honestly, you would have to say, this is one of the few campiagns undertaken by the ACB to promote a series, that has not inspired the crowds to attend. Normally the ACB get it right, this time they got it wrong and big time!
 
Unfortunately, the ACB received a false impression from the crowd attendances at Colonial Stadium two years ago, when the first matches in the Super Challenge Series between Australia and South Africa, saw over 90,000 spectators attend the two matches played at the time. Such a huge crowd can be attributed to two things only and that it is the fact, these matches were the first ever to be played in an indoor stadium and generated high spectator interest as a result. Add to that, Colonial Stadium was a new addition to the Melbourne sports world and what you had, was nothing more than a crowd of curious people wanting to see what all the hype was about the new stadium and even more curious to see what "indoor" international cricket, would be like. Nothing more than a simple crowd of sticky beaks.

Obviously, the ACB believing they could repeat their past success, forgot to take into consideration Melburnians are now much more aware of what Colonial Stadium is and just how much a day at the cricket or football impacts on the wallets of their families, many of whom, come away from the stadium almost in a state of shock at the cost of not only attending the events, but the cost of essential items like food, drink and snacks. The high prices are charged by contract caterers, with the justification, their prices are warranted by the high cost of their mostly youth orientated labour force and consistent with prices charged elsewhere. The simple fact is, the high cost of tickets(PDF) and food at the stadium, is basically being shunned by many sports fans, many of who either refuse to pay the ludicrous amounts charged or simply can't afford to.

If you disgaree with this, simply look at why the Melbourne Storm Rugby League Club, asked to be relieved of their contract to play matches at Colonial. On the back of falling crowd numbers, The Storm, returned to Olympic Park, where it is said the atmosphere is more conducive to that of the fans, their attendance and probably their ability to afford a feed for the family. Although no-one has officially acknowledged the costs at Colonial were a problem, you would have to say, they ceratinly would not have been a drawcard for crowds.

Undoubtedly, Colonial Stadium is one of the best venues in the world for cricket in an indoor environment and possibly outdoor. With the right inducements by way of acceptable and affordable prices, both entry and other, you will put bums on seats at the stadium. Those who have not experienced an event at Colonial....should! Just remember, if you take the family, take your own tucker because unless you have an unlimited source of funds or don't mind the kids going hungry for a few hours, you will need a truck load of cash to keep the kids from nagging you to death.

It's high time, groups such as the ACB went into bat for the little man and voiced their disapproval of such ridiculous pricing. At the very least, they should be protesting at what can only be desrcibed as totally unjustified pricing policies and certainly asking ticket agencies, to review booking fees they charge on top of advertised admission prices, especially where tickets are purchased over the internet and no real human intervention is needed by ticket agencies to earn those booking fees.

Lets just hope Melburnians and Victorians for that matter, come out in support of winter cricket for the second game in the series to be played on Sat 15 June at Colonial Stadium, or it might just be, the ACB decides in it's wisdom, the issue of taking cricket to Melbourne in winter, is flogging a dead horse. It would be a huge pity if this happened, because Colonial Stadium is without doubt, one of the world's best venues for cricket...winter or summer!

Up-Date - 16 June

Once again the fans failed to show for the second match in the series. A crowd of just under 17,000 attended at Colonial to watch Pakistan defeat Australia. The third match and series decider, will be held in Brisbane on Wed 19 June. It is not known if pre-sales of tickets have been good as the ACB, obviously wishing to avoid embarrasment have refused to release the figures. As a result, one can only assume the match has failed to attract the interest it should. It’s such a pity, more importance is placed on selling television rights rather than attracting spectators to matches.

One can only anticipate the future and what that might bring; matches played solely for a television audience and not open to spectators...it’ll happen! My prediction is: The first of these “television matches” will be held in either Sharjah or Marrakesh. Both these places have built world class cricket facilities, without even having any real history of cricket in their region or cricket spectators to serve, however, both have an extensive reputation of servicing sports gamblers who do not miss the opportunity to punt on cricket. Sidenote: Sharjah was named in the ICC report into cricket corruption as a "hot bed” and "major player” in cricket corruption via its links to extensive sports gambling.

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