Breaking Down the 2019 ABA
Yesterday, the Australasian Barbecue Alliance (ABA) released a video announcing planned changes for the 2019 competition season. The last five years has seen the scene grow from nothing, to a full blown lifestyle for many of us. Naturally, with growth comes the need for change, for evolution. There were six big changes announced, incorporating several smaller changes. They have varying degrees of impact on the current scene, from game-changing to relatively minor differences. In this article I’ll be Breaking Down the 2019 ABA Changes, examining the negative impacts (if any) of these changes, before delving into the positive implications.
If you haven’t seen the video yet, I’ve embedded it in this article. Make sure you have watched it before reading on. I’ve only seen what you’ve seen and the discussion below are my thoughts and speculations.
Change One: New Minimum Requirements
The first change mentioned in the video is the introduction of minimum standards for promoters to meet in order for their event to be sanctioned by the ABA. The first one is the biggest one: a twenty team minimum. An obvious downside to this development is that states with historically smaller competitions such as Tasmania and Western Australia stand to lose any ABA sanctioned competitions in their area. One contact I have from Tasmania has suggested that this change will mean that Tassie teams will have to either find $3,000 per competition on the mainland (assuming they can borrow smokers on the mainland), or put together a competition kit and keep it in a storage locker in Melbourne. To reach the three comp minimum, those teams are looking at closer to $10,000. In my interview with Julie-ann from JAGRD Wood-fired Smokers for Season Two of the Podcast, she stated that in WA the biggest competition has been 20 teams. This change would surely be concerning to Grand Champion winning teams such as Sandgroper BBQ and the Grilla Bees who will now be forced to travel interstate in order to stay on the ladder.
Furthermore, what is the implication of this change on regional competitions? Will we see the end of these smaller festivals? Some of these competitions struggle to get twenty teams together, but have the reputation of being incredibly welcoming, friendly and supportive of newcomers. Not to mention, these festivals have been great for the local economies of the towns in which they occur.
However there are definite positives arising from this change. Firstly, the ABA (and the scene as a whole) is getting bigger. We’ve grown from being the ‘cute little Aussie scene’ to a scene that is definitely not to be underestimated. We have seen this with the introduction of master classes from International Pitmasters such as Myron Mixon, Tuffy Stone, Big Moe Cason and Andy Groneman just to name a few. As the scene has grown, so has the support services offered by the ABA. And these services are not without cost. If the ROI on smaller competitions isn’t there then it is vital that the ABA focus on sanctioning bigger events in order to drive the growth of the organisation and therefore the scene as a whole.
A second point to consider is the profile of the scene. By focussing on larger competitions and driving the growth of these competitions, the profile of the Australian BBQ scene will be raised, attracting the attention of the more developed BBQ industries of Europe and the United States. The economic benefit to Australian BBQ businesses is clear – raising the profile of the Australian BBQ scene will open up international opportunities for Aussie businesses. In short, growth of the scene is good for everybody.
Finally, introducing the twenty team minimum requirement will create more opportunities for the smaller sanctioning bodies out there such as the Tasmanian BBQ Society, and the Australian Barbeque Society. Competition breeds innovation, and innovation is always good for business. Will we see more KCBS competitions in Australia? Time will tell.
The second minimum standard mentioned in the video was the $5,000 prize pool. A minimum prize pool will likely push out several of the smaller, first time competitions but these are likely to be the competitions that would have already been ruled out due to the 20 team minimum discussed above. Personally, from what I’ve seen on the comp scene this year, $5,000 is a rather conservative figure and I don’t think that it would be too difficult for most promoters to meet this requirement. That said, I’m not a promoter and am happy to be corrected. Finally, a minimum prize pool raises the prestige of the ABA comp scene and as discussed above, a prestige boost to the Australian competition scene is of benefit to everybody.
The final minimum standard is that competitions be announced a minimum of six months prior to the competition date. Personally I do not see any negatives to this change. Early confirmation like this allows all stakeholders including competitors and industry representatives the opportunity for better planning and therefore execution. It also reduces the chance of stakeholders finding themselves caught up in hastily slapped-together competitions. All of this is good news for the scene.
Change Two: New Open Categories
The second of the new changes is the introduction of open Beef and Pork categories. No doubt there will still be a list of approved cuts: you won’t see a T-bone going up against a brisket any time soon. The first concern to arise from this however, is that we may start to see ‘easier’ cuts beating ‘harder’ cuts that don’t necessarily showcase the talent of the Pitmaster. For example, you’ll see Beef Short Ribs going up against Brisket where we all know that Brisket requires more talent than Shorties. That said, the benefit is that it allows individual Pitmasters the opportunity to pit their specialites against someone else’s. In that regard the change also levels the playing field, allowing more Pitmasters to play to their strengths.
Change Three: ABA Lite / Self-Sanctioning
Very little is publically known about this new system other than what was mentioned in the video above. The keyword here, is ‘licenced’. The ABA has licenced their IP (intellectual property) in the form of a guide that will allow promoters to run an event in ABA style. Licencing means that there will be fees associated with the use of the IP. I have not seen this guide but assume that it would include the rules and procedures required to facilitate a competition and undoubtedly hints and FAQs to assist said promoters. This will undoubtedly be incredibly useful to many first-time event promoters and its availability should encourage those on the fence about putting on their own events.
The video also states that these events will be ‘supported by the ABA’. Whilst there are no details available as to what this entails at this stage, there are some assumptions that can be made. Firstly, the support will likely include use of the ABA logo and some marketing assistance in the form of posts on both the ABA website and its social media channels. It would also be safe to assume that there will be the creation of an official calendar and phone/email support for the promoters.
The only negative that I can see from the introduction of the ABA Lite program is that it may take away from smaller sanctioning bodies. Promoters that are unable to secure the ‘full-strength’ ABA sanctioning programs will be attracted by the opportunity offered by the Lite program to still associate their event with the ABA. This will jeopardise the opportunities for competition and innovation mentioned earlier and risk the development of a monopoly over the Australian BBQ scene.
However, there are also several significant positives to this change. First of all, it is logical that the ABA Lite program will have a lower cost association than its full-strength older brother. This lower cost barrier will make competitions more accessible to smaller promoters in smaller areas. The support available from the ABA will also encourage potential promoters who may be undecided about hosting an event due to the perceived enormity of the task. The end result is the availability of more competitions. In turn this will offer more opportunities to less experienced teams and potential teams that are sitting on the fence about joining the competition scene. This can only lead to the overall growth of the scene as a whole, and the continued growth of our beloved BBQ scene is what we should all be working toward.
Change Four: Solidifying the ABA/SCA Relationship
The Steak Cookoff Association has become a semi-regular addition to BBQ competitions on the Aussie circuit this year. Its inclusion has provided teams with an opportunity for a quick bit of competition on the day leading into the main event with its steak, burger and chicken wing categories. It is directly connected to the SCA in the United States and this year we have already seen several Australian teams travel to the US to represent our country following wins here at home.
This inclusion only offers positives to the competition scene. The SCA comps are a value-add for competition teams. It is not compulsory so does not add to the stress of an event, but rather provides some fun and entertainment for those willing to take up the opportunity on an otherwise quiet and uneventful first day. It also provides more opportunities for Australians to represent their country and compete overseas which I can say from experience is a hell of a good time!
Change Five: Leaderboard Calculations
This next change is perhaps the most contentious. The point system for the national leaderboard will be calculated differently in 2019 than it has been to date. In 2018 the leaderboard points were calculated by totalling competitor’s best three scores, provided the competitors has competed in a minimum of three competitions. In 2019, points will be allocated to teams according to their position in the competition. At smaller competitions these will be calculated as percentages, though it is yet to be revealed how this calculation will be made.
As stated above, this change is contentious. There is the potential for Team A to receive a lower score at Competition A than Team B at competition B yet still receive the same ladder points. This brings the fairness of the system into question, but does also offer some positives which we will address in the next paragraph. There is also the potential that the more famous teams will stop travelling to regional competitions for reasons we’ll discuss next as well. This will mean that the promoters of those events will lose one of their drawcards – less experienced competitors will often join a competition if it means the chance to rub shoulders with the likes of Manning Valley Natural Smokers, Smokin’ Hot’n’Saucy, or Suck Knuckle Smokers.
However there are also several positives to come from this change. For some time there has been significant dissatisfaction with the current system – complaints of teams heading to regional competitions to get some big points as they wow less experienced judges. By allocating points based on placings, this issue will be resolved and can be seen as far more fair, creating a level playing field for competitors in all regions of the country.
Secondly, it resolves the other often-griped about issue: that of inexperienced judges. Inexperienced judges often give erratic scores – sometimes to the advantage and sometimes to the disadvantage of the competitor. By allocating leaderboard points by place rather than raw scores, if a competitor wins despite receiving lower scores it will be of no disadvantage to them. Again, this new system will create a level playing field for competitors in different regions of the country.
Change Six: Aus/NZ Open Borders
The rules regarding teams competing on either side of the ditch have been clarified leading up to the 2019 season. Now, teams are free to compete in either country and are able to take their points home with them. I.e. If Smoking Hot Confessions were to go compete in New Zealand, the points from our placing would count toward our position in the Australia leaderboard, not the New Zealand leaderboard. There are several advantages to this.
Firstly it will encourage participation between the two countries as teams will be welcomed freely into competitions in both countries. Furthermore the costs involved will not be diverted from their leaderboard aspirations as they are able to take their points home with them. It also offers teams an exciting opportunity to compete overseas and represent their countries without the expense, stress and jet-lag involved with competing in either the US or Europe.
If was unclear if the points taken back to the home country will be effectively ‘stolen’, for want of a better term, from the host country. I.e. if an Australian team wins GC at a New Zealand comp, does that mean that that allocation of points is lost from the New Zealand leaderboard or will local points be allocated as if the visiting team were not there. I.e. if the Australian team wins GC, will the second place local team also be awarded first place points or are those points simply lost to the New Zealand series? It will be interesting to find out in future announcements.
Growth is good. Change is inevitable. Evolution is essential. As the BBQ scene in this country grows, so must the institutions which make the scene possible. And so must we, as competitors and stakeholders in this scene embrace these changes and see them for what they are – a step in the right direction. There will no doubt be critics: as a species we are averse to change. However there is potential in our community – the potential for our scene to grow into a full-fledged industry like that of Europe and the United States. This process will take time and will be one of change. These changes are part of that evolution. Once these are in place, measured and evaluated, the next round of changes will address the shortcomings of these changes and so on until our scene is one of the best in the world. And that is a day that I for one am looking forward to.