Women’s cricket is at a crossroads. In March 2020, 86,000 fans packed the Melbourne Cricket Ground for the Women’s T20 World Cup Final.
It was a rapidly growing game, attracting sponsors and advertisers who were making big returns on relatively small investments, while engaging new audiences.
Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Short-term profit becomes the priority, to the detriment of sports still in development.
And women’s cricket matches have been curtailed to a greater extent than men’s.
Two countries, Australia and England, have led efforts to further develop the game.
Both nations now have strong, high-level domestic competitions. These boosted the caliber of cricket played in a remarkably short period.
Australia right now has the upper hand, largely because they started earlier.
Its Women’s Big Bash League was launched in 2015 as a Twenty20 competition alongside the existing men’s version, with matches played in doubles before the men’s matches.
It was a risk at the start. “The problem [with double headers] was that there would be a long gap between the two matches,” says Stephanie Beltrame, executive general manager of broadcast and business at Cricket Australia, the sport’s governing body in the country.
T20 is sold for being short, sharp, and explosive, so it wasn’t easy to entice viewers to spend long days at a venue.
“At the time there was a lot of debate about whether we even had to say on the ticket that the women’s game was played, because the men’s T20 game was created as a [short] three-hour product,” she recalls.
“Internally, we really had to challenge ourselves and say, come on, this is not right, we have to promote both.
“But we also didn’t want to give your [women’s] produced for free, because then it is insinuated that it is worth nothing. And underlying all of that, you also want to make sure you’re getting fans.
There was one benefit, however. “What we got was coverage of women’s cricket,” says Beltrame. “Because the cameras were already installed[for the men’s game]. . . you get the cover and you can start building.
After this initial television exposure, Cricket Australia decided to make the women’s tournament stand-alone – with its own fixture window, sponsorship deals and broadcast schedule. Audience figures have risen sharply.
England took a slightly different approach. Last year the governing body introduced the new format, The Hundred – similar to but shorter than T20 and the first tournament where both men’s and women’s competitions were launched simultaneously.
All matches are double-headered, with both men’s and women’s matches being marketed the same.
The first season proved to be a success for women’s football: the free-to-air TV coverage showed a wide audience that professional women’s football is very exciting to watch.
The women’s teams, unlike the men’s, also did not have to deal with a busy schedule of other domestic competitions.
However, while England and Australia are investing, other nations are falling behind, both in terms of the level of play on the pitch and the revenue generated.
India has the means to invest. His men’s game has proven hugely lucrative over the past few decades, with a 15th season of the T20 Indian Premier League – valued at $6 billion – about to begin. However, a women’s league is still a long way off.
Concerns over the depth of talent in Indian women’s cricket are the most cited reason for not taking the risk – although that hasn’t deterred England and Australia.
Meanwhile, for nations that lack the funds to invest in women’s cricket, the future looks bleaker. The one-day Women’s World Cup begins in New Zealand in March.
England and Australia come on the heels of their seven-game multi-format Ashes series. Sri Lanka, on the other hand, have only played two matches in the past two years.
Some teams will be denied the opportunity to compete, for reasons beyond their control. Thailand’s women, for example, played in the last T20 World Cup – a feat not achieved by its men – but will not be in New Zealand.
Indeed, qualifying matches were disrupted by Covid – Thai women won most of their matches before qualifying was abandoned – and under a ranking system based on the nations’ men’s teams.
There are opportunities, but also vast and growing inequalities, in women’s cricket.
It will be up to the playing nations and the world governing body, the International Cricket Council, to ensure that the opportunity is for all.