Most of this success has been driven by investment. The next phase of growth will be achieved through identifying and exploiting the value of the women’s game, some of which has been created during this investment phase, much of which remains untapped.
A rising tide of commercial interest in women’s sport
In many markets the demand for top tier women’s sport exceeds supply. A 2018 consumer survey found 46% of respondents would watch more women’s sport if it was accessible on free TV and 39% more if it was accessible for free online (Nielsen Sports).
A blend of Sky Sports and free-to-air BBC coverage helped England’s home series against West Indies in September set a new broadcast benchmark with a peak of one million viewers and total reach of two million according to the Daily Telegraph.
In the UK and Europe, big brands have capitalised on growing audiences for women’s sport and the beneficiaries have been the major team sports. In football, Barclays have acquired title sponsorship of the FA Women’s Super League and Visa signed up to a seven year women’s football partnership with UEFA as soon as the rights were unbundled. When O2 renewed its sponsorship of England Rugby the company was keen to emphasise the agreement ‘brings investment parity from O2 to England Men and England Women’.
The inclusion of an equal number of men’s and women’s cricket teams in the England & Wales Cricket Board’s new competition – The Hundred – is likely to have been an important factor for the premium brands that have signed up before its launch, including Unilever, Vitality and KP Snacks.
The sleeping giant
Women’s cricket in England, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa should benefit from this general trend but the biggest growth will come in India.
The sleeping giant of women’s cricket is showing signs of waking up. Market research has identified hundreds of millions of Indians are interested in women’s cricket and several million viewers tuned into this season’s Women’s T20 Challenge on Star Sports. The Challenge, sponsored by Jio, was financed by the BCCI but did not have that important ‘IPL’ prefix and was contested by three teams that had no connection to the IPL franchises.
In Australia the Women’s Big Bash features the same eight teams as the men’s competition and, according to The Guardian, finished 2020 as the country’s fourth most watched league. The Hundred will kick off in England in 2021 with identical team names for the women and men.
The men’s IPL lasted only 53 days in 2020. Several IPL team owners are desperate to expand the relevance of their brand beyond this window. At the forefront have been the Kolkata Knight Riders whose owners have explored other men’s T20 opportunities, most successfully through acquiring and renaming the Trinbago Knight Riders in the Caribbean Premier League and most recently through investing in USA Cricket’s upcoming T20 league.
The most effective brand extension strategy, however, lies closer to home. A women’s IPL featuring the same teams as the men’s competition could conceivably become cricket’s second biggest league within a decade.
An opportunity to think differently
While a women’s IPL will take several years to reach maturity, other initiatives will deliver positive returns more quickly. The enlightened and determined leadership of women’s cricket since it merged with men’s game in 2005 – notably Clare Connor and Belinda Clark – have consistently shown a willingness to innovate and explore new opportunities.
This has led to an Ashes series featuring Tests, ODIs and T20s, a centralised ICC Women’s Championship structure for ODI cricket and inclusion in the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022.
These initiatives have added context to women’s cricket and laid foundations for further opportunity. For example, a logical (but not easy) next step for the ICC Women’s Championship would be to centralise the media rights and exploit these for the benefit of all participants. A central funding pot for the top international players would also ease the financial burden on some of the National Associations and help maintain competitive balance.
The Commonwealth Games will provide an extra high profile competitive opportunity for the leading female players and help cricket engage more effectively with government and multi-sport decision-makers in several countries. It’s a big leap from this to the Olympic Games and the International Olympic Committee will not countenance a women’s-only application from cricket. But Los Angeles 2028 is a more natural fit for cricket’s global aspirations than Paris 2024 so the sport’s stakeholders have some time to decide whether to unite behind a campaign for inclusion. Birmingham 2022 will undoubtedly open a new chapter in one of the international cricket’s longest running debates.
The competitive landscape is also more open in women’s cricket than in the men’s game. Not only did Thailand qualify ahead of Nepal and the United Arab Emirates for the T20 World Cup in 2020 but one of their team, Natthakan Chantam, was selected for the BCCI-organised Women’s T20 Challenge, making this diving stop in the final. Thailand’s success meant they played more T20 matches against Top 10 teams in 2020 than the similarly ranked men’s teams of Nepal and UAE have been allowed to play in the past four years. Thailand’s men are currently ranked 66th in T20 cricket.
There is much to be gained from the women’s game continuing to pursue its own path rather than seeking to imitate the men’s game.
Unfortunately there is a Covid-19 caveat to all of the above. The women’s game has been hit harder than the men’s game during the pandemic. The Women’s ODI World Cup was postponed to 2022 and – since the T20 World Cup in March – only three women’s international series have taken place (England v West Indies, Australia v New Zealand and Austria v Germany). Women’s cricket is almost ready to follow football across the threshold from investment to value exploitation but it is not there yet.
For this crucial step-change to occur, financial and structural investment from the ICC and the leading National Associations needs to continue through 2021. Specifically this investment needs to focus on playing more matches, paying top players and developing the talent pathway.
In spite of the current challenges, I’m optimistic about cricket’s future prosperity and sustainability. From a commercial point of view the following trends will help drive this:
1. The IPL will grow and grow
2. Private investment, ownership and influence will increase
3. Competition and format innovation outside India will continue, including domestic/multi-market leagues
4. The volume of men’s Tests and ODIs will fall
5. Women’s cricket will grow in value
This article has been written by Jon Long Founder and Managing Director at Bayridge Sports UK . Bayridge Sports is an independent consultancy committed to helping the sports industry grow by providing evidence-backed strategic support.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Bizbehindsports and Bizbehindsports does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same