WBBL strides into the limelight

The Women’s Big Bash League has exceeded all expectations in its inaugural season © Getty Images

Two years ago, Australia and England played a fiercely contested Ashes series, the second leg of a back-to-back marathon between the two countries.

The home side was highly fancied as the better team with the added benefit of home advantage. But, despite Australia’s best efforts and some outstanding performances, they were outgunned by an England side out to avenge recent defeats.

No, this isn’t revisionist telling of history. In the same summer that Mitchell Johnson took centre stage and left Alistair Cook’s side in tatters, the Women’s Ashes quietly played out in the wings, mostly in front of crowds numbering in the hundreds.

The brilliant bowling spells of Ellyse Perry and Kate Cross in the solitary Test at the WACA, the fine ODI innings played by Nicole Bolton at the MCG and the blistering T20 partnerships between Perry and Meg Lanning, then Charlotte Edwards and Sarah Taylor in Hobart went largely unnoticed by the Australian media and public.

Fast forward two years and all of those players are now performing in the big top that is the Women’s Big Bash League on free-to-air television.

Suddenly, ‘women’s cricket’ is sexy. In the past, that statement might have suggested a calendar featuring the best-looking female players in bikinis. But now it’s all about the ratings, the crowds, stand alone sponsorship and the widespread media coverage.

After seeing the women’s game grow rapidly over the past two years Cricket Australia had enough faith in the product to offset the cost of Channel Ten’s WBBL outside broadcasts by an amount ESPNcricinfo understands to be around Au$500,000.

But however high their expectations, the overwhelming public and media interest has surpassed anything CA could have envisaged.

Ten’s conservative approach – perhaps understandable, given the general short shrift given to women’s sport in the Australian broadcasting landscape – of showing games on one of its digital channels was thrown aside in the New Year, when the network moved the Melbourne derby between the Stars and the Renegades to the biggest shop window, its premier channel.

The reward – a national average audience of 372,000 that peaked at 402,000 – has changed the goalposts and given CA chief executive, James Sutherland, confidence the WBBL will soon attract its own broadcast deal. If it does, the turnaround – from paying for airtime to being paid for the right to broadcast – would be something few women’s sports have achieved in Australia.

“At this time of year, more cricket is never enough,” Sutherland told ABC Grandstand. “People love cricket. But also … women’s cricket is cricket. And people really value the opportunity to watch people going hard at it on the cricket field whether they are men or women, boys or girls.”

“I think the support that we are seeing through those television ratings is really important but I think just as important, or more important, is the psyche around the fact that cricket is a sport for girls too. I really sense that people are starting to understand that and men, who perhaps have had a particular mindset in the past, are starting to encourage young girls and perhaps their own daughters into the game of cricket and saying ‘this is a sport my daughter can love, and the opportunities for her are absolutely huge as she progresses through the ranks’.”

The women’s game has even been given Australia’s closest thing to a royal seal of approval with the introduction of a Governor General’s XI, mirroring the men’s traditional Prime Minister’s XI, to face India Women on January 22nd at Drummoyne Oval in Sydney.

“We certainly hope that it will become a great tradition in the same way that the Prime Minister’s XI match, which started in 1951, has become a great tradition as part of the Australian summer,” Sutherland said.

“We are aided by a Future Tours Program now for women’s cricket that has a consistency of programming, where we will have overseas teams coming to Australia perhaps twice every summer to play against the Southern Stars and we hope to incorporate as part of that tour the Governor General’s XI every year.”

But while it may seem that success has come overnight, this is merely the latest roll of a snowball that is fast accelerating and expanding at an exponential rate, globally.

Perhaps, in looking to the future, it’s worth going back and looking at another game from the past. In December 2011, during the inaugural season of the BBL, David Warner led the Sydney Thunder to victory over Shane Warne’s Melbourne Stars at the MCG.

While the match itself wasn’t particularly memorable, the viewing figures created a significant stir and celebrations within CA. An average 476,000 viewers tuned into the Fox Sports broadcast, making it the fourth-highest rating programme in the history of Australian subscription television.

Five years later more than a million viewers watch every game.

“We are going to push really hard with this,” Sutherland said. “We really believe cricket can be the first-choice sport for girls and women in this country and we see that as being as big an opportunity as anything for this sport to grow and to really be absolutely dead-set mainstream and locked in as the summer sport – if not the sport – in this country.

“I think anything is possible in a lot of ways.”

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Source: ESPN Crickinfo

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