The inaugural season of the Women’s Premier League (WPL) got under way in Mumbai on Saturday, and while the season may just be 22 days long, it could put women’s cricket on a very different path.
“It’s going to be perhaps the most transformative competition ever seen in women’s cricket,” said Melinda Farrell of ESPN, a leading authority on the woman’s sport.
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The five-team tournament follows the fast-paced T20 format in which games last about three hours. The Delhi Capitals, Royal Challengers Bangalore, Gujarat Giants, Mumbai Indians and Lucknow-based UP Warriorz will compete until March 26.
The money invested is already eye-catching. About $580m was spent on acquiring the five franchises in January. The broadcasting rights were sold to Viacom18 for $117m over five years, a deal that is the second highest per game in women’s sport in the world, behind only basketball in the United States.
“Such big sums are both an indicator of the strength of women’s cricket but also an enabler of further changes to come,” said Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economy at SKEMA Business School in France.
“Investors in the sport recognise that there is already significant popular engagement with it, which, with improved leadership and management, could yield greater returns in the future,” he said.
In February, the Indian conglomerate Tata Group was announced as the title sponsor for the first five years, and while the amount it paid has not been disclosed, it is thought to be substantial.
“The more money that enters the sport, the more money there will be to develop players, create infrastructure and build competitions,” Chadwick said. “Money isn’t the answer to every problem, but in this situation, it certainly helps.”
Women’s cricket on the rise
The WPL was born at a time of growing interest in women’s cricket around the world.
In 2009, the Women’s World Cup final between England and New Zealand was watched by a little more than 2,000 fans in Sydney. The 2020 final of the T20 World Cup, however, saw 86,000 people pack the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
“That shows the interest there is in going to the games, let alone watching that on TV,” Farrell said. “The last T20 World Cup in Australia broke all records for attendance and viewing figures. There is a global increase in women’s cricket, and that will translate into a lot of interest.”
There are now more competitions for women. In 2021, The Hundred was born in England, an even shorter format of the game than T20 with just 100 balls. It is designed to attract new audiences that may find the traditional five-day test format too long and too slow.
Eight teams played in a round-robin league format, which saw a total attendance of 271,000 last year. In Australia, the 2021 final of the Women’s Big Bash attracted 535,000 viewers.
In Pakistan, another cricket-loving nation in South Asia, there is also interest.
The WPL “is a great initiative that will put more eyeballs on women’s cricket”, said sports commentator Umaid Wasim of Dawn, one of the country’s leading newspapers.
“Just like the men’s leagues around the world, this will see similar women’s leagues spring all across the globe with Pakistan trying to hold a similar tournament later this year,” he said.
The WPL will be the biggest and most lucrative women’s cricket competition. The February 13 auction saw almost 1,500 women compete for its 90 spots – 18 in each franchise. India’s Smriti Mandhana will earn the most after Bangalore bid about $413,000 for her. All-rounders Ashleigh Gardner and Natalie Sciver from Australia and England, respectively, are the highest valued foreign players at $390,000 each.
Such sums can be game-changers for women players everywhere.
“For a sport that is still amateur or semi-professional in many countries, these are eye-watering amounts,” Farrell said. “It makes cricket seem like a viable career for women and young girls. It ensures they can look at cricket as a full-time career, and this will raise the standards as they can concentrate on cricket full time.”
There is already a blueprint for success. The men’s Indian Premier League (IPL) started in 2008 and has grown to be one of the most popular, lucrative and influential domestic sporting competitions in the world.
In June, the IPL, which has grown from eight teams to 10, sold its media rights for a five-year period for just more than $6bn, rivalling the likes of the English Premier League and National Football League in the United States. Salaries are also high with England’s Sam Curran the top earner at about $2.24m.
“The Indian Premier League cricket has for a long time blazed a train for men’s cricket across the world,” Chadwick said. “Now it is time for the women’s version to do the same.”
“The appetite for the game in India, allied to the country’s willingness to push the boundaries of production and consumption, is arguably the main force that has driven cricket into the 21st century,” he said.
The financial rewards on offer in India means that players often prioritise the IPL over their national teams.
In February, England test team captain Ben Stokes played his country’s final test against New Zealand in Wellington with an injured knee. Despite England preparing to face big rivals Australia in June, Stokes immediately made it clear that he would play for the Chennai Super Kings from March to May when he will earn about $2m.
With the sums on offer in the WPL, players are also likely to see the tournament as a priority.
“There is a window for the three tournaments with the IPL, Big Bash in Australia and The Hundred in England, which are ring-fenced at the moment,” Farrell said. “But there is going to have to be a balance between franchise tournaments and international cricket as that is the bedrock of the women’s game.”
The WPL is set to become a significant part of the game’s calendar.
It is too early to say whether the WPL “becomes the dominant form of the game, but if it does, then it will be unsurprising,” Chadwick said.