It is almost universally acknowledged that the women’s portion of The Hundred has been ‘a success’ so far. Women’s matches in the competition have been praised for their high quality, but also noted for attracting a significant audience both on TV and at the grounds. Cricket fans and administrators have tried to identify what the reasons for this have been, in order to replicate it elsewhere. Their answer, almost universally, has been doubleheaders with men’s matches.
In fact, that was precisely what Richard Gould (the new ECB chief executive) said on a podcast released on Thursday:
“I think the progress and movement on women’s cricket over the last three or four years is incredible and we’re on the brink of really punching through in terms of making a proper commercial success. When I look back at team sports over the last twenty years, how women’s sport has been treated whether it’s rugby, football or cricket, it’s shameful. It’s only now that we’re starting to look and go ‘Oh my word. What have we missed out on over those years?’ And that’s where The Hundred has helped us as a game, punch through, when we’ve got the doubleheaders.”
The early evidence from this season’s T20 Blast/Charlotte Edwards Cup, and attempts from previous years stretching back to the Kia Super League, suggest that this approach doesn’t work outside of The Hundred.
One of the great myths about The Hundred is that it was designed by the ECB to push women’s cricket to the forefront, and therefore establish gender equality within the English game. The planned fixtures for the women’s Hundred in 2020 show that it was considered a lesser competition in almost every aspect. Whilst the men played every home match at one of the eight largest cricket stadia in the country, each of the women’s teams would have had to make do with one per season. Welsh Fire’s women were only scheduled to play a single match in Wales every year, making their team name appear utterly ridiculous. Instead, they were due to play at smaller county grounds and, in some cases, amateur club grounds. Sky Sports hadn’t committed to broadcasting any women’s matches on their main TV channels beyond the nine planned doubleheaders and probably the final, which was to be held at Hove rather than Lord’s.
In other words, the women’s Hundred looked an awful lot like the Charlotte Edwards Cup does now and would probably have had a fairly similar attendance and impact.
Then COVID-19 hit. The 2020 Hundred is cancelled and the ECB has to implement bio-security bubbles around all matches to make sure it can be held in 2021. Given the high demand for such measures at the time, and therefore the high cost, they decided that it would be cheaper to hold every women’s match at the same ground on the same day to save money. With every match shown live on TV and played in a big city as a result, the women’s Hundred attracted fans in a way that the men’s competition didn’t. Whilst attendance for the men’s games shrank from 2021 to 2022, it grew for the women.
It’s important to point out that the women’s Hundred is not the only success that women’s cricket has had in England. The 2017 World Cup final at Lord’s was a sell out, the women’s cricket competition in the 2022 Commonwealth Games had an average of roughly 10,000 people attending every match, and this year’s women’s Ashes appear to have very strong sales. None of these had any ties to men’s games, no doubleheaders involved.
If being a doubleheader (offering existing fans of men’s cricket a chance to see a women’s match for free) does not automatically build an audience for the women’s game, then what is it about the women’s Hundred that has led to it being successful? One answer is that it gave each team a home ground. The connection between a team and a town or city is practically the foundation upon which all English sport is built. People don’t attend matches (whether football or cricket) if they don’t care who wins or loses, and local pride is a quick and easy way to make people care. When Western Storm play their only T20 match at Cardiff this year, they are as much a visiting team as their opponents despite it being nominally their ‘home ground’. It is virtually impossible to develop a relationship between a team and the local populace with just one game per year. The women’s Hundred guarantees four home group matches in the same city and, perhaps even more importantly, no home games in other towns or cities. The teams have a clear local identity, even if they are named after rivers or broad geographical areas. The only Charlotte Edwards Cup team to play more than two group matches in the same ground this year is the Yorkshire Diamonds.
An annoying side effect of being hosted by multiple grounds is that every cricket club in the country seems to require a different app to buy tickets and enter the ground. If you’re a fan of Western Storm, for example, you might need the Glamorgan, Gloucestershire and Somerset apps in order to attend their home matches.
There is also the issue of capacity. If the Charlotte Edwards Cup only has thirteen matches this season at the eight largest stadia in the country, then it stands to reason that most women’s matches are being held in grounds with lower capacities. It’s impossible to achieve an average attendance of 10,423, like the women’s Hundred did in 2022, if the women’s teams play most of their matches in places which can’t hold 10,423 people. I know this argument annoys a lot of people who read this blog, particularly those who support counties which don’t host teams in The Hundred, but women’s cricket in England needs to maximise its revenue in a way that men’s county cricket doesn’t have to. A county team can play in front of a mostly-empty ground, not develop any England players for well over a decade, and still receive a huge payout from the ECB every year without anyone batting an eyelid. Any money spent on women’s cricket, on the other hand, is instantly attacked (often by people who unironically use the phrase “I’m not being sexist, but…”) as subsidising an unprofitable aspect of the sport rather than being an investment for the future of the game. Playing professional women’s matches at small amateur club and school grounds in 2023 removes any possibility that they can attract the ticket revenue they need to become profitable.
There are few examples of the disparity between how men’s and women’s cricket are treated in this regard than the ECB’s plans for The Hundred in 2020. Whilst the women’s teams were relegated to smaller stadia (often amateur club grounds) in order to save money, the budget for local marketing and in-the-ground entertainment at the men’s matches was more than twice as much as they stood to make from ticket sales. Once the local adverts, posters, social media campaigns, fireworks and musicians are all accounted for, it costs the ECB roughly £2 for every £1 they get on the gate. This meant that the women’s competition received an absolutely enormous boost in terms of cash allocated to attracting fans once every match became a doubleheader in 2021, because they received the benefits of the profligate promotional budget available for the men compared to the skeletal and largely token amounts they would otherwise have been allocated.
On this topic, Richard Gould claimed that the ECB are “probably spending three times more than the revenues that are being created” by women’s cricket in England. By my reckoning, the women’s competition is responsible roughly a third of the total TV views for The Hundred and around two-fifths of the total attendance. If The Hundred’s total annual revenue is £51m, then the women’s matches contribute £15-20m of that. It doesn’t seem an unreasonable suggestion that the value of England women’s team is at least £10m per year when the TV figures, ticket sales and sponsorships are all considered. This leaves two possibilities: The ECB is spending upwards of £75m on women’s cricket every year or the ECB may be undervaluing the financial contributions of women’s cricket, perhaps in order to justify the lack of investment from themselves and the counties.
One of the more frustrating aspects of the Charlotte Edwards Cup doubleheaders is that none of them have been televised on Sky Sports so far. In the original plans for The Hundred in 2020, virtually the whole reason for the nine planned doubleheaders (out of thirty matches) was to allow those women’s games to be shown on Sky and the BBC with minimal extra expense to the TV companies. There have even been cases where Sky have broadcast the men’s T20 Blast match from a doubleheader but not the women’s Charlotte Edwards Cup game, despite obviously having all of the crew and equipment there at the ground. There is a very large difference between the potential audiences on Sky Sports and the current internet streams. Whilst women’s cricket matches might attract a few hundred thousand UK viewers on TV, the comparable figures on YouTube might be a tenth as much. Although streams are free to access, compared to Sky Sports’ expensive subscription, they don’t reach as many people in reality. This has a huge impact in terms of promoting the competition. Sky’s blanket coverage of the women’s Hundred allowed its popularity to grow because a lot of people watched women’s domestic cricket on television, possibly for the first time, and they liked what they saw. If the Charlotte Edwards Cup isn’t afforded the same exposure, it can’t possibly have the same effect.
Ultimately, a lot of this lack of direction and investment comes from an almost total lack of accountability within the ECB when it comes to women’s cricket. If a men’s T20 competition like The Hundred was attracting an average crowd of less than a thousand people, every senior executive and manager involved would be fired. As a result of incredibly low expectations, zero investment of money and resources with regards to marketing and promotion, and no willingness whatsoever to persuade Sky to maybe show a few more women’s matches, progress in English women’s cricket will always be ponderously slow.
England might currently be the second-most advanced country in the world with regards to women’s cricket, behind Australia, but that is no excuse for progress not being made as quickly as it could or should be. It’s certainly no excuse for relying on doubleheaders to magically build an audience for it when the examples of what does work are plain to see. The things the 2017 World Cup final, the women’s Hundred and the 2022 Commonwealth Games tournament all have in common are a strong marketing campaign, extensive TV coverage, large grounds and, most importantly, the will to actually commit to women’s cricket rather than just going through the motions and hoping for the best.
Thanks for reading my post. If you have any comments on it, the Ashes, or anything else, please leave them below.