The inaugural season of the Women’s Premier League (WPL) kicked off in Mumbai on Saturday and although the season lasts just 22 days, it could take women’s cricket on a very different path.
“It may be the most transformative competition ever in women’s cricket,” said Melinda Farrell of ESPN, a leading authority on women’s sports.
The five-team tournament follows the fast-paced T20 format in which games last approximately 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 already catches the eye. In January, approximately $580 million was spent acquiring the five franchises. The broadcast rights were sold to Viacom18 for $117 million over five years, a deal that is the second highest per game in women’s sports in the world, behind only basketball in the United States.
“Such large sums are both an indicator of the strength of women’s cricket, but also enable future changes,” said Simon Chadwick, a professor of sport and geopolitical economics at SKEMA Business School in France.
“Investors in the sport recognize that there is already significant popular involvement that, with improved leadership and management, could generate greater returns in the future,” he said.
In February, Indian conglomerate Tata Group was announced as the title sponsor for the first five years, and while the amount paid has not been disclosed, it is believed to be significant.
“The more money that comes into the sport, the more money there will be to develop players, create infrastructure and build leagues,” said Chadwick. “Money is not the solution to every problem, but it certainly helps in this situation.”
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 just over 2,000 fans in Sydney. However, the 2020 T20 World Cup final saw 86,000 people at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
“That shows the interest there is in going to the games let alone seeing that on TV,” said Farrell. “The last T20 World Cup in Australia broke all records for attendance and viewing figures. There is a worldwide 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 only 100 balls. It is designed to attract new audiences who find the traditional five-day test format too long and slow.
Eight teams played in a round-robin league format, which attracted a total of 271,000 visitors last year. In Australia, the 2021 Women’s Big Bash final attracted 535,000 viewers.
There is also interest in Pakistan, another cricket-loving nation in South Asia.
The WPL “is a great initiative that will bring more attention to women’s cricket,” said sports commentator Umaid Wasim of Dawn, one of the country’s largest newspapers.
“Like the men’s competitions around the world, similar women’s competitions will emerge around the world, with Pakistan aiming to hold a similar tournament later this year,” he said.
The WPL is set to become the largest and most lucrative women’s cricket league. At the February 13 auction, nearly 1,500 women competed for the 90 spots — 18 in each franchise. India’s Smriti Mandhana will earn the most after Bangalore bid around $413,000 for her. All-rounders Ashleigh Gardner and Natalie Sciver from Australia and England, respectively, are the highest-rated foreign players at $390,000 each.
Such sums can be game-changing for female players everywhere.
“For a sport that is still amateur or semi-professional in many countries, these are eye-watering sums,” said Farrell. “It makes cricket a viable career for women and young girls. It allows them to see cricket as a full-time career, and this will raise the bar as they can focus on cricket full-time.”
There is already a blueprint for success. The men’s Indian Premier League (IPL) began in 2008 and has become one of the most popular, lucrative and influential domestic sports leagues in the world.
In June, the IPL, which has grown from eight to ten teams, sold its five-year media rights for just over $6 billion, rivaling the English Premier League and the National Football League in the United States. Salaries are also high, with England’s Sam Curran the top earner at around $2.24 million.
“Indian Premier League cricket has long started a train for men’s cricket around the world,” said Chadwick. “Now it’s time for the women’s version to do the same.”
“India’s hunger for the game, coupled with the country’s willingness to push the boundaries of production and consumption, is perhaps the single most important force that has propelled cricket into the 21st century,” he said.
Due to the financial rewards offered in India, players often prioritize 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 around $2 million.
With the amounts offered in the WPL, players are likely to see the tournament as a priority as well.
“There is a window for the three tournaments with the IPL, Big Bash in Australia and The Hundred in England, which are currently on hold,” said Farrell. “But there will have to be a balance between franchise tournaments and international cricket, because that is the basis of the women’s game.”
The WPL will become an important part of the game’s calendar.
It’s too early to say if the WPL will become “the dominant form of the game, but if it does, it won’t be surprising,” Chadwick said.