Double-headers don't help women's cricket anymore
As a journalist, I should love double-headers. The food is infinitely better. I have never been offered a massage in the press box of a women's game. And there is always someone there to make your tea for you. Reporting on men's cricket is like a different world.
In actual fact, though, I'd be quite happy to make my own tea in perpetuity if we could dispense with the double-header altogether.
Whoever conceived of double-headers probably had their heart in the right place. The idea was simple: schedule a women's match directly prior to a men's match and you will ensure a bigger crowd and greater exposure, with the women's part of the double-header more likely to be televised.
Honestly, though, I'm really not sure that's working anymore. A recent case in point is this season's Women's Big Bash League (WBBL). I've written previously that the incredible thing about the WBBL is that it helps achieve the vision of a world where cricket recognises that women are equals, on and off the pitch. The live-streaming of every single match by Cricket Australia is doing wonders for the visibility of women's cricket, and the crowds at many of the games reflect that.
But if there was one letdown, it was the final. It was billed as a sellout, yet only 2776 people turned up to watch the women's game. This might have had something to do with the fact that, apparently in order to accommodate the broadcast schedule, it started at 10.45am local time and was played in 38-degree heat right in the middle of the day. Sixers' Ashleigh Gardner had to leave the field with heat exhaustion.
That's before mentioning the fact that thanks to Perth Scorchers topping the league in the group stages of the men's BBL, the Sixers women, having finished the WBBL group stages two points ahead of Scorchers, had to up sticks and fly all the way across the country to play what should have been a home final in front of a home crowd in home conditions. It was hardly a shining example of the supposed benefits of double-headers.
The ECB seems to have been slowly moving away from the double-header model in recent years, and credit to it, we are now down to one international double-header per English summer. And yet it clearly still sees double-headers for domestic women's cricket as a Good Thing. The board recently announced that six group fixtures in this year's Kia Super League (KSL) will be played as double-headers with men's T20 Blast matches.
I guess the ECB is doing this because it was the only way to get Sky to televise any of the group-stage games, but it still seems a bit disappointing. One of the most exciting things about last year's inaugural KSL was the fact that even though all the games were standalone women's games, with each of the six hosts seeking to market their team and build a fan base from scratch, people still showed up in droves. An average attendance of over 1000 at the group games, and over 2000 spectators apiece at the matches at the Ageas Bowl and The Oval. It was a chance for women's cricket to forge its own way, develop its own identity.
"To have men and women playing on the same pitch, shown on the same TV channel, with the same commentary team, is part of this normalising process that we're all trying to speed up as quickly as we can," Clare Connor, ECB's director of women's cricket, said in a recent interview to the Guardian.
Well, it's a nice aspiration, but in practice, as someone who's been there, I can tell you that it doesn't work like that. On at least one occasion (the T20 in Cardiff in August 2015), I've seen tickets to double-headers have the start time of the men's game printed as the official start time, and contain no information at all about the women's game beforehand. There's also the continued frustration of the men's game journalists who turn up halfway through the women's game and file their match report having only seen half the action, if that. Arguably double-headers only really normalise the idea of the women's game as a warm-up act for the men's game. Is that what we really want?
As for the so-called benefits, I'm not sure that in practice double-headers, in their current incarnation, really do very much to increase the fan base for the women's game. The crowd figures are never spectacular. Fewer people showed up to watch England Women v Australia Women in Cardiff in 2015 than had attended the Hove and Chelmsford games a few days earlier. And there are good reasons for this. Many of those who buy tickets for the men's game won't make the effort to attend the women's game first; and those who would normally attend women's T20s are either priced out of the action or find it difficult to get tickets at all, given that the men's games tend to sell out.
Another issue is that it cannot be ensured that the men's and women's competitors "match up". It was entirely coincidental this year that the same two teams reached the BBL and WBBL finals. Last year both Sydney WBBL teams faced off at the MCG, far away from their home base, because of the results in the men's competition.
As for the KSL double-headers, well, it's one thing to map your women's franchises onto existing men's franchises with their own fan base, as Cricket Australia has done. It's quite another to expect those supporting either Loughborough Lightning or Southern Vipers to show up and watch a match that features Derbyshire Falcons and Durham Jets, and vice-versa. They are totally separate entities. Wasn't the whole point of the franchise model to move beyond county fan bases?
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there's the obvious issue of the huge gap between the women's and the men's matches. This has been a problem for years, but no one seems to have quite cottoned on to the fact that a two-hour gap between games is hardly conductive to encouraging fans to rock up and watch the women first. Why on earth, given that the men's BBL final was scheduled for 4.15pm, did the WBBL game have to start at 10.45? Do the broadcasters or the players really need a two-hour build-up between the matches?
Even some of the female players, who, in this age of professionalism, have to be very careful what they say publicly, have expressed disappointment at this. In her latest column for BBC Sport, Heather Knight acknowledges the problem: "… it would be great to see the time gap between the end of the women's matches and the start of the men's games reduced, in order to get more people to come to both".
That hits the nail on the head. If such a long gap between games is really required, doesn't it defeat the point of a double-header in the first place?
The official line on double-headers appears to be that the boards will persist with them until the women's game is "ready" to stand on its own two feet. Cricket Australia has, to give it its due, already touted the idea of a standalone WBBL final at some point in the future: "We're reasonably open-minded as to what the future looks like. We're learning year on year," WBBL head Anthony Everard has said. Standalone T20s, as it stands, are a future aspiration for the women's game.
But the most exciting developments in women's cricket in recent years - professionalism, standalone sponsorship deals, T20 leagues - have come when boards decided to take a risk and not hang around waiting for the women's game to somehow be "ready". Let's have faith in the women's game right now, as an exciting product in its own right. Let's not rely on double-headers any more.
Raf Nicholson is an England supporter, a feminist, and has recently completed a doctoral thesis on the history of women's cricket. @RafNicholson