Women's Big Bash success opens doors and minds
When Lisa Sthalekar played cricket, her sister was used to rocking up a couple of minutes before the game began and easily finding a spot on the boundary's edge to watch the action.
But on Sthalekar's return to competitive cricket - in the Women's Big Bash League's inaugural season - after two years of retirement, something felt different. On the competition's second day, Sthalekar's Sydney Sixers were playing Sydney Thunder, and when her sister did her time-honoured drill of arriving shortly before the start, she found the car park at Howell Oval in western Sydney full. When she went in, there were perhaps a thousand people - many wearing the teams' colours - already watching, and certainly no space at the boundary.
It was instantly clear that the WBBL was women's domestic cricket, but not as we knew it.
It was appropriate that Sthalekar announced she would be coming out of retirement for the WBBL. Because she - by design or otherwise, as one of the leading figures in the mooted Women's International Cricket League (WICL) - played a role in making the WBBL happen, and happen as soon as 2015-16.
Sthalekar and Sydney-based businessman Shaun Martyn were intent on dragging women's cricket into the 21st century, and so, by the end of 2012 were contacting the world's best players about taking part in a 12-day, six-team, one-venue tournament in Singapore. Players would be remunerated better than ever before, earning as much as US$40,000 each. Geoff Lawson joined the board, Clive Lloyd was an ambassador, while Sthalekar and Martyn met ICC chief executive Dave Richardson in Dubai in early 2014, found three major financial backers, and pledged to pour profits back into women's cricket. Players like New Zealand's Suzie Bates and England captain Charlotte Edwards expressed their excitement.
But by June 2014, the ECB and Cricket Australia said they would not back the competition. Still, plans remain in place to hold it, and many believe the threat of it spurred Cricket Australia - and the ECB, which will hold the first Women's Super League this year - into action. If they had not acted, the money on offer made the possibility of players stepping out of "the system" real.
Cricket Australia's Mike McKenna denies that the threat of independent leagues hastened action. "We were aware of the WICL and the discussions involving some of our players," he says. "But it wasn't really a concern. We always knew we needed to move the women's game forward this way. Twenty-six per cent of our playing base is now female and we expect that to grow. We have an obligation to them to create pathways."
"I'm not sure if what we were doing sped them up," says Sthalekar, "but if it played a part then I'm delighted, because the reason the WICL still hopes to have this tournament is to give girls more opportunities. That was all we were ever about and WBBL is: girls getting more opportunities."
Talk of a WBBL first emerged in early 2014. The Ashes had taken place in Australia, and under new captain Meg Lanning's stewardship, the Southern Stars romped to their third consecutive World T20 title. In January, Australia legend Belinda Clark revealed that planning for the competition was nascent. In April, Lanning described it as "the next natural step". A month later, Cricket Australia announced it was looking to launch the competition in 2015-16.
In February 2015, the board confirmed it would take place, but details were hazy. "We had reached the point," says McKenna, "where we needed to provide more opportunities for girls to play a high level and start to develop properties that are commercially valuable so they and we can justify increasing their player payments so that they no longer have to make choices: playing, working, studying. The question was how you do that. We'd seen the success of the BBL and it had brought lots of young girls to the game - how do we get those girls to understand that they can actually play?"
In July, the competition's format, teams, structure and pay were revealed. The intervening period was not simple. The Australian Cricketers' Association (ACA) was haranguing Cricket Australia for a collective agreement with the board (as male players have), providing minimum contracts and security. That collective agreement is now close, and by May the ACA had given players the green light to speak to the board.
So, on a grey July day in Sydney Harbour, the WBBL was launched. Cricket Australia deliberated about whether to run the competition along state lines, but decided that the established eight BBL clubs would each have a women's team, rather than using the seven teams from the Women's National Cricket League (WNCL), which ran its 19th season in 2015. State associations had made their players free agents; squads were allowed five Southern Stars and three overseas players.
McKenna says that going with eight teams was "the one contentious decision", while Sthalekar admits she had "doubts that the depth may not be there".
In the course of pouring $7million into the women's game in 2015, Cricket Australia increased the Women's Payment Fund by 36% to $2.26m; players would be handed retainers worth between $3000 and $10,000 for the WBBL (for context, WNCL contracts are $7000, and the top Southern Stars players earn $85,000 a year). There would be 59 games in 51 days, mainly played on carnival-style weekends to allow players to return to their jobs during the week.
Separate Twitter accounts were immediately live for each team, and most importantly, it was announced that Network Ten, broadcasters of the BBL, would be showing eight games - all double-headers with the men's competition, including the final - on their digital channel, One. Cricket Australia was to foot the incremental broadcasting costs, which amounted to $600,000 for equipment, contractors and more.
"They [the board] first put it to us in March," says Ten's head of cricket, David Barham. "We had success with the BBL, and so we were weighing it up, trying to make it work. They presented the schedule to us and pushed it. We were always keen to be involved and worked out eight games would be a good start."
"It was a risk for them," says McKenna, "because it could have been a dud, it really could. We're extremely grateful, because they didn't have to take a punt on it."
For months, preparations simmered, as the Southern Stars won the Ashes and South Australia ended a run of ten straight New South Wales WNCL victories. Franchises were busy presenting themselves as "one club, two teams", with the women sat alongside the men on websites, promotional material and events. In October, the WBBL found a promotional fillip with the announcements that Sthalekar would return and that tennis star Ash Barty was to turn her fast hands to cricket.
Eight English players signed up in August and September, followed by New Zealanders, South Africans and eventually West Indians the week before the competition began. There were rumours that Jhulan Goswami was joining Sixers, but no Indian player joined. "Indian administration was going through significant change and we couldn't get focus from them on this issue to understand the opportunity," says McKenna. After playing Australia in January, Goswami said she hoped Indian players could figure in the competition soon.
On November 25, ten days before the start, the final piece of the jigsaw fell into place as sport retail giants Rebel - who had been looking to back a major event for a couple of years - were announced as sponsors of the first season.
From announcement to the first ball, Cricket Australia had taken under ten months. The tournament had a stellar cast, sponsors and even broadcasters. Given the part an independent league had played in its conception, there was delicious irony in the league, now ready for lift-off, officially being called the Rebel Women's Big Bash League.
Sthalekar's sister was not alone in being surprised at what she found once the tournament got underway. "It was bigger than I thought it would be," says England's Natalie Sciver, who played for Melbourne Stars. Sthalekar was "surprised and delighted". "It's done better than I anticipated," says Barham. Perhaps most tellingly, McKenna says, "It absolutely went better than we expected."
What, then, surprised so? First, the crowds. Many fixtures at smaller grounds were played in front of Sheffield Shield-like crowds - a few hundred - but around 2000 showed up on day one at Junction Oval. The double-headers were a different story. On New Year's Eve in Adelaide - where a line of 500 stood outside before the game began - 4500 were in at the innings break, and twice that number by the end.
In early January, as the BBL boomed, so did its sister. For the Melbourne derby on January 2 (that 80,000 day), a record crowd showed up for a women's domestic game: 12,901, which was also more than that for any Women's World T20 final. The MCG was caught off guard, only opening one gate, meaning hundreds had not taken their seats by the time Lanning was dismissed in the second over. "I've never played in front of that many people for an international, let alone a domestic game! That was really special," says Sciver.
Another week, another record, at Etihad Stadium in Melbourne, where 14,611 - more than had attended the last AFL game at the ground - watched bottom side Renegades beat leaders Thunder. It says plenty that when the Sydney derby attracted 12,220, it ranked as a letdown. "To get crowds of even 4000, that's ten times what we've had when the Southern Stars play standalone fixtures," says McKenna.
The first fixture on Ten peaked at 387,000 viewers, so Barham acted. "The early ratings were great, so we identified the Melbourne derby as a big game, with Meg Lanning playing. We decided to throw it over to the main channel." That fixture peaked at 631,000 viewers, so the Sydney derby and the final were moved to Ten and the semis added to One. "Our projection was 40,000 viewers," says McKenna. "That would have been a reasonable audience when you consider other third-tier male sports, let alone the ratings we've got, which has totally eclipsed rivals like the A-League."
Ten's WBBL broadcast had all the gizmos of its BBL brother. For the first semi-final, the channel put out TV's first exclusively female cricket commentary team. To check Twitter during broadcast games was to find fans overseas disappointed at the lack of rights syndication. Indeed the final, which trended on Twitter in New Zealand, South Africa and the UK as well as Australia, was also shown in all those countries, as well as India and Bangladesh.
There was a buzz, too, in the written media, even if it was often created by the individual passion of particular reporters, rather than industry-wide interest. On New Year's Eve, Adelaide Strikers' women stood side by side with their male counterparts on the front and back pages of the Advertiser, but ESPNcricinfo's was the only occupied press box chair during the women's game that afternoon.
Cricket Australia's state-owned media arm provided comprehensive coverage, while the clubs helped. Hobart Hurricanes, for instance, subsidised the sending of a reporter from the Mercury to Melbourne for the semi-final against Sixers. This is not new. Cricket Australia has contributed to the cost of journalists covering the last two Women's Ashes in England.
Since Ten's coverage missed 49 games, many significant moments - such as when 18-year-old Strikers legspinner Amanda-Jade Wellington bowled Lanning round the legs - were unseen by all but the few in the ground. The next step is clear: cameras at every game and live streaming.
"That's the first step, streaming through our website with a smaller production team," says McKenna. "Eventually, the plan is to have everything broadcast and rights sold separately." Barham says Ten has not discussed next season, but many hope for 20 games to be broadcast.
Franchises followed through on their "one club, two teams" message. The women stayed in hotels of equal prestige to their male counterparts, and had access to the same array of support staff. "All this just contributed to the sense that they weren't the men's cricketers or the women's cricketers, they were just cricketers," says McKenna.
"With the Stars it felt like the media guys worked really hard to drill interest in the women through the men," says Sciver. Mike Hussey, captain of Thunder's winning men's team, reported from the other side: "The girls' energy and spirit was actually inspiring for us. Every time our paths crossed, be it at training, fan days or whatever, there's been a great feel among both teams."
Indeed the decision to go with franchises paid off handsomely on two counts. In state kit, no one knew who the players were, but pulling on BBL colours turned them into stars. Particularly striking was Sixers batsman Ashleigh Gardner ending media commitments at the SCG by saying, "Sorry, I've got to get back to signing autographs."
Then there was the cricket. Franchises stretched and exposed the talent pool. Teenagers - like Wellington, Maisy Gibson and Lauren Cheatle of Sydney Thunder - stood out repeatedly. Overall, the quality of the wicketkeeping and spin bowling stood out, but the gulf in class - particularly in the field - between professionals and amateurs was often vast. Stars' Lanning, frequently fighting a solo battle, was named Player of the Tournament, with Edwards second.
Anecdotally, it felt as if the quality dropped off in televised fixtures, where the pressure rose, with the final a particularly poor (albeit pulsating) reflection of the competition's standard. How can players learn of the pressure of playing on TV and in front of crowds without exposure to them?
The schedule, which saw some teams play four games in three days in blistering heat, will need optimising. By the time Perth Scorchers had played 12 games, Renegades were just five in. However, each team playing each other twice provided the opportunity for a campaign as contrasting and a comeback as exhilarating as that of Sixers, who lost their first six, then won nine, only to lose the final.
The WBBL's movers and shakers will be wary of the tricky second album. BBL02 was comfortably that tournament's worst season. There is room for improvement on every level from WBBL01, a competition that felt vital for its freshness and originality. "It's been a great step forward," says the ACA's Alastair Nicholson. "We will be doing a review and working with the players to see what needs to be adjusted. The key for us is getting that collective agreement in place."
For McKenna, one eye is already on 2020, when Australia hosts WT20s for men and women. "By then, we hope to have more standalone fixtures and a women's game that is hugely attractive to fans, broadcasters and commercial partners, held in venues of 10-15,000. We want it to look something like the Women's football World Cup in Canada last year."
These are lofty ambitions, but the path has been set. The final provided WBBL01 with an iconic image. The sight of Hussey's men and Alex Blackwell's women, all Sydney Thunder, all victorious, celebrating together on the same stage, pointed to a better, more inclusive game. Which is exactly what this was all about.
Will Macpherson writes on cricket for the Guardian, ESPNcricinfo and All Out Cricket. @willis_macp