More than half a million viewers tuned in to watch the third women's Ashes ODI on television, in the strongest sign yet of what Cricket Australia's chief executive James Sutherland has called the game's "single most significant growth opportunity".
The audience for the third ODI, won by England at Coffs Harbour on Sunday October 29, peaked at a national audience of 512,568 on the Nine network's main channel during the afternoon session, with an average of 312,787, after programmers chose to move the match from the digital channel 9Gem, where the first match of the series attracted a peak afternoon audience of 281,394.
In a telling reminder of the importance of free-to-air deals to expand cricket's audience, the peak figure was greater than the 467,000 viewers recorded nationally across Britain for Sky's coverage of the final day of the first men's Ashes Test in Cardiff in 2015.
At the same time, it provided further evidence for CA to press ahead with plans to make October a month for standalone women's fixtures, such as the ICC World Twenty20 tournament in 2020 and also the Women's Big Bash League, which is under consideration for movement to a separate time slot from the men's tournament that takes place in December and January.
"Cricket is an incredibly popular sport - but the sports and entertainment market is extremely competitive and changing all the time. To ensure cricket's sustainable future as a mainstream sport, we can't afford to take anything for granted," Sutherland told ESPNcricinfo. "We strongly believe that growing cricket as a sport of choice for women and girls is our game's single most significant growth opportunity. It is an extremely important initiative within our recently adopted five-year strategic plan.
"In recent seasons we have seen the WBBL played in front of large crowds and drawing strong TV audiences on Network Ten. The competition is the best women's league in the world. For us domestically, it not only provides clarity on the pathway to our national team, but exposes the tremendous depth of female talent in this country. We will continue to explore our scheduling to enable our women's matches to attract the highest possible levels of fan support.
"Earlier this year, the ICC approved our request to separate the Women's World T20 event from the men's - and so the women's event to be played in February-March 2020 will precede the men's event which will be in October-November. Just as we have with the World T20, we are looking to find discreet windows in the calendar where we can promote the women's game so as to attract ever higher audiences at match and on TV."
Entering into CA's next round of domestic broadcast rights negotiations, the television pulling-power of the women's game is a significant change in the value of any prospective deals, much as the creation of the BBL in 2011 impacted on the 2013 contracts signed with Nine and Ten.
The purchase of the BBL rights by Ten in 2013 for about A$20 million a season over five years was considered a gamble at the time, but the tournament's consistently strong broadcast audiences have now raised estimates of the tournaments rights value to as much as three times that amount. Just as CA was able to convince broadcasters that domestic cricket could be a viable option for free-to-air television, the governing body is now hopeful of doing likewise with the women's game.
"Following on from the hugely successful World Cup in England, we are seeing women's cricket continue grow in popularity and we are delighted to see cricket fans' appreciation of the women's game reflected in ever increasing crowds and TV audiences," Sutherland said. "The Nine Network's broadcast of the ODI series has been outstanding, and to see the final ODI match televised on the main channel attracting a very significant audience was further indication of the growing appetite for the women's game.
"It is especially pleasing to see our Australian team attracting the support they have during this women's Ashes series. This public support has been reflected in the exceptional media coverage including the outstanding access through the free-to-air broadcast on Nine."
At the same time, strong television audiences are likely to aid CA in another goal - that of growing female participation numbers of in the game. "In the short term for the rest of this summer, we're all about providing the platform to ensure we keep pushing the fantastic story of this squad and their performances in the Ashes," Sutherland said.
"There is no doubt that their feats and growing profile is inspiring the next generation of girls to play and love cricket. Female participation numbers will be up strongly again this year, with huge growth expected in the number of girls teams at school and club level."