Women at centre of Australian cricket's big plans for October

Sydney Sixers won their second straight title Getty Images

When coverage of the AFL Grand Final winds down on Saturday evening, Channel Seven will switch straight from the MCG to North Sydney Oval and a women's Twenty20 international between Australia and New Zealand. As a statement, it is quite something when taken in isolation: women's cricket as the spearhead of the summer, on the free-to-air broadcaster's main channel at that.

As Kim McConnie, Cricket Australia's head of the men's and women's Big Bash Leagues, put it to ESPNcricinfo: "I was jumping up and down for joy when I first heard that - what a sign of commitment. I just take my hat off to them for making this move."

Yet, beyond that single programming decision is a far longer story, and a far more intriguing one. How Australian cricket realised that more needed to be done to grab airtime for the game in the days and weeks before the peak summer months of December-January, and how a parallel effort to build the game for women and girls became entwined with it. In its telling arrives an understanding - that to grow any game requires something more than a flurry of publicity or a cultural wave to ride, a discovery numerous other women's competitions, notably the AFLW, are currently in the process of making.

There are many strands to this tale, and in a way it goes back more than a decade - as distantly as 2004 when Cricket Australia's then strategy, "From Backyard to Baggy Green", identified how badly the game had failed to engage with half the population. Among the first steps taken from that point was to start a conversation with cricket's major broadcaster, Channel Nine, to air matches played by the women's national team. It was a cause taken up with gusto by the head of media rights, Stephanie Beltrame, who will return to importance later in the story.

Out of the 2010 commitment to create the BBL, grew a sense that if cricket were to truly diversify its audience, CA needed to establish an equivalent competition for women. Andrew Jones, then the CA's head of strategy, and latterly the chief executive of Cricket New South Wales, was among numerous lobbyists for the concept. "To make cricket a game for men and women and boys and girls, you needed the BBL clubs to have women's teams under the same brand and looking the same," he said.

Discussions began to evolve in 2014, although the tournament was held back by a year due to the extra scheduling pressures created by the 2015 men's World Cup. Within weeks of Michael Clarke lifting the trophy at the MCG, however, the WBBL was back on the table. There was, in some quarters, hesitance about how it should start. Was this simply the new T20 part of the pathway to the national team that already featured the 50-over Women's National Cricket League, or something more? And could existing club staff stretch their resources to sell it without taking oxygen away from the BBL? Jodie Hawkins, then the head of communications for the Sydney Sixers, and now the club's general manager, was adamant in the affirmative, and actively campaigned for the tournament to build immediate profile with a launch in the winter of 2015.

"There was concern at CA that we would drop our energy around BBL to deliver the WBBL, and that was probably based on some thoughts and fears they had based on history," Hawkins said. "But our feeling was that it would actually only enhance the BBL by having the women's team involved as well, and being under a club banner, so originally they said, 'let your state teams run it', which is fine in every state other than NSW and Victoria, given we've got double the BBL clubs.

"Given that we'd worked so hard to build those BBL brands and give them a real identity that stands complementary to the state, we were really keen if they're running around in our shirts, we wanted them to be part of our club. Therefore we pushed to launch the WBBL and give it the profile it deserved. The WBBL was created as a visible pathway for young girls, but it wasn't going to do that if you didn't shine some light on it, and that was why it was really important to us that we launched it properly, so that girls could see there was a visible pathway."

"The WBBL was created as a visible pathway for young girls, but it wasn't going to do that if you didn't shine some light on it, and that was why it was really important to us that we launched it properly." Sydney Sixers general manager Jodie Hawkins

Not unlike the early work done in 2011 to launch the BBL on a similarly tight budget, Hawkins and others found themselves broadening their role descriptions considerably in the course of preparing for the event. "It was literally down to getting uniforms tailored to girls so we weren't just sticking a man's shirt on a female player," she said. "We wanted to pay particular attention to making sure it looked right and it really gave the tournament and the players the spotlight they deserved.

"CA did send up Mike McKenna as the speaker from their perspective. But we found venues, sourced uniforms, organised players, and really drove it, made sure we had content to go nationally, set up a WhatsApp group with all the other communications managers so every team had something to use that wasn't just NSW-based. Every club had content out of that launch to help promote their team."

There were teething troubles. The initial tournament schedule was imperfect, and logistical issues also reared their head, particularly the extra travel and relocation requirements for players who moved states to join different WBBL teams. But by the end of the tournament in 2016, there was a sense that interest was growing, from broadcasters and sponsors, as well as fans.

"In that first year, while it was fan-facing, it didn't necessarily get the cut of the marketing from our Sixers perspective or a national perspective that it deserved, but we learned a lot in that first season that really allowed us to improve in WBBL 02," Hawkins said. "By then, CA had really caught up and realised there was a bit of a groundswell among the public for there to be women's sport to follow, and very quickly everyone changed their focus to make sure we created an elite pathway and a fan-focused product."

At the same time, another part of the story came together - the move to full professionalism among female cricketers. While CA had paid centrally contracted players well for some time, the move to broaden this to state level took a turn when NSW, via a sponsorship with Lend Lease, was able to offer handsome enough contracts for their own players to go full-time. For Jones, this was a case of investment to ensure the quality of the cricket matched the scope of the competition.

"By that stage, it had occurred to us that to make the product as good as possible. We needed to professionalise it first, not wait for it to be good and then professionalise it," he said. "To make it good, you had to professionalise it so they could train more and therefore improve and be better cricketers.

"We made the point in CA and state CEOs meetings that if we're not excited about it, why would anyone else be excited about it? We've got to treat it like its fantastic and then people will take the lead from us."

For McConnie, the move to professionalism - broadened to all players last year with the signing of a historic first joint MoU, covering both men and women - is a significant show of leadership by cricket. "I'm pretty proud of where cricket has taken a leadership stance on that," she said. "If you think about the recently signed MoU, the women are on a minimum of A$55,000, and we truly have gender pay equity, which enables them to start to address and look at this as a full-time career.

"Cricket has absolutely led the way when you think about gender equity in remuneration for professional players. There are not many leagues in the world, let alone Australia, that can stand up and say that. I think we've taken that first step and led the way, and we would highly encourage and want to see the rest of the leagues follow that path. It's not easy to get right, but we've tried to take that leadership position and really show the way.

"Part of our vision is to be a sport for all Australians. In order to be a sport for all Australians, you need to appeal to all Australians, it's quite obvious! We want to be the leading sport for women and girls and that's our ambition. So it is an investment for us to make sure that it is a sport that appeals to women and girls. If you're a 14-year-old in school today, it's very hard for us to encourage her to be a future cricketer if she can't see that happening around her."

"We've got to think our product is amazing and others will be guided by that. We're not going to wait for people to find it amazing before we do." New South Wales chief executive Andrew Jones

Beltrame, and CA's media rights team, meanwhile, had managed to cajole the Ten Network, BBL rights holders, into going beyond their existing agreement to broadcast a selection of WBBL matches in season two. This decision allowed for further proof to be gained that women's cricket would rate strongly if positioned in the right time slots, helped too by the common identity link between WBBL and BBL teams. Audiences on Ten in that first season of television coverage regularly outstripped free-to-air broadcasts of the A-League and even some pay television broadcasts of the NRL or AFL.

"There was evidence from those broadcast games that it was going to be successful," Jones said. "There was appetite to watch it, if it was on in the right time slot. People watch a sport, a club and a time slot, and if you've got two out of those three things, you'll be in business. The evidence suggested if we put WBBL on at the right time, such as 7.30pm on a Friday or a Saturday night, then people would watch it."

As this knowledge was being gleaned, another front was opening up for discussion - scheduling. In early 2016, as part of CA's overarching strategy reviews, questions began to be posed about how to expand cricket's footprint on the season, particularly given the turf wars that are habitually fought with the football codes for television audiences, spectators and participants. The men's domestic limited-overs competition, which had been aired on Channel Nine, albeit at CA's production cost, was not seen as enough of an audience grabber, and, for 2017 at least, the preference was to have the network cover the women's Ashes instead.

This left a hole in the October window in seasons that had no major women's international series scheduled. Jones, asked to contribute to the brainstorming in March 2016, responded on the first of the next month with something that was no-one's idea of an April Fool's joke. "From a long-term point of view, it wasn't good to not have cricket on at that time of year," Jones said. "You need cricket on straight after the footy finishes. So I sat down and thought about that for a little bit and worked out the obvious answer was to move the WBBL into that window, because people want to watch T20, they want to watch BBL.

"We can't extend men's BBL because of the Sheffield Shield, no-one wants to cut the Shield, and rightly so. Fifty-over domestic cricket's not cutting it, and we can't have more international cricket. So, when you eliminate all those possibilities, you're left with the fact that it pretty much has to be the WBBL. So we lobbied and agreed that WBBL would move into its own window from 2019 onwards.

"The main conclusion was we need to move the WBBL into its own window to create Friday-night cricket basically, straight after the footy season. Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday afternoon, just like footy. Everyone has had the experience of the first Friday after the Grand Final, realising there's nothing on. That was the glaring opportunity where we finally put two and two together and said, 'right, the obvious solution is WBBL'."

When the women's Ashes matches rated strongly on Nine, while also pulling in decent attendances in Brisbane and Sydney, the plan to move the WBBL to its own window from 2019 onwards gathered speed. It also meant that women's cricket would be a more major discussion point in negotiations with broadcasters than at any time in the past. The end result, shuffled into an A$1.18-billion-deal with Seven and Fox Sports, was an increase in televised WBBL games from 12 to 23, and the guarantee that all women's internationals would be aired on Seven, starting with Saturday night.

"It was led by our media rights team, but they were very committed to making sure women's cricket was a core part of the negotiations, and it was a great result to go from 12 games broadcast on free-to-air TV to 23," McConnie said. "That doesn't happen without the broadcaster also getting behind it. You could clearly have seen the negotiations end up somewhere in the middle, but it got momentum and traction and we got to 23 because it was really important for the media rights team, but also for the broadcaster.

"If you look at the success we had with the women's Ashes last season, it was just fantastic, and if you look at the numbers overall, women's sport over the past two years has reached a tipping point, where people are really starting to get involved. The work the AFLW has done is great, the women's Ashes was really a major milestone when you look at numbers through the gate, broadcast numbers, it was really quite impressive, and that really led to some of the thinking to say it is time for the WBBL to have its own share of voice and its own window."

"Cricket has absolutely led the way when you think about gender equity in remuneration for professional players [in Australia]. There are not many leagues in the world that can stand up and say that." Kim McConnie, CA head of men's and women's Big Bash Leagues

The seamless transition from AFL to cricket on Grand Final day is also instructive as a reminder of where the two sports sit in regards to their nascent women's competitions. A recent round of questions from players and supporters of the AFLW about a seeming lack of long-term thinking brought suggestions that a new "vision statement" was being prepared by the league. However, from Hawkins' perspective, the race is now less about getting established than building permanence - "business as usual".

"You can't build a league with a short-term view, it just doesn't work," she said. "You need to know what's next and we've spent a lot of time at [BBL] general managers' conferences, talking about what's next, what do we need to do, how are we continuing to build. But when we're talking about what's next, we're talking five years' time. We know where we're going next year, we know the changes we need to make and the differences you want to have. You can't build tournaments year-to-year and trying to make change as you go.

"The fact there's more and more women's cricket added each new broadcast agreement just shows that it's a priority to CA to get it on TV, because that's how you build a league, making it the most visible you can, but it's also shown a desire for the network to cover women's sport, because it is something that people want to see. Sometimes, you just need to tell them and show them in order to get them on board. Channel Ten were brilliant coming to the party with that, but the way that it's growing and the structure of the new deal is really positive for the growth of the tournament.

"The race isn't now on to set-up a women's league, the race is on to make it the most sustainable that it can be. That's what sports are now competing in: it's how do we make this product sustainable, as opposed to how do we build a league. Everyone's now got something, but we're talking about how do we make this a long-term play for us, not a ride-the-wave-and-then-jump-out-at-the-end. This is now business as usual, and to make it business as usual, you need to make it fully sustainable."

Sustainability means profitability, whether measured in terms of individual club finances or the composition for broadcast deals. To that end, Jones articulated a truly ambitious vision. "Our aspiration now is for WBBL to be the fourth-biggest sports league in Australia, behind the big three - BBL, NRL and AFL. We think it will be over a five-to-10-year period," he said. "It's extremely exciting and extremely satisfying. I think it'll be our greatest contribution to the game probably."

And it all starts on Saturday night.