Clare Connor, head of England women’s cricket, did something quite amazing last week. She rang the bell at Lord’s to summon the England and Australian men’s teams from their respective lairs to begin battle in the second Test of the Ashes Series. One small ding for womankind, but one hell of a hallowed honour in the history of the sport.
Only two other women had gone before in about 200 years: Rachel Heyhoe Flint – the Mrs. Pankhurst of women’s sport, its leading suffragette – and the current England team captain, the redoubtable Charlotte Edwards.
The match result is not the issue (mercifully, as England lost by 405 runs). But it did signal the respect that Connor commands in the cricket world and when the first ball is bowled in the Women’s Cricket Super League coming to England in 2016, it will be in large part thanks to the powers of persuasion of her administrative team at the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB).
This is essentially the Big Bash, English version. A six-team Twenty20 women’s competition for the best players in the country, plus two foreign players per team, funded by a £3 million investment from the ECB over the next four years. Connor calls it an “evolution” but given cricket’s deep attachment to things like small urns, big teas and tradition generally, there is also a revolutionary zing to the idea.
“It will be a colourful, vibrant, fun, athletic, family-fied-event-style sport like the Big Bash in Australia or the IPL.” The Indian Premier League in men’s cricket is the most watched Twenty20 League in the world with a brand value in 2014 estimated at £4.6 billion. However, it is not a potential profit margin that is the driver in this case. “We want to attract people to find out if they want to be part of the cricket family,” says Connor.
“We’ve got to prepare the England players and the potential England players in a better way. At the moment, country cricket doesn’t quite achieve that. That’s the key driver. The spin-offs hopefully will be around participation and growing the business of women’s cricket in terms of investment, profile, sponsorship. After the England team, it will be our next most powerful property.
“The timing, hopefully, is everything. It seems to be seminal timing for women’s sport. The coverage we’ve seen this week on the first day of the Women’s Ashes has blown me away. Front page Telegraph Sport, front page Independent Sport, back page Times, back page Guardian. Huge, full-page pictures and match reports. It was only five years ago when we were struggling to even get the score in the paper.
“We’ve also had the announcement of a new sponsor, Bang & Olufsen [who supplied personal sets of H6 headphones to all the 22 squad members]. Then, we had two of our biggest international crowds ever in the history of women’s cricket at Taunton and Bristol this week. So all the evidence points to the fact that this a time that we just have to capitalise on.
“I feel really lucky because I know not all sports are resourced to jump on this really exciting time. But, in our case, the Board has been open and dynamic in their thinking. They have allowed our organisation to be really focused on the women’s side of the sport. I hope that the £3 million they have agreed to invest in the new Super League is even more of a game-changer than paying the players by central contract last year. The contracts are just for 18 players, whereas the new Super League is an investment to secure sustainable success over the long term.”
A number of organisations, from county clubs to universities to other innovative combinations, have already expressed an interest in bidding for a team and Connor has even received a “flirtatious” call (strictly in the business sense) from India. The decision process will then become more forensic and the six teams announced in December. The names will be for the team to decide. The Aussies went for Storms, Hurricanes and Scorchers, a fixation with the weather systems that would do a Brit proud. Connor hazards a guess that English grammar will play its part. “West Country Wizards? Devon Dynamos? Whatever alliterates.
“What we’re so excited about is that it’s breaking new ground. For a domestic competition to go down a non-traditional route has, hopefully, huge potential. I don’t expect the men to follow it, in the way we’ve done it. There are clearly on-going conversations going on in the men’s game about a Twenty20 competition but they’re not linked to the Women’s Super League.”
The broadcast rights are highly likely to go to Sky. It may be too early for TV bidding wars. But if the Super League is an eye-catching, fan-building, England team-bolstering success it may ring that bell in due course.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sue Mott is an award winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press.
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