IT’S easy to come away from the inaugural Women’s Big Bash League singing its unequivocal praises.
It’s easy to think that its stellar launch will continue seamlessly into next year, and beyond.
It’s easy too to assume that its success was written in the stars, right from the outset. It won’t necessarily, and it wasn’t. But what a first season it was.
It was a season where records were smashed and expectations were exceeded.
At its peak the WBBL attracted a record in-house crowd of 14,611 and a peak audience of 439,000 viewers on national free-to-air television. These numbers are unprecedented in domestic women’s sport, in Australia or anywhere else.
It was a number of factors that contrived to make the WBBL a thing of beauty, but two things in particular stood out as the key ingredients.
Firstly, the WBBL exceeded all expectations precisely because it didn’t have any. It didn’t have any and yet Cricket Australia still ploughed huge amounts of its own capital into the venture, uncertain of the outcome.
CA’s investment was all-encompassing, ranging from subsidising television production costs to ensuring that each of the 59 matches were reported.
Pre-tournament it continued to play down crowd numbers and viewing figures. Its sole target, CA emphasised, was to create “an inspiring visible pathway for the next generation” — nothing more, nothing less, and importantly with no figures to benchmark against.
In just two months a deadset loss-making model paved the way for discussions about the tournament’s possible stand-alone viability and future commercial returns.
Network 10 elevated matches from its digital to its main channel, and decided to televise matches it had initially not intended to. The knock-on effect reached Channel 9, whose own coverage of the Southern Stars subsequent T20 series was promoted to its main channel too, for the first match at least.
In one fell swoop the great myth that women’s sport is not watched because it is of a standard inferior to its male equivalent was quelled.
Pleasant surprise at the on-field standards was the overwhelming reaction to first-time viewers. They had just never had the opportunity to watch it. Women’s tennis has for years proved this point.
Finally, the WBBL is confirming a truism in team sports too, and CA had the foresight to see that.
Secondly, the WBBL succeeded because it was launched from a robust framework that was tried, tested and successful in its own right. And the execution was as professional as they come.
In this case that launch pad was the men’s Big Bash League.
Now in its fifth year, the BBL has seen unprecedented success, through free-to-air broadcasting and canny marketing, securing a niche of its own as a staple of Australia’s fiercely fought-over summer sporting schedule.
It’s difficult for women’s sport to break into the saturated sports market because for most sports fans out there they’ve already got their team, more often than not male, with its own traditions, attractions and established fan base.
The WBBL, bouncing off the BBL, turned a barrier of breaking into this market into the reason for its success — it became part of the BBL family.
For each club the women’s team simply became an extension of the male setup, using the same branding, marketing, staff and infrastructure to create an instantly recognisable identity.
Hobart Hurricanes head coach Julia Price summed it up neatly in a recent interview — when contracted players attended a kids clinic in their Tasmanian Roar (the stand-alone state women’s team) kit, the response was passive at best. Rock up in their Hobart Hurricanes WBBL kit and the players were transformed into rockstars, the children swarming around them like bees to a honey pot.
Despite the first season’s success, there were teething problems, as with most things on their first outing.
Frenzied scheduling, uninformed event staff, a dearth of international subcontinental players and public pay disputes between the player’s union and CA were all issues which cropped up. Most issues however, weren’t dismissed — even if beyond CA’s control — they’re on the radar and already an area for improvement for next year.
Occupying an unattractive niche of being below elite but above the grassroots, club cricket forms an important, and to date successful, link in the highly lauded women’s cricket pathway.
The danger, especially for clubs outside the main cricketing states, is that they’ll be forgotten altogether. The honey pot isn’t bottomless, and priorities need to be made, but forget the clubs at your peril.
The WBBL, compared to seasons past, equivalent competitions worldwide and other women’s team sports domestically, was a runaway success.
Through all the facts and figures, most importantly perhaps it did what it set out to do — it became visible to young fans.
The most gratifying thing of all was that it was both boys and girls, not just the latter, which attended and were inspired. Just as Meg Lanning may have watched Ricky Ponting on her television screen, now Australia’s next generation of boys are watching Meg Lanning on theirs. Long may it continue.
Izzy Westbury is a freelance journalist who writes for numerous English newspapers as well as commentating for the BBC. You can follow her on Twitter HERE.