Breaking down barriers: The Women’s Big Bash League has arrived with a bang with six matches televised in 11 days. Photo: Wayne TaylorThe watershed season for women’s cricket will end in fitting fashion, with six matches broadcast live on free-to-air TV in 11 days.
Network Ten’s broadcasts of the two Women’s Big Bash League semi-finals and the final will be followed by Nine Network providing live coverage of Australia’s national team, the Southern Stars, in their three Twenty20 matches against India next week.
It is almost eight years since women’s matches were first shown on TV, in a match between the Southern Stars and England in which 17-year-old Ellyse Perry made her Twenty20 debut. Cricket Australia’s general manager of media rights and broadcast, Stephanie Beltrame, is understandably delighted in the unprecedented level of coverage for – and interest in – women’s cricket.
“There’s a lot of momentum around women’s sport,” she said. “We’ve kind of hit that bit of a wave, where we’ve got the volume of content and so much peripheral momentum that’s pushing it along … respect for female athletes and female sport.
“There’s been a perfect storm of factors to give it a bit more oxygen this year.”
The key to the surge in popularity, reflected in ratings on Ten that have been strong enough to exceed A-League matches, has been CA’s decision to subsidise Ten’s production costs in order to get eight WBBL matches shown in its inaugural season. The response was so strong that CA and Ten then expanded the coverage list to include the semi-finals on Thursday and Friday.
Beltrame said that investment, mirroring a strategy it employs to get the Matador Cup one-day tournament shown by Nine in October, is being vindicated.
“Television is still absolutely the No.1 way to reach people, so getting the exposure is the most important factor,” she said.
“The intent of the WBBL was to show girls you can aspire to play in a competition like this. From a viewing perspective, there are men and women, boys and girls who are watching. It might be a slightly different game – there are nuances in the women’s game – but cricket is cricket, and men are watching.”
Beltrame said CA was appreciative of the support of Ten, for its extensive promotion of the WBBL and its decision to move some of the matches from ONE to its main channel to better capitalise on demand. Nine has followed suit, deciding to show the Southern Stars’ Australia Day match on its main channel.
For the past six years, the women’s domestic Twenty20 final has been broadcast live, first on Fox Sports and then on Ten in the past two years.
Beltrame said a key benefit of having more matches shown is that it has given viewers an opportunity to become familiar with players beyond the recognised superstars like Meg Lanning and Ellyse Perry.
“We’ve always had belief in the product, the content, because it’s always rated pretty solidly without it ever being in prime time, and with neither us nor the broadcaster giving it any major promotion. The big difference I’m finding this year is because there are a lot more games [shown] you’re able to tell a bit of a story,” she said.
“That’s always been a challenge with women’s cricket, that we don’t play enough to be able to sustain genuine momentum.
“It’s not just Perry. You’ll remember what other players have done, because they’ve been on TV and you’ve seen it. That’s just so powerful to get that exposure.”
Two players whose profiles have surged due to their WBBL performances are Adelaide’s Amanda Wellington, whose leg-spin has been strongly commended by Adam Gilchrist, and off-spinner Molly Strano, who claimed an 8-35 for Melbourne Renegades in the two televised matches she featured in.
CA has been so rapt with the level of interest in WBBL in its first season it is keen to get at least the same level of match coverage next year, ideally with Ten.
“That would be our logical point,” Beltrame said. “We want to sit down with them to get their thoughts on what’s worked, but also what we can improve.”
The long-term goal for CA is to be able to play women’s matches as standalone matches at boutique-sized stadia and be shown in their own right in prime time, as happens in England on pay TV broadcaster Sky Sports.
“The only downside with double-headers is we don’t get to push the content into prime time, so there’s always a little bit of a cap on the ratings … but we have to earn that right,” Beltrame said. “The ultimate vision is when we’re not necessarily having to piggyback with the men’s sport.
“We do now because we recognise it’s a smart and efficient way of doing it, but if we continue to go on an upward trend, then there’s no reason why we couldn’t start to establish a standalone product.”
The more immediate priority is to reduce the gap of at least 90 minutes between the women’s and men’s double-headers, to make it more attractive for spectators to watch both matches. Even with those large gaps, there have been a number of matches this season where crowds have exceeded 10,000 by the end of the women’s match.
“I always believed we had something we could build and build, but it’s just been an outstanding response,” Beltrame said. “We’re really, really proud of every element: the way the broadcasters have embraced it, the way the girls have become more professional, stronger athletes, and the quality of the game is changing.”