March 8, 2020 was the biggest day in the history of women’s cricket. Australia, led by Meg Lanning, beat India in a thoroughly one-sided final, extending their dominance in the women’s cricket. On the field, the lack of real fight from India was disappointing, but the bigger picture was impossible to ignore.
This was the most professionally staged women’s cricket competition of all time, and the most competitive. While Australia have always been the frontrunners, well ahead of the competition, the 2020 edition saw the biggest cluster competing to dethrone the No. 1 team.
England were nipping at their heels and with New Zealand were the best shot to finish on top. India, who had made strident advances in the 18 months leading up to the tournament, were suddenly a force to reckon with, and South Africa came to the party in style.
By the time the tournament reached the business end, it was India who had taken most of the limelight, going into the final unbeaten. England would have counted themselves unlucky, rain washing out their semifinal match against India, causing the Harmanpreet Kaur-led team to advance on the basis of finishing the league phase of the competition on top of their group.
The final itself was drawing worldwide attention, not only because the top two teams in the competition had made it there, but because this was an event in itself. Australia, from cricket authorities to local governments to corporates and sponsors, had got right behind the tournament.
A stated aim was to beat the 90,815 world-record crowd for a women’s sporting event currently held by California’s Rose Bowl Stadium for the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup Final. The Melbourne Cricket Ground, where the women’s cricket final was held, is widely considered the home sport in Australia and is one of the most iconic grounds in the world, regardless of gender of cricketers.
In order to boost the chances of this happening, Katy Perry would be playing at the venue, a short set before the start of the final and then a concert proper once the game was done. Tickets were priced at AU$ 20 for adults and $5 for children, and typical that would not even cover the cost of parking at a Katy Perry concert in Australia. The response was massive.
Australia’s sport loving public and the sizeable Indian diaspora combined to bet 86,174 packed in, and though it was short of the record, it was proof positive that the women’s game could attract the kind of numbers that skeptics believed impossible until now.
And you could understand the cynicism. After all, ahead of this tournament, the highest attendance for a stand alone women’s cricket match had been a mere 12,717 in the final in 2009. But. when the fans voted with their money, nearly filling up the stadium, it became clear that change was here, and the effect it had on the players was massive.
Alyssa Healy, who headlined the final with a remarkable 39-ball 75 that included the kind of audacious stroke play that would have been the talk of the town even in a men’s match, spoke about the presence of the crowd immediately after. “You cannot wipe the smile off my face. I think even if we had lost the game tonight I still would have been smiling. I never thought that we would get an opportunity like this in my whole career,” Healy told the host broadcaster immediately after the game. “I thought maybe in 20 years’ time [playing in front of a 85,000-plus crowd]… but to have the opportunity tonight to play as well as we did in front of all you guys. Thank you so much for coming out. It was something really special.”
But, player excitement was only the tip of the iceberg. When the numbers were crunched in the aftermath of the tournament, it was clear just how much of a tipping point the event had been for the future of women in cricket. In India, cricket’s biggest market, a total of 1.78 billion viewing minutes had been registered for the final. The figure was 59 times more than the final of the previous edition in 2018 between Australia and England, and comprised 35 per cent of the overall viewership for the tournament.
The average audience for the final in India was 9.02 million, higher than all matches of the 2018 tournament played in the West Indies. This figure is 154 per cent higher than the second most viewed match in the competition – the tournament opener between Australia and India on 21 February.
In Australia the average national audience for the final was 1.2 million, making it the most watched women’s cricket match in Australian broadcast history. Overall, the tournament accounted for a total of 1.1 billion video views, making it the most watched International Cricket Council women’s event ever and the second most successful after the Men’s Cricket World Cup 2019.
The total on-ground attendance at the tournament stood at 136, 549 the best recorded for a women’s cricket tournament and the highest for any women’s sporting event in Australia.
A direct fall out of these numbers was the ICC taking a long, hard look at how the women’s game could benefit in the short-term, the medium-term and the long term. Manu Sawhney, the Chief Executive of the ICC, who comes from a broadcast background, was quick to pounce on the opportunity.
“All of our data points over the last three years have shown us that fans are interested in women’s cricket,” Sawhney said soon after the Twenty20 World Cup. ““There is an audience for women’s cricket out there and rights holders along with broadcasters and brands are starting to realise that. There is a clear opportunity here for the sport and we are currently exploring various options to optimise value generation including the unbundling of women’s rights.”
That the world’s governing body was even talking about separating the women’s broadcast rights from the men’s showed how much the tournament had done for the game. In the past, women’s cricket had been tagged on to men’s matches, an afterthought almost, with even the world cup matches not being played as standalone events. Typically, a women’s Twenty20 match would take place immediately before a men’s game on the same day, thereby ensuring that some crowd was garnered at the venue. This also meant that women’s cricket was viewed as a financial drain on the game, something that had to be subsidised by more cash-rich parts of the sport.
Not any longer. The ICC estimated that as many as 70% of their billion-plus fans wanted to watch more women’s cricket. “We want to build a long-term sustainable foundation for the game and commercialisation is a central plank of that which is why we are exploring the unbundling of rights. Look at Billie Jean King and the Original Nine, their first contract was for $1 but it was a leap of faith that drove transformational change. Doing what we’ve always done will not achieve that.”
Billie Jean King, the American former World No. 1 tennis player, who won 39 Grand Slam titles, has been one of the biggest advocates for gender equality in sport. She famously beat Bobby Riggs in a “Battle of Sexes match in 1973, and it was only apt that she was present at the final of the Women’s Twenty20 cricket World Cup.
For Sawhney, the latest event only underscored the possibilities that lie ahead. While the immediate aftermath of the World Cup was overshadowed by the Covid-19 or Coronavirus crisis, bringing sport to a standstill worldwide, there was the hope that the women’s game would grow exponentially once a sense of normalcy returned.
“As broadcasters and brands start to invest specifically in women’s sport then promotional budgets will follow,” said Sawhney. “This third party promotion combined with the reinvestment of income will help our aspiration to accelerate the growth of the game.”
The women’s game has always dared to dream big, and now it seems as it will finally have the backing and the dollars needed to ensure it explodes into the global consciousness.