“You talk about glass ceilings, and I think the Women’s Premier League is going to be the next big stage.”
The words of New Zealand captain Sophie Devine as the T20 World Cup begins in South Africa are a reminder of the lingering impact of those nine surreal days in early January, when the face of women’s cricket changed forever.
The Women’s Premier League (WPL), India’s domestic, franchise-based, 20-over cricket tournament, saw the linear and digital rights bought by Viacom 18 for just over €108 million ($116.7 million) for the first five seasons.
This instantly made the WPL the second-most expensive sports league in the world after the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) in the United States, and the second-biggest T20 domestic league across the world after the men’s edition of the tournament, the Indian Premier League (IPL).
A long road to recognition
Given that the IPL was formed in 2008, the arrival of the women’s equivalent 15 years later is a reminder of how hard women’s cricket has had to work against claims the product isn’t good enough or that it’s unable to generate as much as a men’s model, meaning it should not expect an equal amount of investment.
It will change the way the women’s game is going. With this amount of money, it is going to have a reach throughout the world and it is going to elevate the women’s game even more
Indeed, in 2018, then-India captain Mithali Raj, one of the most individually decorated players in the women’s game, was worried a series of noncompetitive, low-scoring matches would taint the product and pour further scorn on women’s cricket.
However, in the five years since Raj’s comments, women’s cricket has exploded. India made the final of the 2020 T20 World Cup in Australia, and although they lost the game they did so in front of over 85,000 spectators in Melbourne.
Viacom 18’s investment of approximately €808,000 ($866,000) per game is a wager on the potential of the women’s league. That decision is changing the game for players across the world.
West Indies all-rounder Hayley Matthews has praised India’s governing body, the Board of Control for Cricket in India, for the work they are doing for women’s cricket worldwide.
“It is quite clear at the moment that the BCCI and the Women’s IPL has set some pretty big standards for the women’s game,” Matthews told DW. “Women’s cricket has been growing so fast and the boys are starting to realize that you can make a huge investment in the women’s game if you want to watch it grow.”
In October, the BCCI announced in a landmark decision that women cricketers would be paid the same international match fee as their male counterparts.
“This will change a lot, not only for the players that will play in the competition but hopefully it creates some pressure on other countries to really step up with their remuneration for players in the international game as well,” said Matthews.
Building for the future
International contracts remain limited for those outside of Australia, England and India. But the Federation of International Cricketers’ Associations announced in early February that since 2020, opportunities to earn a living from playing international cricket as a woman have grown by 75 per cent.
New Zealand fast bowler Lea Tahuhu, who made her debut at the age of 21 in 2011, has seen the sport she once played for passion and very little money turn into a sustainable career choice.
Now 30, she believes the WPL has catapulted the sport into a new league by offering players the ability to earn more across three weeks than they can playing for their country over an entire year.
“It will change the way the women’s game is going,” Tahuhu told DW. “With this amount of money, it is going to have a reach throughout the world and it is going to elevate the women’s game even more.
“The more players that are going to get paid will mean they are going to be able to put time into training in between ICC sanctioned tournaments. It is going to drive the skill up of the women’s game and that’s what we want to see.”
Many of the players competing at the T20 World Cup in South Africa will likely have half an eye on the inaugural WPL player action that is due to take place not long after the tournament starts.
However, that won’t be the case for the 15 Pakistani players. Since the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, heightened political relations between India and Pakistan have largely stopped the countries from competing against each other outside official ICC tournaments and the Asia Cup.
With many male Pakistan players routinely overlooked since the inaugural 2008 IPL, player agents stopped the women from registering for the WPL auction for fear of the same treatment.
While the predicament for the Pakistani players cannot be overlooked, the arrival of the WPL remains a ground-breaking moment for female cricketers across the globe. And so when the first ball is bowled at the famed Newlands Cricket Ground against the backdrop of Table Mountain in Cape Town, it won’t just be a start for the T20 World Cup but also a completely new era for women’s cricket.