Wednesday, 1 February 2017

The WBBL, the KSL, and the matter of television

Wednesday, 1 February 2017
Like many here in England, this winter I've been drawn to watching Twenty20 competitions happening on the other side of the world. Whilst the men's Big Bash League has drawn plenty of attention, and often been hailed as an ideal model for T20 competitions to follow, it's been the women's competition that has drawn me in more. The second year of the Women's Big Bash League may not have received a huge amount of publicity on these shores, but has still made plenty of waves throughout the game.

The first WBBL had already taken huge steps for women's cricket. It was the first T20 league of its kind with many of the world's best players featuring, and had the advantage of being able to piggyback upon the popular and established brands of the men's competition. Women received payment for playing domestic cricket, and it was being televised too; doing so well that more games were shown, and moved to Channel Ten's primary station. WBBL02 went even further. Games continued to be televised, and if not they were live-streamed on Facebook for the world to see - brilliant for me as someone, time differences allowing, wanted to see as much of the action live as I possibly could.

As an English cricket fan, it gave me cause to wonder. Whilst the first season of the ECB's big T20 competition, the Kia Super League, was a success, it featured no live television coverage at all. There are arguments for an against that of course, such as Sky's concern about the quality of the end product (something that didn't stop the WBBL in their first season), and issues relating to logistics and infrastructures (more understandable, particularly with the smaller grounds). But a big part of it was the ECB's deal with Sky - and it seemed if they didn't want to show it, then nobody could.

Progress has certainly been made on the television front for 2017, with finals day and several other matches to be broadcast by Sky - these coming as the first halves of double headers with the men's domestic competition. It's a positive step, though double headers shouldn't be seen as the long term option. But I'd still like to see something following Australia's model. In 2014 England streamed ODI matches against India on YouTube for free. I'm not an expert on the ECB's contract and terms with Sky, but if something like this (or via Facebook) is still possible then surely it would be a great opportunity for the KSL. And it would be live cricket that wasn't hidden behind a paywall, sadly a novelty in England over the past ten years.

Double headers might be a good ploy for now, but already the time is coming for women's cricket to stand up on its own. Certainly international games have been capable of standing on their own for a while now, with grounds such as Chelmsford and Hove being packed for T20 matches. It always feels somewhat disappointing then, in contrast, when double headed games with men's international's are played; and that atmosphere is diminished by larger venues going unfilled. Double headers bring the feeling of the women's match being a warm up act before the 'main' event, sold to people who are buying their tickets for men's matches and may not want to see the first game, or aren't able to make the time of the earlier match. The opposite is true also, with the higher ticket prices potentially putting off those who had only wanted to see the women's match. Women's cricket is not just the 'bonus' product any more, and there are enough people interested that it can be sold to.

But at the moment they come as a way of growing the game, a necessary concession to make for the games to be televised. And with television comes more exposure, and with exposure comes a greater accessibility and interest from fans and the media. The international game can stand on its own, but for a domestic competition it could provide an extra boost. Spectators who may just be buying their tickets for the men's game will have an extra opportunity to see some of the best players from England and the rest of the world, and many players will get a chance in front of the cameras for the first time. In the long term I'd like to see fewer and fewer double headers, but in the meantime they can provide their benefits - especially if, as seems the case, it offers the best path for the KSL to get that all-important television coverage. It will be the first time English women's domestic cricket has been broadcast on television, and that in itself is a positive step and something I'm very much looking forward to.

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