Clare Connor on English cricket’s triumph and the future of women’s sport

England capped a remarkable Women’s World Cup with victory at a sold-out Lord’s on 23rd July but for Clare Connor, the head of England women’s cricket at the ECB, the work has only just begun.

Clare Connor on English cricket’s triumph and the future of women’s sport

England’s women produced a remarkable comeback last Sunday to beat India in the final of the Women’s World Cup at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London, with bowler Anya Shrubsole producing a stirring spell in the closing stages to turn the contest on its head.

The 25-year-old’s spectacular performance was one befitting the stage. To close a tournament played to healthy audiences but on the smaller grounds of Bristol, Derby, Leicester and Taunton, a sell-out 27,000 crowd packed the sport’s most famous venue and were treated to a game of suitably landmark bearing. It was an occasion that was just reward for years of careful build-up and the coverage in the UK, where the result led TV news bulletins and made newspaper front pages, and India, where the runners-up have been afforded a heroes’ return and a reception with the prime minister, speaks to a sport on the cusp of something special. 

The last time England won a World Cup on home soil, in 1993, they also played a final at Lord’s – in skirts, in front of 5,000 people, at a time when the stadium’s owners’, the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), still did not admit female members.

Clare Connor, now the head of England women’s cricket at the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), began her career as an international two years later but has arguably done more than anyone to lead the women’s game from that era of neglect towards the professional future that now beckons. 

Speaking to SportsPro in the week after the game, Connor – who is also the chair of the International Cricket Council (ICC) Women’s Committee and a former member of the MCC World Cricket Committee – reflected on the achievements of the tournament’s organisers, the future of the women’s game, and what the competition can teach us about how women’s sport will grow. 

Clare Connor has led English women's cricket through a period of huge transformation and is highly influential on the international stage

It may not be the easiest thing to do but do you think you’re able to sum up your feelings about Sunday and your impressions of the occasion?

Yeah, I mean there are lots of words to describe my recollections of Sunday, and how it felt on the day and how it feels now. I think ‘overwhelming’ would be one of them. I still feel quite overwhelmed by the spectacle of Sunday, by seeing a full house here at Lord’s for a Women’s World Cup final. We dreamt of that; we had that as the ambition two years ago to sell out Lord’s for the final, and to have done that before we even knew that England were in the final was just wonderful and testament to a lot of hard work – both to people in the ICC team and the local organising committee, but also the ECB. And it was a tribute to the players for the way the tournament had progressed until that point where, suddenly, there was a sense that this World Cup final could be something very special. 

We all have a keen awareness of how influential and powerful India are in the cricketing world and their team had an amazing tournament. So it felt like a dream final, really, as it became obvious with a couple of days to go that that was what it was going to be. 

It was a remarkable end to the tournament and not only am I unbelievably proud of the team and the team behind the team, but my heart has been so warmed by the memories I’ll take away of the number of young girls – and boys – who’ve watched this tournament. I think lots of the headlines since Sunday have suggested it, that it could be a game-changing tournament for girls and boys and how they see cricket, and women’s cricket, and the role and ability of women in the sport. 

And I think this young generation now is growing up seeing international women’s cricket played in that way, the Lionesses in the Euros at the moment, the Women’s Rugby World Cup is on the horizon, and you’ve got the World Athletics Championships as well where I’m sure you’ll see some amazing performances from women. 

I just think it feels now that this is a really seminal time to make sure that we keep embedding those messages for young people because obviously they are the future. They’re our future leaders, our future parents, our future participants, our current and future fans. So to be able to have a showcase final like that here at Lord’s on Sunday, watched by so many children, was just lovely. 

The Women's World Cup final drew a sell-out crowd at cricket's most famous venue, Lord's

You talk about selling out Lord’s having been an ambition and obviously the structure of the tournament suggested a path to a showpiece final that was almost a reward in itself to the players involved. But how much did the coverage of the final meet or exceed expectations?

Well, you only dare to dream, don’t you? Firstly, you dream that it will be a sell-out, whoever’s involved in it. You then dream that it will be us involved on the day. And then the ultimate dream is that Heather Knight is lifting the trophy. And all of that came true. 

And what was amazing was how the crowd barely moved after that final wicket was taken. There was a break for about ten minutes or so as they set up for the post-match presentation, and then that went on for 20 or 25 minutes and then the players went out for their lap of the pitch. Thousands and thousands of people were just standing still, taking it all in, and that will stay with me for a long time. 

I think the coverage – huge front page headlines and images and articles – is what you hope to see if England win a World Cup. The fact that it’s happened to that extent is just brilliant. I’m sure, very quickly, that starts to fade, doesn’t it?

There have been some amazing stories that have emerged from the World Cup and we need to build on those. We need to build interest in the players from here because we have got that moment to do so. 

Thousands and thousands of people were just standing still, taking it all in, and that will stay with me for a long time. 

The viewing figures have become public [a peak of 1.1 million on Sky Sports in the UK and an estimated 100 million worldwide] and they’ve blown everybody away, putting us up with an average Premier League football match; the most watched game of cricket on Sky this entire year. They’re amazing figures – a peak audience of over a million, just incredible. And I think that, moving forward, along with the sell-out and everything else, helps us continue to grow the business case which is obviously very important for us in terms of future investment and the commercial appeal of our sport.  

You talk about the nature of some of the coverage throughout the tournament and what has been striking is the respect with which the competition has been treated by mainstream outlets and the national papers. How far do you think you and the ICC team were able to set the tone for that through your marketing campaigns?

It’s hard to prove a correlation but what you hope is that everything comes together in the right way. I was very proud of my colleagues here for the way they created the ‘Go Boldly’ marketing campaign, which presented the players as very human, full of this sense of possibility. There was no arrogance about it – it was about a young, adventurous, fun-loving, very close team who were working towards this amazing World Cup opportunity. 

I think the other thing that’s really important and must have led to that level of respect that you mention is a lot of really good cricket going into this World Cup. All teams have been playing a lot more cricket; I think it’s been a lot more on the media radar. I think the Kia Super League last year and the Women’s Big Bash have helped immensely in building more stories, building more of a bigger picture around international women’s cricket. Having the best players in the world playing in these domestic T20 leagues has probably bolstered interest as well.

Both the ECB and ICC unveiled bold marketing campaigns for the Women's World Cup

ICC should be given huge credit for their investment and commitment to making sure that every single one of those World Cup games could be seen live on TV or streamed – because that was a groundbreaking moment. That decision was only really made in April, at the last set of ICC meetings in Dubai, but actually, this could be huge. It was a very opportunistic, strong and brave decision from the ICC to do that because, prior to then, I think we would have only seen eight or ten games on TV or with any broadcast coverage in this country. 

I think it meant that lots more players became known and could be visible, and I think that visibility has been amazing in this tournament. 

How do you build on this tournament? Firstly, with your ECB hat on and the Kia Super League around the corner, how do you maintain that momentum and retain the interest of some of the younger fans who watched the tournament?

We’re in a good place. We started preparing for this moment probably 18 months ago, in many ways. The development of the new All-Stars programme which is for young boys and girls, five to eight-year-olds, to have their first experiences of cricket together. We’re expecting somewhere in the region of 50,000 children to have gone through that programme by the end of this summer. That’s so important in this ‘normalising’ effect: we want it to be just as normal for a little girl to pick up a cricket bat as for her brother, or her boy friends at school.

We also, at a similar time about a year or 18 months ago, starting planning for our new women’s soft-ball festivals which we launched this summer. We’ve had over 200 operating over May, June and July, and 7,000 women have played in those very casual, fun, informal festivals, and a third of those women have never engaged with the sport before. 

I think an area where we need to continue giving more attention is women’s club cricket. That’s probably been a tiny bit neglected in recent years because of the focus on the elite pathway and also the children’s element of growing the game. 

In terms of this England team and the talent system, I think we’re in a decent place. There’s always a bit more that can be done. The Kia Super League is obviously a massive part of that. We’re on the eve of that now, we’re all ready to go, we’ve got some of the world’s best players staying on to play in that. 

Historically and traditionally, men’s team sports – cricket, football, rugby – have operated in a certain way, communicating with a certain type.

Next year, the Kia Super League will be an expanded competition so instead of teams just playing each other home or away in the group stage, that will expand home and away. There’ll be twice as many games next year.

And I think another area of focus which is in our minds is on making sure that our talent system throughout the country, not just in the six Kia Super League territories or regions, is given some more support. 

So it’s not like we’re scrabbling around thinking, oh, God, we’ve won a World Cup, what do we do? I think there’s a sense that the last 18 months has seen some real preparatory work for this moment, and it’s now highly motivating and very exciting to think about converting that into an even brighter future. 

For 2020 onwards, the new TV deal be another staging post. It’ll be another big boost, having domestic women’s T20 on the BBC as well as the men’s domestic T20. That’ll enable us to talk about the women’s game in new places and on other more accessible platforms. It’s an exciting time. 

India's performances in the tournament won international acclaim and a heroes' welcome at home

How influential do you think India’s appearance in the final will be, given the status of the game there and the size of the country?

It has to be. A lot of the BCCI leaders and senior staff flew over to support the team. They got huge support from the Indian men’s team during the tournament. They got a very good bonus for making the final. So I think there’s a sense that their performance in this tournament is only going to be a good thing. 

I haven’t got the inside lens to know exactly what they’ll do with it but I think the signs are really positive and optimistic for women’s cricket in India. And I think the knock-on effect of them doing well will be that other sub-continent boards and members in Sri Lanka and Pakistan and Bangladesh will hopefully be inspired culturally. The bigger picture is very important in that part of the world, that this is very empowering for women and girls – to play sport and have that aspiration, or inspiration and role models to look up to. 

Hopefully – and I really hope so, because it’s very important for the game globally – this will be a massive coup and a boost for women’s cricket in that part of the world.

There’s been some discussion that the success of the women’s team has led the BCCI to take a broader view on an Olympic bid. What would being part of the Games mean for women’s cricket in particular?

It would be fantastic. It would help us globalise the women’s game further – at the moment, we’ve got a very strong top eight teams, and I think having cricket in the Olympics would provide an amazing platform for the reach and awareness of the women’s game. 

The women’s game has already been included in the Commonwealth Games programme for 2022, so it has taken a big step in that direction already. We know that scheduling will be quite problematic for cricket’s inclusion in the Olympics but I think there’s a lot of energy and a real sense that it would be great for our sport to be involved in multi-sport Games. 

What lessons can be taken from the last few weeks about how women’s sport can be pitched and how it can develop the audiences it needs to sustain itself in the long run?

It’s a hard question to answer without giving it considerable thought. I think, mostly, I’d go back to my earlier point about the success we’ve had during this tournament with young people and families. 

Historically and traditionally, men’s team sports – cricket, football, rugby – have operated in a certain way, communicating with a certain type. And that has achieved great things for all of those sports – that is in no way a criticism, because women’s cricket is now benefiting from all those years of history and financial stability that that way of operating has produced.

I think what is becoming starkly obvious to more people is that those sports need to diversify and reach new fans and new participants if they’re to continue to grow, and if they are to make the most of the opportunities that are in front of them. So whether it’s about a new audience, new fans, new participants, a more diverse workforce, then engaging with the whole population – and engaging with families, and mums, and kids – and finding ways to communicate differently and present our sports differently has to be an integral part of what we’re doing in cricket. And that will be embodied further by the new men’s T20 competition. 

I think it was Mike Atherton who wrote in The Times that the 27,000 people here at Lord’s on Sunday was a very different, more diverse crowd than Lord’s would normally attract. So that has to be a good thing. It has to be a good thing for the business of the game and for our future. That’s the kind of crowd that the new men’s T20 is looking to attract – a new, younger, more family-oriented fanbase.

Clare Connor will be speaking at SportsPro Live in London on 11th and 12th April. Click here to find out more about the event.