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“It’s life-changing”: How India’s WPL is setting a new commercial benchmark for women’s sport

Armed with a lucrative media rights deal and franchises worth more than US$100 million, the Women’s Premier League is one of the biggest sports business stories of the year. With the action getting underway this weekend, SportsPro speaks to individuals within the game about a tournament already transforming women’s cricket globally.

2 Mar 2023 Sam Carp

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There was significant commotion coming from the Indian team room on 13th February, just days into the ICC Women’s Twenty20 World Cup in South Africa. It was the kind of buzz typically associated with post-match celebrations at a major cricket tournament, only on this occasion the players were reacting to events unfolding at a venue nearly 8,000 kilometres away.

It was there, at the Jio Convention Centre in Mumbai, that the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) was holding the player auction for the inaugural Women’s Premier League (WPL), a new franchise T20 cricket tournament that promises to set a new standard for women’s sport commercially and create a raft of opportunities for female cricketers around the world.

Terms such as ‘ground-breaking’, ‘transformative’ and ‘unprecedented’ have become intertwined with the narrative around the recent growth of women’s sport, but the WPL is well placed to be all of those things and more. Confirmed by the BCCI in October of last year, the competition has attracted a level of investment that far outstrips anything previously seen for a new, standalone women’s sports property.

In January, Viacom18, the media venture backed by billionaire Mukesh Ambani, committed I₹951 crore (US$117 million) to secure the broadcast rights to the first five editions of the WPL. Describing the deal as ‘a new dawn’ and ‘massive for women’s cricket’, BCCI honorary secretary Jay Shah revealed that the agreement equates to I₹7.09 crore (US$870,400) per match, making it the world’s second most lucrative broadcast contract for a female sports league, behind only the 26-year-old Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA).

Days later, the BCCI revealed that the five franchises taking part in the first edition of the tournament had sold for a whopping I₹4669.99 crore (US$572 million), working out to more than the average price paid for the first eight men’s Indian Premier League (IPL) sides in 2008. Among the successful bidders were the owners of the IPL teams in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, alongside investment groups from Lucknow and Ahmedabad, the latter of which tabled the highest offer of I₹1,289 crore (US$158 million).

Put simply, the arrival of the WPL is one of the biggest sports business stories of 2023.

“It’s been on the edge for a little while and I think everyone has known that this would be a tipping point,” says Isa Guha, a former England cricketer who now commentates for the likes of Fox in Australia and the BBC in the UK. “India recognising the true value of women’s sport and getting behind their Indian women’s team, but also setting up a competition like this, was very much the next step for women’s cricket on the global stage.

“It didn’t come as a huge surprise to see the amount of energy that was put into it, but I think it was almost a blank canvas as to how much it would go for in the end. We’ve had a baseline understanding of how the women’s game is moving forwards in terms of professionalism and the way that commercial revenue is coming to the sport. But this obviously blew it out of the water.

“For it to become the second most valued women’s tournament in the world behind the WNBA signifies a huge moment for the sport.”

While the dawn of the WPL is something to be celebrated, it is a curious thing that it has taken 15 years for a female equivalent of the IPL, now the world’s second most valuable sports league in terms of media rights, to be forthcoming.

Even before Covid, a record 86,174 crowd for the 2020 T20 World Cup final at the Melbourne Cricket Ground showcased the appetite for women’s cricket, while franchise competitions have already been established in other cricketing strongholds like Australia, the UK and the Caribbean. Watered-down versions of a female IPL, often held over less than a week and featuring three teams, have been staged since 2018, but nothing nearly as substantial as the 23-day tournament starting on 4th March.

Guha, who was once the world’s top-ranked one-day international bowler, was calling for a women’s IPL as long ago as 2010.

“I always look at these things as a journey,” she says now. “I mentioned [a women’s IPL] in 2010 because I absolutely believed it was in the right place to be able to go to that point. But perhaps it wouldn’t have been driven as much as it has now because of all the other tournaments that have come up around the world. India has been watching and waiting. And all it took was a few members of the BCCI to understand its true potential for it to be unlocked.

“Yes, it probably could have happened sooner. But I think it’s all been building towards this point and it’s just great that it’s happening now.”

Isa Guha, who fronts the BBC’s cricket coverage, called for a women’s IPL during her playing career

“You don’t want it to become a Wild West”

Irrespective of what has gone before, the important thing is that the WPL is here. The inaugural edition will comprise 20 league matches and two playoff games all played at two venues in Mumbai, with the final taking place on 26th March at the 50,000-seater Brabourne Stadium.

Whoever comes out on top, the biggest winners will be the athletes, who are being paid sums of money that will change their lives overnight. There were stories of players crowding around their phones at the T20 World Cup as the five WPL franchises spent I₹59.5 crore (US$7 million) on 87 cricketers during the auction, with Royal Challengers Bangalore making the highest bid of I₹3.4 crore (US$415,000) to secure the services of India vice captain and opener Smriti Mandhana. Australia’s Ashleigh Gardner and England’s Nat Sciver-Brunt both went for I₹3.2 crore (US$390,000), immediately making the latter one of the highest-earning female athletes in the UK.

“It’s a transformational and stratospheric moment for women’s cricket, women’s sport, but it is life-changing for individuals – not just now, but for future women playing cricket,” Beth Barrett-Wild, head of The Hundred women’s franchise competition and female engagement for the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), tells SportsPro. “It’s going to be one of the leading sports in the world in terms of pay. It’s proper cash, and that’s the bit that really excites me.

“We’re in a race for talent now. There are so many options as a young girl. Historically, do you play hockey and go to the Olympics? Do you play football or rugby and go and play in a World Cup? But you’re not going to be paid for any of it. Whereas now, if you’re a talented ten or 11-year-old, [you’re asking yourself] which one am I going to have the biggest earning potential out of? So it’s the same, hopefully, as the options that are available to boys.”

Salaries are one thing, but WPL cricketers will quickly become household names in a country whose population of more than a billion people breathes cricket. While that will generate additional earning opportunities from potential endorsements, it will also come with a level of attention that the players might not have experienced until now.

“While this is all very exciting and something we’ve been pushing for, you don’t want it to become a Wild West,” Guha notes. “It needs to be managed all together. Going from not being paid anything to suddenly large sums of money with a huge disparity in pay between individuals requires psychological support.

“Suddenly you’re having to deal with lots of different pressures, including the profile. Going from being someone who no one really knows about to suddenly thrust into the spotlight, in the media, on social media, around the world. That itself comes with different pressures and it’s about being able to have support structures in place to assist with the change.”

It isn’t just the players who are having to adjust quickly. Given the turnaround between the franchise bidding process – there were 16 interested parties in total – and the start of the season, the five participating clubs have essentially had a little over a month to assemble playing and coaching staff, as well as put together a commercial proposition for brands.

Yes, it probably could have happened sooner. But I think it’s all been building towards this point and it’s just great that it’s happening now.

Isa Guha, Broadcaster and former England international cricketer

Still, a spokesperson for the Mumbai Indians, who also have teams in the IPL, South Africa’s SA20 and the ILT20 in the UAE, told SportsPro that it felt “essential” for the club to be part of the inaugural WPL season “because of our commitment to supporting the rise of women athletes”.

The franchise also expects the addition of a women’s team to have “a positive impact on the business commercially”. Consumer goods firm Usha and fantasy sports company Dream11 have already expanded their deals with the Mumbai Indians to include the club’s WPL side, while Lotus Herbals, Ashok Leyland, Sonata Software, Max Life Insurance and Nutrizoe are new partners for the women’s team specifically.

“The family of MI teams gives us the opportunity to look at a wider pool of partners that we can engage with and offer them a platform that they can leverage to reach out to the fans,” the spokesperson said.

“There is a lot of interest from brands to partner with the WPL teams, but we will only partner with them if they are commercially viable. We believe that the addition of a women’s team will create more opportunities for our brand partners to engage with a wider audience and expand their reach.”

“It’s going to grow the market globally”

The IPL has influenced everything in men’s cricket, from the way it is played, to the amount of money that is invested in the sport and how the international calendar is structured.

It has also given star players the opportunity to choose where and how often they compete. A handful of individuals have even opted to give up the longer format of the game to become ‘white-ball specialists’ because of the financial security playing in shorter-form franchise competitions can provide. That has raised questions over whether the balance of power is now shifting away from international cricket and towards the domestic game.

On the women’s side, there have already been warning signs that it risks slipping down the same path. South African opening batter Lizelle Lee and West Indies all-rounder Deandra Dottin have already stepped away from the international scene while in their prime, illustrating the need to avoid the same mistakes that have been made in the men’s game, where there are growing concerns over player welfare as the global calendar becomes increasingly cluttered.

The advent of the WPL could also apply greater pressure to national boards that have not made remunerating their female talent a priority. Barrett-Wild admits that losing international players to the domestic game will be “a very real concern” for some governing bodies but she does not necessarily believe the financial muscle of the Indian tournament is bad news for other franchise competitions around the world.

“I’m not worried,” she states. “On the contrary, I’m excited. I’m excited about how [the WPL is] going to grow the market globally, which I think will create a tension around women’s cricket in a way that we’ve not seen before. It’s about collaboration as opposed to competition between us all at this stage.

“There is an element of competition, of course there is. But I think that’s the bit for me personally that drives me forward. How can we be better? What do we need to do to ride in the slipstream and benefit from this massive halo effect that it’s going to generate?

“For so long, we’ve talked about women’s sport and how it needs more investment, so it would be completely counterintuitive for me to sit here and say all of this money coming in is a bit of a worry.”

In addition to the money that has been spent acquiring WPL franchises and media rights, revenue will also come from ticket sales and title sponsor Tata Group, as well as Dream11, Ceat Tyres and Amul, which have come onboard as partners for three seasons. What will be important is ensuring that investment in the tournament flows through every level of the game, helping to grow a talent pool that will support other female franchise competitions such as The Hundred, the Big Bash League (BBL), the Caribbean Premier League (CPL) and the soon-to-launch Pakistan Women’s T20 League.

Investing in the grassroots game will also be imperative to ensure that the young girls who will now see professional cricket as a viable career path have somewhere to go and hone their skills.

“In India, I really hope this does drive the domestic structure, because that still requires a lot of support,” says Guha. “It shouldn’t just be at the highest level, it’s important to build a talent base and a pathway, especially while you have the ability to capture the attention of a young girl through the increased visibility of these professional players. While they are being inspired, the last thing you want for them to think is: ‘This is great, but there’s nowhere for me to play.’

“Accessibility is key, and that needs to be invested in as soon as possible in my view.”

“This will normalise women’s sport to the masses”

If nothing else, there is something about the WPL that feels safe.

The BCCI has succeeded here before and the level of investment implies faith among media companies, sponsors, and owners, which in turn will give administrators the confidence to continue developing the competition.

Those investors will also have been buoyed by what they saw just before Christmas, when more than 45,000 spectators packed into Mumbai’s DY Patil Stadium to watch the Indian women’s team’s thrilling Super Over victory against world champions Australia in the second game of their T20 series. Should the WPL attract similar crowds on a more regular basis, then the BCCI will be keen to expand the tournament beyond the current five teams and towards something more closely mirroring the ten-franchise men’s competition.

That will not be a bad position to be in for a tournament that is already transforming the economics of women’s cricket and the way women’s sport more broadly is perceived. For now, though, all that’s left to do is play.

“I think [the Women’s Premier League] will be a focal point, purely because of the huge sums that have been bandied around,” Guha says. “Let’s be honest, the BCCI is the powerhouse of cricket and so it’s forcing people that have had traditional mindsets around women’s sport to take it seriously.

“While there are still traditional mindsets and perceptions that women can’t play, those views are slowly being drowned out. I think what the WPL can do is have an overriding shift on those mindsets and normalise women’s sport to the masses globally, not just in India.

“And just from a pure visibility point of view, I know what a proud nation India is with regards to everything that they do, but primarily their sport and their cricket. They’ll absolutely want this to be the best tournament in the world.

“So that’s what makes it so exciting, is to see what levels they’ll go to to make it that, and the whole game will be better for it.”

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