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Ed Dixon | The Hundred’s future is uncertain but the ECB would be foolish to write off the women’s tournament

Amid reports the ECB’s 100-ball franchise competition could be ditched, SportsPro’s senior staff writer makes the case for keeping the women’s Hundred alive and outlines why it can deliver the objectives first set out by English cricket’s governing body.

1 August 2023 Ed Dixon

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The Hundred has been called many things, from fresh and exciting to divisive and unnecessary. The expression ‘square peg in a round hole’ also springs to mind.

The England and Wales Cricket Board’s (ECB) 100-ball, city-based franchise competition eventually arrived in 2021 with a clear mission statement: bring more people into the game, showcase top-quality cricket, get more kids playing, and secure vital revenue. If that meant ruffling a few feathers and turning ‘overs’ into ‘sets’ then so be it.

Two seasons later, and with the third arriving on 1st August, the early results are in. The overarching conclusion? Some parts good, some parts bad.

Thanks to a blend of free-to-air (FTA) and pay-TV coverage, the inaugural edition was watched by 16.1 million across the BBC and Sky Sports, which The Hundred’s departing managing director Sanjay Patel previously pointed out was “more eyeballs than the men’s World Cup in 2019”. In terms of attendances, 510,000 tickets were sold.

The 2022 season saw more than 500,000 people attend games, with 22 per cent of tickets going to children and 28 per cent of buyers being women – up from 19 per cent and 21 per cent in 2021 respectively. Families also made up 41 per cent of ticket buyers. On the television front, 42 per cent of viewers hadn’t watched any other ECB cricket in 2022 prior to The Hundred, though audience figures dipped to 14.1 million.

There was enough there for the ECB to talk up but scepticism endured. Purists still deemed the format sacrilege and counties continued to quarrel. There were also doubts about the competition coexisting with the T20 Blast in an increasingly bloated cricket calendar.

The true impact of The Hundred is yet to be determined but the cost of it is becoming clearer. A report into the financial health of English cricket, compiled by Worcestershire County Cricket Club chairman Fanos Hira, concluded the tournament had racked up a loss of UK£9 million (US$11.6 million) in its first two years – dismissing the ECB’s claim of a UK£11.8 million (US$15.2 million) profit.

In The Hundred’s defence, it is effectively a sporting startup. It must speculate to accumulate. But the naysayers have been difficult to shift and any goodwill from cricket’s traditionalists has been in short supply.

Keen to quash suggestions that The Hundred risked becoming nothing more than a costly mistake, the ECB declared last year that the competition would remain until at least 2028. That’s that then. Full steam ahead, the haters still there but increasingly irrelevant as more fresh faces reach for bat and ball. Not quite.

For village cricketers, spring is a chance to dust off the kitbag and foolishly ponder endless possibilities before striding out into the middle. In The Hundred’s case, however, the domestic season only brought unwanted speculation.

It was reported in late April the tournament’s format could be scrapped in favour of a Twenty20 competition amid concerns that the 100-ball concept hadn’t been adopted elsewhere. That followed private equity firm Bridgepoint Group purportedly tabling a UK£400 million (US$514 million) offer for 75 per cent of The Hundred. ECB chair Richard Thompson declared it would cost “a few billion” before the governing body would even entertain the idea.

Then, in July, The Times reported that The Hundred could be set for the chopping block, with the T20 Blast also dispended with, to make way for a single short-form tournament. The mooted proposal is for an 18-county T20 league that would see the ECB share ownership alongside counties and private investors. By having a model split into thirds, the theory is it would pave the way for more financial backing and commercial opportunities, resulting in increased salaries to lure the game’s top talent.

Any changes are unlikely to arrive before 2025, or even 2028. But when it comes to the women’s game, the ECB has to think very clearly about what it does next.

The Hundred’s arrival coincided with a surging interest in women’s sport – a wave the competition has been ready to ride. In 2021, the ECB said attendance for the women’s Hundred hit 267,000, the highest ever for a female cricket event globally at the time. For 2022, 271,000 people attended the women’s Hundred, another global record, and 31 per cent of the audience for the whole competition (male and female) were women.

What’s more is that equality has been a core selling point for The Hundred since its inception. Each team shares the same kits and same branding, while double-headers have meant that men’s and women’s games have taken place back-to-back on the same stage at the same venues, which has played a part in introducing a wider audience to women’s cricket.

It seems naïve to rip all that up and start again. Men’s and women’s sport is both the same and different – a thought particularly evident in The Hundred’s case. While the male version battles through swathes of animosity, the lack of traditionalist baggage has allowed the female equivalent to flourish.

Of course, if the ECB does have the confidence to let the women’s Hundred go it alone then it will have to make sure it is commercially viable. The appetite for women’s sport points to this being more than attainable.

The Hundred was never designed for Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) members who baulk at anything they deem a threat to the game’s heritage. It was the ECB’s strategy for getting new eyes on the game. English cricket has had to play catchup since neglecting the commercial impact of T20. The men’s competition may fail to make up for lost time in that regard but The Hundred can continue to be the centerpiece for the women’s game domestically.

At the very least, and with all the progress being made, it still deserves a chance.

Ed Dixon covers the international sports business for SportsPro and is a contributor to the SportsPro Podcast. Follow him on Twitter here.

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