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Women's Premier League: An idea whose time has come

From sponsors to team owners, this is why everyone is expecting the WPL to be a success story

Mumbai Indians owner Nita Ambani with franchise head coach Charlotte Edwards and mentor and bowling coach and mentor Jhulan Goswami.
Mumbai Indians owner Nita Ambani with franchise head coach Charlotte Edwards and mentor and bowling coach and mentor Jhulan Goswami. (PTI)

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India’s exit at the semi-final stage of the Women’s T20 World Cup last week has been the only blip in what has been an upward trend for women’s cricket in the country. The inaugural season of the Women’s Premier League (WPL), which starts on 4 March and will be played in Mumbai and Navi Mumbai, should erase that World Cup memory quickly enough, and give the women’s game an adrenalin shot. It has been some time coming.

The WPL, to be sponsored by the Tata Group for five years, has netted the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) 951 crore in media rights with the five franchises sold for 4,669.99 crore. Smriti Mandhana, was the most sought after, and therefore, expensive player, at 3.4 crore in the auctions held recently.

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The numbers are only a testament to what has been building up quickly since the 2017 ODI ICC Women’s World Cup in which India reached the final, losing to England by a narrow nine runs. The Indian team then reached the final of the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup in 2020 in Melbourne, losing this time to the Australian women by 85 runs. Last December, when India hosted Australia for a T20I series, almost 50,000 people showed up at the DY Patil Stadium in Navi Mumbai for the second match—double the approximate 25,000 for the first match at the same venue.

The numbers play out favourably across the board. The ICC Women’s T20 World Cup 2020 in Australia got 1.1 billion video views on ICC’s digital channels. The BCCI’s Women’s T20 Challenge logged 5.34 billion minutes in viewership in India in 2020; with 105 million unique viewers for the three-team competition. Finally, last October, BCCI announced equal pay for men and women—the same match fees for Tests, one-day internationals and T20Is.

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“The IPL (Indian Premier League) revolutionised men’s cricket in a number of ways since its inception and we believe the WPL is going to have a similar impact on women’s cricket,” says Rajesh V. Menon, head and director on the board of Royal Challengers Sports Pvt Ltd, which has a team in the WPL to complement its men’s team. Menon says over email that numbers from the ICC suggest that the Women’s World Cup 2022 was the third most digitally engaged World Cup after the men’s World Cup in 2019 and the T20 World Cup in 2021.

“The statistics are a testament to the remarkable rise in traction that women’s cricket is gaining over the last few years. The WPL is going to be a game-changer for women’s cricket not just in India but also on a global level,” Menon adds.

A growing interest in women’s cricket started accelerating once the BCCI took over the running of the women’s game in 2006. This was a year after India made the final of the Women’s World Cup in South Africa, where they lost to Australia. India then won a two-match Test series 1-0 in England in 2007. Each of these moments ultimately built towards the catalyst of the 2017 Women’s World Cup.

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“Women’s cricket has changed since the BCCI has taken over,” says Nooshin Al Khadeer, who was part of the Indian team in 2005 and 2007 and is now the bowling coach for the Gujarat Giants team in the WPL. “Growth has been not just at the senior level, but at the under-15 level as well.”

The WPL, which has five teams, will kick off with a match between Gujarat Giants and Mumbai Indians at DY Patil in Navi Mumbai. Brabourne Stadium in Mumbai will be the other venue for the league. Eighty-seven players—57 from India—were bought for about 60 crore in the auctions. Mandhana led the most fervent bidding war, between Mumbai and Royal Challengers, which was won by the latter.

“People have started appreciating women’s sport in general,” says  Ramakrishnan R., co-founder and director at Baseline Ventures, a sports, entertainment and brand licensing company that represents some of India’s top women athletes, including cricketers. “We believe people watch mostly men (athletes) because we (men) had a head start. Our brain is tuned to watch that. Who said women’s sport is not marketable? Today, US has equal pay, tennis has equality as does badminton. The Australian Open women’s final garnered more TV viewers than the men.”

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The first woman cricketer Baseline signed was Mandhana in 2017, a decision that coincided neatly with the team’s World Cup performance. Women’s sport was under-commercialised while the men’s space was crowded, and Baseline wanted to “differentiate”. They wanted to sign up sportspeople before they became superstars. Mandhana is a left-hander who had the “X-factor and looked good on TV,” and India reaching the final helped.

Many former cricketers believe the impact of the WPL would be similar to that of the IPL, in that it would raise the standards of the game, with the best in international and domestic playing together. “This has been our step in the journey to a more equitable world, and we believe the inflection point has arrived for women in sports,” says Manasi Narsamihan, Mastercard’s head of marketing and communications, South Asia. The company sponsors all international matches in India besides domestic cricket.

There were some disappointments at the WPL auctions, with some players not getting picked, but if the WPL is a success, it could see the addition of a few more teams in future editions. “We don’t have to change anything,” says Mithali Raj, the former India captain who is the mentor for Gujarat Giants. “With pay parity and the WPL on the cards, this year is quite big for women’s cricket.”

Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.

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