BCCI-bashing might be the Indian fan’s favourite pastime. Likewise for the Indian media. It helps that the board seems to provide plenty of fodder — from leaked emails detailing spats between office-bearers, to creatively designed loopholes in the Lodha reforms. So, when it became clear that the India women’s ODIs against South Africa were not being broadcast, fans and the media alike went on a rant. Understandably so. It was India’s first bit of cricket since the 2017 World Cup, when they captivated the nation by reaching the finals, only to go down agonisingly close against England at Lord’s. En route, they created a massive fan base: Mithali Raj’s Twitter account had around 2,000 followers before the World Cup; it now stands close to five lakh. All those fans were cricket starved.
When India landed in South Africa, reminders were set and television schedules browsed. But when the first ball was bowled, nothing. No broadcast, no live stream either. What grated even more was that the Indian men’s team was in South Africa at the same time, being covered by about 30 cameras, their performance dissected in studios across continents.
The BCCI bashing followed. But, as is often the case, the outrage, certainly justified, was misdirected. It should have been directed at Cricket South Africa (CSA). With matches being played on their soil, they held the rights to broadcast the games. And in the history of CSA, a standalone women’s game has never been broadcast.
The women’s tour to South Africa comprises three ODIs and five T20Is. Of these, only the last three T20Is were slated to be televised. This was because those were double headers, meaning that the women’s team would play a T20I before the men, on the same ground, a curtain-raiser of sorts. The model works beautifully for broadcasters, who need to incur only a little extra cost to televise a women’s game. But this meant that there was no coverage planned for the preceding women’s ODI series. So Smriti Mandhana’s sparkling 135 in the 2nd ODI, and Jhulan Goswami’s record-breaking 200th wicket were seen by practically no one.
The move shows where women’s cricket stands globally, despite the high of a record-breaking 2017 World Cup. Cricket South Africa have one of the best women’s cricket programmes in the world. Full-time contracts, a dedicated sponsor, and a grassroots presence. They reached the semifinals in England, and came within striking distance of a place at Lord’s. But that clearly wasn’t enough to change broadcast realities. Even when India toured there last year, Deepti Sharma’s record score of 188 and Goswami’s 181st wicket went without broadcast.
Real world calculations eventually call the shots. A skeletal livestream with four cameras can cost up to 10,000 USD. That’s close to 1,20,000 Rand. With CSA incurring estimated losses of 180 million Rand after the failure of the Global T20 League, the reality is that a broadcast of the women’s games wasn’t a priority. It was an opportunity missed. The inability of boards and broadcasters to recognise the value of a series against the World Cup finalists is a reflection of decades of women’s sport being seen as an unnecessary, even bad, investment.
Only in pockets is progress visible. Cricket Australia and the England and Wales Cricket Board have been proactive with their women’s cricket programmes, using money made from men’s cricket to build strong women’s teams, which then attract sponsors. In 2016, one Cricket Australia’s sponsor pledged more than 5 million AUD per year for three years to support diversity in cricket, including the women’s game. England, too, have a dedicated sponsor for their women’s team. The BCCI has no shortage of funds. But outside of these countries, all other boards are constrained by budgets, no matter how strong the will is.
A strong Indian women’s team could change this, globally. Out of nowhere, the third ODI was live-streamed on the CSA YouTube channel, produced by their home broadcaster. The first two T20Is will also be streamed, before the last three are televised. It is a positive response from CSA, indicative of a far-reaching phenomenon. The Indian women’s team forced a financially stretched board and a historically disinterested broadcaster to manufacture budget and arrange a broadcast. That’s a big deal. It points to the financial potential India women’s cricket represent.
Like the Indian men’s team, the women’s team could become the kind of property that boards look forward to hosting. The outrage on social media, however, misdirected, shows there is an audience who wants to watch women play, even when the men are playing shortly after. The last-minute livestream has more than 2,57,000 views on YouTube so far. Imagine what a well-publicised one can get. And everyone likes to back a winning horse, so it helped that India had secured their first ODI series win in South Africa by the time the broadcast came along.
The interest prompted CSA to produce their first-ever standalone women’s cricket broadcast. If the women keep up the strong performances, tours that India makes abroad could be looked at as legitimate revenue generating opportunity by boards and broadcasters, not just another chance to squeeze in some freebie double-headers.
According to an International Cricket Council (ICC) survey, the World Cup 2017 final that India lost had 126 million viewers in the country. Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) put TV numbers at 19.53 million impressions. Mithali Raj, Smriti Mandhana and Harmanpreet Kaur can get eyeballs. These players now sport the same brands on their bats that male cricketers do. Harmanpreet and Raj have appeared in TV commercials, and Mandhana has just been signed on to endorse a major footwear brand. The awareness and interest about Indian women’s cricket, independent of the men, has never been higher. Around the world, its value as a separate entity is being recognised. For the first time, the Women’s WT20 2018 will be a standalone event, not held together with and thus in the shadow of the men’s tournament.
Gender equality cannot happen overnight. We have to factor in gender economics. The BCCI and other boards must observe the success of Australia. They were among the first to recognise that players are the product, and invest in them. Australia won four of six World titles across formats since their team was handed contracts. CA then invested in the system, which raised the standard of domestic cricket enough for the Women’s Big Bash League to be a successful standalone television product. The competition reached a new high this year. In its third edition, both men’s and women’s winners received equal prize money.
The one place where BCCI bashers can direct their criticism is the lack of grassroots programmes since the World Cup, and a failure to capitalise on the momentum. A broadcast won’t help unless there are places for inspired females to play cricket. The national team is well looked after now, but domestic cricket must be strengthened. The high peak comes from a wide base, and only when domestic cricket rises can we talk about a women’s IPL. Signs at home are improving; the BCCI broadcast the Women’s Challenger trophy (it was on Star’s free to air channel, not on their regular network). The real test will come later this year. The women’s cricket teams of Australia and England tour India for three series in the next two months. A T20I tri-series bookended by bilateral ODIs. Surely the first two will be given prime broadcast billing. The third of those, India facing England a replay of the World Cup final, will clash with the IPL. That’s when we will see where the BCCI’s money goes.
(#GenderAnd is dedicated to the coverage of Gender across intersections. You can read our reportage here.)