A few years ago I wrote a piece on “double-header” matches – the phenomenon whereby a women’s match is played directly before a men’s match in an effort to increase crowd sizes for the women. The headline will give you an idea of my view: “Double headers are the future – but they stink”.
When I found out, therefore, that the inaugural edition of the England and Wales Cricket Board’s new competition, the Hundred, would be played almost entirely as double headers, my heart sank. I envisaged the women’s matches relegated to “warm-up” status; press boxes filled with retrograde journalists who only bothered to turn up to cover the men; female players being hurried along by the umpires to make way for the day’s “main event”; crowds who arrived to watch the men. In the 10 years I have been covering women’s cricket, these have all been regular occurrences at double headers in England and around the world.
But here is the revolutionary thing about the Hundred: it is transforming the double header into a format which is wafting a much-needed, delicious aroma of equality across English sport.
The biggest difference between the Hundred and previous double headers is in the numbers coming through the gate to watch the women’s matches. At the time of writing, after 22 completed matches, the cumulative crowd figure for the women’s competition is 170,000 – an average of 7,500 a game. The match between London Spirit and Southern Brave at Lord’s on Sunday 1 August broke the record for the highest attendance at a women’s domestic match in England, attracting 15,189 spectators. Ticket sales for the remainder of the competition are said to be flying.
These crowds are bigger than anything we have seen before in women’s cricket outside World Cup finals. The 2019 Kia Super League attracted 27,000 (an average of 870 people across the 31 match days), while at the 2019 Women’s Ashes in England, the most high-profile bilateral series in the women’s game, the average crowd was only 2,400.
Cricket is even beginning to look like seriously challenging football as the best-attended women’s sport in England, something which no one would have thought possible a month ago. The average attendance across the 2019-20 Women’s Super League (the last to commence pre-Covid) was 3,401.
There’s no doubt that the popularity of the Hundred (women’s competition) has taken everybody by surprise. That includes the ECB, whose attendance objectives for the women’s competition have already been smashed. “If we’re honest, we didn’t quite know how the double headers were going to go,” said Beth Barrett-Wild, head of the Hundred women’s competition. “But when I walk into the stadium now, I’m expecting 7,500 people to come and watch – it’s mad!”
Why, then, are double headers working in this context? Barrett-Wild says it comes down to “the core proposition of the Hundred – men’s and women’s sport on the same platform”, adding: “The marketing has really signposted the fact that this is one match day – two matches, one club. We’re not trying to sell two separate competitions – it is one competition played by men and women, and I think that really helps.”
It is noticeable that largely speaking, journalists seem to be paying equal attention to the women’s and the men’s matches. A small caveat is that hiring the same TV commentary teams for both games is not working. It is embarrassing how little most male former professionals appear to know about women’s cricket, and infuriating that they assume viewers won’t know or care they are getting basic facts and names wrong.
Also crucial is the fact that the matches have been scheduled with less than an hour between the women’s and men’s games. Previously, I’d been huffily informed that it was unreasonable to expect male cricketers to adjust their two-and-a-half-hour pre-match routine (requiring full use of the main ground) for lowly females. That this ridiculous attitude has been dispensed with is testament to a shifting power dynamic in cricket, which seems to have finally woken up to the fact that alienating 50% of the population is not a sustainable strategy.
There is also the fact that the women’s teams are proving what some of us knew – they are just as entertaining as the men. Be it 16-year-old Alice Capsey hitting a half-century in her first match at Lord’s, or Jemimah Rodrigues scoring 92 not out from 43 balls (the highest score in the men’s or women’s competitions to date), it does make a mockery of the huge competition pay disparity. (The highest-paid women earn £15,000; the lowest-paid men £24,000.) Even Barrett-Wild acknowledges this. “The contribution that the women have made to the success of the Hundred is almost unquantifiable – for the Hundred to work it needs to have a strong men’s and women’s competition. We need to reward the women appropriately.”
The million-dollar question is whether the success of the Hundred can be translated into bigger audiences for other women’s cricket. Barrett-Wild is hopeful of a “halo effect”, whereby interest in female players increases across the board. The long-term future of the game depends on investment in the new regional domestic structure which sits alongside the Hundred, and in the struggling club network underneath. One successful competition does not make a summer, as the saying doesn’t quite go – but it is a decent start.
The irony is that double headers in the Hundred were conceived as a Covid necessity and not engrained into the ECB’s original vision for the tournament. And yet as the ECB plans next year’s competition, and as other women’s sports look to the Hundred as a possible model to emulate, it would be fair to say this: given the right marketing and match-day arrangements, double headers don’t have to stink after all.