The Rebel Women’s Big Bash League’s move to a standalone competition from 2019-20 will likely feature matches fixtured at a single venue across ‘carnival-style’ weekends to maximise its accessibility to fans.
In order to provide the women’s T20 franchise tournament with ‘clear air’ that doesn’t conflict with men’s international games or the KFC Big Bash League, the WBBL will be programmed in a dedicated window during October-November from next year.
That will also ensure the WBBL finals games are promoted and played as separate entities rather than as curtain-raisers to the men’s deciders, which was a cause of some criticism last summer.
The scheduling of the ICC’s Women’s World T20 – itself being the first iteration of the biennial event to be staged independently of the men’s competition – in the Caribbean next November precluded the WBBL’s shift to the early-season timeslot this year.
But with the foreshadowed move away from the December-January holiday period when the WBBL historically ran alongside the men’s equivalent, organisers are looking to ensure fans are still able to attend matches outside of traditional working hours before summer vacations begin.
According to Cricket Australia’s Executive General Manager Events and Competitions, Anthony Everard, that challenge is expected to be met in part by the programming of multiple matches at a venue on Friday evenings, Saturdays and Sundays to generate a festival feel.
Everard also said the evolution of the WBBL in recent seasons reminded him of the initial phase of the BBL, of which he was in charge when the franchise-based format was launched in 2011-12.
And the decision to schedule the WBBL in its own niche window away from the log-jam of international and domestic matches over the Christmas-New Year period was based on the growth and profile of the women’s game, which mirrors the upsurge in popularity the BBL has enjoyed since its inception.
The WBBL’s drawing power was underscored on the opening weekend of WBBL|02 in 2016 when the tournament kicked off with eight matches across four days – a number of them at North Sydney Oval – and again last summer when almost 9,000 fans attended the venue for the season openers.
That support was also reflected in the popularity of last year’s Commonwealth Bank Women’s Ashes series played in October-November, prior to the men’s Ashes Test series getting underway.
“You learn things as you go, you try different things and I remember that in the first few years of WBBL we were delighted with the response,” Everard told cricket.com.au.
“But it was not until we started to schedule some opportunities in clean air – pioneered by WBBL opening weekend at North Sydney Oval - that we realised the upside and potential that was available.
“That was supported by women’s Ashes last year.
“In both of those cases, we found that when women’s cricket is given the appropriate marketing and promotional support, and scheduled in clean air, it performs really, really well from an attendance and a viewership perspective.
“When there’s cross-over between men’s and women’s cricket, life gets a bit harder in terms of the choices that we demand of our fans.
“So that’s the thinking behind the standalone WBBL next year, to give it the chance to shine in its own right and that will probably see a move to festival weekends in the scheduling.
“The competition won’t be played in school holidays, so making matches as accessible as possible for fans might mean bringing multiple teams into one location and possibly playing the games over Friday night, Saturday and Sunday which makes sense.
“Obviously the BBL games in the evening are more accessible for fans because they’re in holiday season and while it’s important to have some commonality and crossover between the women’s and men’s competitions, there are also some unique elements that are applicable.”
There will be greater commonality from the coming summer when the BBL follows the women’s lead and adopts a full home and away season, which means both competitions will extend for 59 matches.
But the women’s game will notch another first when it launches the 2018-19 summer with Australia playing New Zealand in a T20 International at North Sydney Oval on the evening of September 29.
That match will be the first televised by CA’s new broadcast partner Seven West Media, which will transition directly into cricket season from its coverage of that afternoon’s AFL grand final – an event that last year drew the nation’s highest television audience with more than 2.7 million viewers.
“Having the lead-in that one of the biggest sporting events in the country provides will be enormous, not only to shine a spotlight on the women’s game but to generate some really strong momentum heading into the summer,” Everard said.
“We’re still learning – we’re really only a couple of years into the genuine marketing and promotion of women’s elite cricket, and we’ve got a little way to go to refine what is the specific target audience and what are they looking for.
“But that’s also the exciting part, in terms of potential and what’s available to us.”
The decision to stage the WBBL as a standalone competition from 2019 not only secures the League a chance to ‘own’ a regular place on each summer’s cricket calendar, it will provide a precursor to the ICC Women’s World T20 tournament to be held in Australia in February-March 2020.
Some of the regional venues utilised in the Women’s World T20 will feature in the WBBL|04 schedule to be released in coming weeks, with the domestic T20 competitions also enabling CA to “road test” facilities and logistics ahead of the global women’s showpiece event.
And the men’s World T20 to follow in October-November of 2020.
“It’s true that 2020 sounds a long way off, but by the end of the coming summer we’ll be just 12 months out from the Women’s World T20 final at the MCG and tickets for that will be on sale by next February,” Everard said.
“We just have to think back to the 2015 ICC World Cup to appreciate how blessed we are to have two global events here in Australia in 2020, and there’s a lot of preparation that goes into staging those major tournaments.
“We can do as much research as we want, but until we see who turns up at venues for those women’s and men’s matches and find out what the individual needs and demands at each venue will be, we’re always flying a bit blind.
“So the opportunity to road test some of those venues and familiarise fans with them ahead of the ICC events will be really important, and adds a further element to scheduling over the next couple of summers.”
The full schedules for BBL|08 and WBBL|04 are due to be released this week.