The ECB have today announced that a new Women's Cricket Super League will start in 2016. Amidst a blaze of camera crews and familiar cricket faces from Sky, TMS and the like, Clare Conner, the Head of Women's Cricket in England, sat patiently outlining what she described as the "most significant development in women's cricket for a very long time". Her enthusiasm for the project was obvious and the amount of media attention almost unprecedented in the women's game. It was exciting to be part of it, and one can only hope that the product that is produced at the end of the day is just as exciting.
The headlines are that there will be six Women's Cricket Super League teams, with the ECB investing £3M in the project over the next four years. In 2016 the six teams will compete only for a T20 prize, which will include some money, both for the players and the organisation that is running the team - quaintly referred to as "the host". In 2017 this will be extended to a new WCSL 50 over competition as well. Quite who those "hosts" will be is not clear yet, as the ECB are asking for "Expressions of Interest" from organisations that want to be involved in the project - these could be existing counties, universities, sporting organisations such as the MCC or indeed organisations involved in any sport. The ECB is basically open to offers. Hosts will need to prove a business case to the ECB to be awarded one of the six team franchises (although pointedly this was not a word that was used during the Press Conference) and they will be tied in for four years. How do you make your case? Well you will need to tick the ECB's checklist of criteria which relate to expertise, standards, coaching model, engagement with the community, growth forecasts and general business development. Franchises will hopefully be awarded by the end of 2015.
If you are lucky enough to be awarded a hosting position, then in Year One the ECB will give you half of what they estimate it will cost to run your team for the year. The other half will apparently be value in kind, by way of facilities, expertise, existing coaching staff etc. The reality is that the host will probably have to stump up some of their own cash, or cash that they have derived from commercial sponsors. Quite what the cost of running a team is deemed to be seemed to be a moot point, but it sounded as though the ECB would contribute substantially less than £100,000 in the first year to each team, but that this would grow in subsequent years.
Unlike the Aussie state system none of this money is earmarked for salaries. The ECB would like the players (outside of the 18 contracted players) to be paid, but they are not insisting that this is a part of the host's model. It will be a matter for the host's themselves. As for ECB contracted players they cannot apparently be paid additional sums, although how long this would be sustainable seems doubtful. Are they really going to play more competitive cricket for no more money? How will hosts attract the best contracted players to come and play for them, rather than the team down the road? And what of those just outside the 18? If you can offer them even a small amount of cash to play, then surely your team is going to be more appealing? Failing to dictate, and initially pay for, player salaries may save the ECB cash, but it is a black hole of future problems. Match fees, player expenses and "overseas players contributions" are apparently catered for in the funds allocated to hosts by the ECB.
Those problems, and possibly many others, will land on the desk of the shortly to-be-appointed ECB Women's Cricket Super League General Manager. He or she will be busy over the next few months.
The first competition will be the WCSL T20 probably for 16 to 18 days in August 2016. The year after the 50 over competition will start, possibly with just five games per team, but more likely ten. It will be a question of scheduling as England are also hosting the Women's 50 over World Cup, plus there will still be the WCSL T20 competition and county cricket fixtures. Asked if players would be expected to play in both WCSL fixtures and county fixtures, Connor suggested that all but the top 25 players in the country would probably end up playing in both.
So far from seeing the WCSL as the demise of county cricket, Connor confirmed that the ECB would continue to invest as much, if not more in the county game, and also would be looking to reinvest in club cricket, described by Connor as "a bit of an abandoned child at the moment". There is a realisation that these form the base of the pyramid that leads to elite players at the very top. But interestingly county cricket will not involve Scotland, Ireland or the Netherlands after 2017. Players from these teams would be regarded as overseas players for WCSL purposes, and WCSL teams will be limited to just two overseas players.
So will you be watching the WCSL on your television next year? Naturally the ECB would love this to be the case, but they are currently tied in to a deal with Sky until 2019. Does the WCSL fall under this agreement? That may be for the lawyers to decide. Free-to-air coverage would be ideal, and would make hosting a team even more appealing. If the games are going to be on tv then hosts would find it infinitely easier to encourage team sponsors onboard. At the moment television coverage looks doubtful, but if the Women's Big Bash in Australia proves to be a ratings success on Aussie television then this might speed matters along.
Is this good news for English cricket? Undoubtedly. There is a lot of flesh to be put on the bones and plenty of wrinkles that will need to ironed out over the next few months and years. But this is a huge step towards "professional women's cricket" and a bigger pool of better players for England to choose from in years to come. Clare Connor and the ECB are to be congratulated on a job well done so far. Hopefully the WCSL will be the catalyst to more good women's cricket, more interest from commercial sponsors and television executives, and more interest from the general public. Exciting times indeed!