Women’s IPL: How WPL will transform sport in India

With the Women’s IPL set to begin, the market for women’s sport is set to undergo a drastic change in why stakeholders are interested in the business and how they’ll go about it.

If I had a rupee for every time a female cricketer was asked over the past 10 years about the need for a women’s IPL, and another for every time I’ve grumbled about the inordinate delay in starting the competition, I’d have considered bidding for one of the teams myself.

However, I’m happy to say my bid wouldn’t have won. Because last month we learnt just how expensive it is to own a Women’s Premier League franchise.

It’s been a surreal time in Indian women’s cricket. I may have turned grey in the years it’s taken for me to be able to finally type these words, but the women’s IPL is, hallelujah, almost here. After years of nothing happening, the inaugural edition of the tournament is hurtling into 2023 with all the vehemence and audacity of a Shafali Verma six into the sightscreen. The BCCI made INR 4669.99 crore in selling the ownership rights for five franchises. The week before they had sold the broadcast rights for INR 915 crore. Sponsorship rights are up for grabs. The auction is around the corner. The Indian U19s won their World Cup, making a mockery of the tired “but there’s no depth in women’s cricket” excuse used against the tournament all this while.

All of this is transformational/ game-changing/ historic/ a landmark in global women’s sport. Choose your enthusiastic descriptor and it will still not be overstatement. Here’s why.

Part I: Transforming the market

Even before a single match of the WPL has been played, the league has made history. The five-year broadcast deal with Viacom 18 has a per match value of INR 7.09 crore; that makes the WPL the second-most expensive women’s sports property after the WNBA. And with the team price tags, it is likely the second-biggest T20 league after the men’s IPL.

That’s a badge of honour for Indian cricket (let’s ignore for a moment that the top bid was from the Adani group, which is in some dishonour right now), and a gauntlet for other women’s sports properties.

Although the numbers are a fraction of what new men’s IPL teams were sold for, they are still comparable to what these teams were worth back in 2008, when IPL began. That lends a level of respect for the women and their labour, which has been lacking in women’s sports, even globally, till now.

Women’s sport is often treated as an afterthought – like the pack of gum you pick up at the check-out lane; nice to have but not the thing on your shopping list you went to the supermarket for. Sponsorship and TV rights of the Indian national teams, for instance, have followed this model, where the right to stick a logo on the men’s blue shirts and be seen on primetime is what the rights holders are really after.

When not an afterthought, women’s sport is seen as a charity case, to earn brownie marketing points with a progressive hashtag while doing the bare minimum.

But these investments into WPL aren’t indicative of either – and that’s rare.

Royal Challengers Bangalore, for instance, who won the rights to the Bangalore team, have been sending scouts to domestic games long before their participation in the competition was even confirmed. That isn’t a sign of a vanity buy. Ironically, a few years ago, the same franchise (or at least their marketing arm) were a textbook lesson in what not to do: They announced a mixed-gender match as part of their campaign for a drink, which didn’t happen; the initiative fizzled out like any soda kept out for too long because it was never really about the women or the cricket anyway.

It’s clear the WPL investors are in it because they think women’s cricket is good business. But it’s a different kind of business – one that’s waiting to be explored.

The Delhi Capitals CEO, in a recent interview, pointed out that they didn’t expect to make any money with their investment into WPL for at least 10 years. This won’t come as news to people putting money into women’s team sports. Deloitte’s 2021 TMT (Technology, Media, Telecommunications) Predictions report, for instance, estimated the women’s sports industry for the year at “well under a billion dollars — a fraction of the global value of all sports (men’s, women’s, and mixed), which in 2018 reached US$481 billion”. But, the same report validated what many industry watchers insist: that women’s sport is ripe for monetization.

And that’s what’s happening here with the IPL: It’s a bet on the future. For the first time in India, a rupee value has been put on the potential of women’s sport. With every Women’s World Cup or Olympics, we hear about audience numbers and engagement figures hitting new records. For the first time in India, attempts will be made to monetize this burgeoning interest.

And because these bets involve serious money, these attempts will likely not be half-arsed.

Getting involved in women’s sport will demand they work on a new playbook, especially in sponsorship. Women’s sport offers sponsors and rights holders a few benefits that men’s events can’t: It’s cheaper to break into, there’s a virtuosity in being associated with it, and it offers access to new audiences. Franchises that have a men’s side can offer the added value of bundled packages for their sponsors. Or we might learn that unbundling men’s and women’s teams is the way to go. It’ll be interesting to see what level of access to the female stars WPL sponsors will have, and what marketing and advertising comes out of it.

I’m also excited about the data this will throw up as the industry matures; new revenue both demands and fuels more data about who’s playing/watching/buying/selling. This in turn, will change how stakeholders engage with fans.

All this means it won’t just be the fans of women’s cricket who will be watching closely and rooting for the success of the WPL. The WPL is in fact a test case for global women’s sport, as well as for other non-cricket sports in India with growing audiences.

Wasim Khan, the ICC general manager of cricket, described “what’s happening in India” as a “catalyst to try and really drive the game to even greater levels”. And he agreed: “In five years’ time, the landscape is going to look very, very different.”

In Part II, when I get around to writing it, I’ll go into how the tournament will transform the game of cricket itself in India.

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