After a thrilling win on the global stage last week, women's cricket is booming. But financially there's still a long way to go for equality...
‘I cried. I could see all the challenges the girls have gone through and I just thought, “Wow, they’ve done it.” I cried for them, for the game and for the journey,’ says retired cricketer Ebony-Jewel Rainford-Brent, of watching the England team beat India to win the Women’s World Cup final last Sunday.
It’s easy to see why the tears came – when Ebony retired seven years ago, female teams’ successes in World Cups or The Ashes barely made the sports pages. Alongside training twice a day – at the crack of dawn and in the evenings – she had a 40-hours-a-week job. There were occasional grants and one sponsorship deal ‘which probably wouldn’t pay half a month’s rent’ and she played for tiny crowds of around 3,000. By contrast, the team of 2017 found itself splashed across the back and front pages last week.
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As they played to a sold-out crowd at Lords, on TV and online, the match gripped a record-breaking global audience of around 150 million. In the UK alone, 1.1 million tuned in – more than for the average Premier League football game. For the first time, every match of the tournament was broadcast on TV.
The huge change has been prompted by investment from the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), which introduced professionalism in 2014, giving women central salaried contracts so they can support themselves playing cricket full-time, as men have done for decades.
But that’s where the celebratory mood darkens. While the ECB won’t confirm figures, the women’s contracts are estimated to be £50,000 a year. The top 10 men’s? £700,000. Gallingly, the pay of a whole women’s squad of 14 is equivalent to a single male cricketer. And while some female players have sponsorship deals, these pale in comparison to the estimated six-figure deals of their male counterparts.
Three times as many people tuned in to watch the women’s final than bothered with the final day of last month’s men’s test match against South Africa. And while the women pulled in more viewers than many Premier League football games, your average Premiership footballer walks away with £46,889 a week – a woman’s annual cricket salary.
Coming days after the BBC gender pay gap was revealed and reviled, this disparity felt like another cruel blow for British women. Days later, the Rugby Football Union announced they wouldn’t be renewing the contracts of their Women’s XV players – a team that won the World Cup three years ago.
However, the situation is more complex than headline figures suggest. The women’s cricket team play far less than the men – only one test match against Australia every two years; the men will play another nine by the end of the year. But female cricketers do play more than ever before – there’s county cricket and tournaments such as the Kia Super League, which will be televised from 10 August. The prize money for this year’s World Cup (estimated to be worth £34,000 each) is 15 times bigger than in 2009.
So Ebony is hopeful that this is just the beginning of women’s fight for equality in cricket. ‘I don’t want to jump in and say women should be paid £1m, as you need the game to be generating the income sustainably,’ she says. ‘What I expect to see, though, is the gap closing and the rate at which it closes is important. I didn’t think professional contracts and salaries would come this quickly – in the next decade I’d expect serious shifts of investment.’
World Cup-winning spin bowler Danielle Hazell is also optimistic. ‘The pay’s not in our control, we’re just happy with where things are – and who knows where it could be in the future?’ she says. ‘I’ve seen stuff on Twitter saying, “You’ve inspired my daughter to play cricket for the first time.” That’s all you want to see.’
Ebony is playing in Test Match Special’s 60th anniversary match on 24 August. Coverage will be on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra