This article was originally published on March 25th, 2020.
Seven years ago, England and Australia's women cricketers played for the Ashes, at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), to a crowd consisting mostly of friends and family.
Earlier this month 86,174 people flocked to the MCG to witness Australia lift their fifth Women's T20 World Cup. It became an Australian national record attendance for women’s sport, a near-miss attempt at breaking the world record set when 90,185 fans saw the U.S. beat China in the Fifa Women’s World Cup final, at the Rose Bowl in 1999.
"It's a game changer," retired Australian cricketer Alex Blackwell (@AlexBlackwell2) said.
"I think it sets the standard or the bar as high as possible for the next sporting event - men or women."
The scale of cricket's achievement demands recognition and its lessons merit serious attention.
Cricket Australia and the organizers of the World Cup have led the world on investment in the women’s game and been repaid in kind.
Australia’s women have been on a different planet for the past couple of years, helped in no small part through greater availability to professional contracts and the quality of the domestic Women’s Big Bash League (BBL). The BBL also offers equal prize money for both its men's and women's leagues.
In a bid to keep up with Australia's BBL, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) confirmed that men’s and women’s teams in its new franchise competition, The Hundred, would get an equal share of a $690,000 prize pot this summer. Each winning team will share $173,000, while both runners-up will split $86,000.
The ECB characterized its decision as ‘a step towards the long-term commitment to making cricket a gender-balanced sport’.
The caveat, for now, is that it is only a step. The average contract for The Hundred’s month-long men’s tournament is worth $76,000. For the women, that figure is $9,000. The top-earning male players will make $144,000 in the new format. The best-paid women will get $17,000.
England women’s captain Heather Knight (@Heatherknight55) said it was important to be “realistic” about the disparity, which is reflected right across the elite game. “The women's game has not been professional for that long,” she told the BBC. “We have seen how the men's game has built, and the women's game will hopefully follow suit.”
The shift to equal prize money can be read for the constructive gesture that it is. The relative commercial scale of elite men’s and women’s team sport is not in dispute but what constitutes a fair shake may very well be.
Contrary to cricket, soccer has been digging its heels in on equal pay.
Court documents from the case filed by the USWNT have shown lawyers for the USSF, pursuing a defence of rare belligerence, by citing the ‘indisputable science’ that the men’s and women’s team could not possibly do the same job. As it "requires a higher level of skill based on speed and strength."
A USSF attorney is said to have asked co-captain Carli Lloyd (@CarliLloyd) if her side would be competitive on the pitch against the men. A question that seems more at home in the first five replies to any Twitter post about women’s sport.
A number of sponsors including Coca-Cola have made their displeasure clear, forcing USSF to issue a public apology, while also seeing president Carlos Cordeiro resign from his position.
Still, with the USWNT suing for $67 million in back pay to 2011, and protesting during their win over Japan, earlier in the month, the dispute could now proceed from tribunal to trial in May.
The crux of USSF’s case is that the men bring home prize money of around $40 million every four years, a figure the women cannot hope to match.
For one thing, that betrays a fairly sketchy take on value creation. The men make that money because the tournaments they play in, or do not, as in the case of the 2018 Fifa World Cup, which are more lucrative, but that is a reflection of the commercial scale of those tournaments and of the men’s game more generally.
Various counter-arguments have been made that the women, in relative terms, have the higher profile.
All the talk of turning points in women’s team sport is starting to recede. The breakthrough moments have already arrived. How far it all goes from here is a matter of ambition. The events of the cricket World Cup should be evidence of that and there will be a knock-on effect. Girls in Australia can be inspired by the platform their heroes were given to perform. India’s young side may have fallen short on the day but hold the promise of bigger days ahead. The prospect of a women’s version of the Indian Premier League (IPL), with all the potential that holds, has moved a little closer, too. That is the cycle that is now being established. The level of confidence and commitment that delivered Melbourne’s mammoth crowd should become the norm. For all the dystopian muddle of recent days, we can at least hope that what we saw there was not a footnote but a glimpse of things to come.