Podcast: Ebony Rainford-Brent on the growth of women’s cricket
Women’s sport is growing massively in the UK. You won’t have to look far to see a Women’s Super League game on a TV or even on a Facebook newsfeed near you. And if you missed the fact that the women’s cricket World Cup was on over the summer, you were probably living under a rock.
That growth is coinciding with plenty of modern social phenomena, from the rise in sporting participation and interest in personal fitness to the growth of social media live video, and women’s sport is capitalising on it.
“It feels like a movement,” former England cricketer and now director of Surrey Women and broadcaster on BBC’s Test Match Special, Ebony Rainford-Brent told Dan McLaren on the Digital Sport Insider podcast. “There have been a lot of organisations set up – Women in Sport have come into this space and done things – and there are a lot of links to things like self-esteem and health, and because these conversations are happening, it’s a brilliant time [for women’s sport]. And what’s also nice is, it’s not just women who are supporters: there’s male fans who enjoy the women’s game as well. It all just helps to build this picture.”
The 2012 Olympic Games in London was partly the driver for the start of a lot of this, but the reality is that’s it’s only the start of a long road. Women’s sport may well be enjoying a period of growth and many sports appear almost unrecognisable to what they were a decade ago, but even in recent years the growth has been staggering. There’s still, clearly, a lot of room left for improvement.
Cricket is just one of those sports for whom growth has been exponential in such a short space of time.
“I remember the first proper tour the BBC covered was in 2013 in India,” said Rainford-Brent. “There was no-one there – I don’t even think there was a man and a dog there. It was a full World Cup and you wouldn’t have even known it was going on. So we followed it through some dark places over the years, all the way through to this journey, and the game’s evolved. Everybody’s played their part, the broadcasters have brought fans in, the kids have been inspired. To see it all come together four years later and have that much success was amazing.”
There is, admittedly, still a long road ahead. But even the technological advancements in the last few years will be incredibly helpful in growing the sport further.
For one thing, most people now have smartphones capable of playing live video, listening to audio and just generally being able to multitask in high quality. Things ‘just work’ more than they used to, and so ideas like live streaming on Twitter or Facebook, or indeed catching up with highlights and clips, are now mainstream. That amount of reach is not to be sniffed at for emerging sports, but just because it exists doesn’t mean it’ll help: you need to tap into it properly.
“There are some key things,” says Rainford-Brent. “One is engaging fans. I look after the Surrey Stars team and we’re doing more to try and engage fans, to tell stories throughout the year rather than it just being, ‘right, that’s that competition, it’s gone’, we try and keep social media content and keep people coming in.”
“We have to see the role social media can play, too. The BBC can broadcast online now, you can put clips and highlights and content on YouTube, and all these different media, so I think there’s been more ways to offer reach to it other than just the traditional ways. It gets plenty of Five Live time, but there’s a lot of content that can be built in and around it.
“The excitement of just seeing the sport grow, the opportunities that are here now – this podcast could go out through a million channels – there are so many different ways to help the game grow. So we’ll do a lot of content over the winter to keep the fans of the women’s game engaged.”
Rainford-Brent is also keen to see domestic women’s cricket take a leap forward, just like the international game. The league structures are now in place, but a lot of the focus is still on the England women’s team. But if the sport is to take off even further, the club teams will need to grow and produce more high quality players and gain more and more fans.
“The international game is starting to take care of itself, but I really want to see the domestic game flying now.” says Rainford-Brent. “The next layer for me is seeing if we can make that more professionalised and up those standards.”
One of the ways that will happen is through allowing the public to see more and more of what’s on offer. A World Cup where the England team performs well is one thing, but a domestic championship season where millions of people can watch live games and highlights as well as accessing content and social media posts around the season’s big storylines is a much better way to engage a growing fanbase. The new media rights deal which sees the BBC show cricket on free-to-air TV for the first time since the 2005 Ashes series clearly excites Rainford-Brent.
“Cricket’s coming back to the BBC from 2020, it’s been gone, I think for 20 years, pretty much, which is a long time. And with that package is men’s and women’s cricket, and T20 which is a bit more fun and engaging. With that coming into play, I think we could see more people excited by it. It’s going to naturally create more airtime and more conversations. I think terrestrial TV is critical to exposing sport. We see the figures from women’s football and all these other sport that when they get that airtime it really changes it.”
Women’s sport is growing rapidly, and the more airtime it gets – across all platforms – the more fans will come. There’s still a long road ahead for women’s cricket, but that just means another long road of growth.
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