World Cup's staggering TV ratings a lesson for BCCI to give women's cricket in India its due limelight

Twitter was recently humming with the viral hashtag #FirstTimeISawMe. It encouraged users to post the first time they saw themselves represented in mainstream media, to highlight diversity (or lack of it) and the impact it has on the lives of the people who see those role models. Most common were stories of how many young black women connected with Brandy’s rendition of Cinderella in the 1990s, and Asian female audiences resonated with Parminder Nagra in Bend It Like Beckham.

If the #FirstTimeISawMe hashtag is recycled 10 years later, the ICC Women’s World Cup final will probably be mentioned more than once. After all, was the first time a number of females got the opportunity to see similar sporting role models in mainstream media.

According to the BARC, the World Cup Final — in which Heather Knight’s England notched a nail-biting victory over Mithali Raj’s India — generated 19.53 million impressions. That’s 2.23 million more than the Rio Olympics badminton final between PV Sindhu and Carolina Marin, making it the most watched female sports event in India, and easily the most watched game in the history of women’s cricket. On the ground, it was the biggest-paying crowd ever for a women’s game, with Lord’s sold out and more than 25 thousand in attendance. What’s more, 50 percent of those ticket holders were female. The entire tournament garnered 463 million impressions on television.

The 2017 World Cup final between India and England at the Lord's turned out to be the most-watched event in women's cricket history. Reuters

The 2017 World Cup final between India and England at the Lord's turned out to be the most-watched event in women's cricket history. Reuters

The potential of the numbers will only be understood by posterity. I can attest to the power of a visible role model one can relate to; my own #FirstTimeISawMe moment came at the turn of the century. England women were visiting India in 2002, and the five ODIs were shown live on Doordarshan. I watched a 19-year old Jhulan Goswami bowl with pace on her debut, and that was it. I knew I wanted to be her. I knew it because I saw her.

A spokesperson for Netflix, who were behind the #FirstTimeISawMe hashtag, said, “Seeing someone that looks like you and deals with similar things that you have to deal with is powerful because you inevitably feel like you can conquer your issues once you see someone else on-screen do it first.” During this World Cup, I believe many young female cricketers will have had a similar moment, as they were afforded the opportunity to do so.

For the first time, every game of the tournament was visible either online or on TV. That means that even though there were only ten games televised by the host broadcaster, there were camera crews at every game, feeding into a live stream. That stream was then bought country-wise by networks all over the world. Sky Sports showed all England’s games, along with a number of others. Fox Sports and Channel Nine took the World Cup to Australia. ESPN covered the West Indies, and Pakistan’s PTV showed all of Pakistan’s games. Channel Eye broadcast Sri Lanka’s encounters, and SuperSport documented South Africa’s incredible run in the tournament. The tournament was broadcast to televisions of 139 countries, and more than 200 territories online.

Star Sports was only supposed to showcase four of India’s seven league games, but added their virtual quarter-final against New Zealand to their list at the last minute, finally realising live cricket beats reruns on most nights. It begged the question, if it was technically possible to show all of India’s games, why didn’t they? Commerce would most likely be the right answer. Who wants to watch India play Sri Lanka after all? Had this been any previous World Cup, the same logic would have seen Chamari Athapaththu’s incredible 178 not out against Australia been recorded only in the memories of those present at the ground. Now, any Poms who want to see an Australia-bashing can just find the highlights and entertain themselves (they will need to press pause before Meg Lanning’s unbeaten 152 in reply, another gem that was captured on film.)

For countries like Sri Lanka, Pakistan and South Africa, it was a watershed moment in women’s cricket broadcasting. From a usually getting less than a handful of games broadcast during World Cups, they could watch every game their national team played. “It’s a huge thing, showing matches on TV , especially in the Asian region”, Sasikala Siriwardene, who played her 100th game for Sri Lanka in the World Cup, told Firstpost. “Even though we lost, how Chamari scored against Australia, these are few things that they noticed. Our family says, lot of people are trying to bless us, because (until now) they have heard but haven’t seen.

It wasn’t just that the coverage was grabbing eyeballs by the collar, it was also helping drive interest in the games during the tournament itself. London resident Ratandeep Kaur watched India’s win against England in the tournament opener, and decided to come to Derby to see them take on Pakistan next weekend. “If that England match had not been on TV, I would have not have come here”, she told Firstpost at the time. “(Without television) it’s difficult for you to develop a fan following; if people don’t see, how will they know?”

If India’s strong show in the tournament was the fuel, the coverage was the catalyst in creating stories like the one Shivam Singh shared on Facebook.

Harmanpreet Kaur, whose 171 against Australia sent home the defending champions and favourites, too attested to the power of the broadcast, as well as social media. “Whenever we you get time you are looking at your phone and social media, you can see the clips of the players”, she said during the tournament. “Even family and old friends who don’t follow cricket that much are giving their views on cricket. Some of my school friends who have never watched cricket are sending us their wishes.”

Ian Chappell, in a recent article for ESPNCricinfo, wrote, “Most young cricketers take up the game because they adopt a hero”. But what good are heroes if they’re invisible? The Indian team have put in many superhero performances before, but they have more often been unseen, recounted only through reports and still photographs. There is no video of Deepti Sharma’s record 188 just a few months ago or of Jhulan Goswami’s 10-wicket haul in an away Test against England in 2006. Imagine the loss to the sport if Harmanpreet’s blitzkrieg 171 not out had come in a non-televised game.

Distill all the above into Marian Wright Edelman’s immortal words: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” For any strategy to grow women’s sport, visibility must form the bedrock. Too long has the Indian team played in the dark. Every game must now be caught on tape and shown to as many viewers as possible. Live streaming of games is now a bare minimum requirement, and the BCCI must push broadcasters to include more female cricket in their packages. The next generation is waiting, in front of their TV screens.

Updated Date: Aug 08, 2017 11:00 AM

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