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Revamping English Women's Cricket: Navigating Growing Pains

The ECB's recent structural overhaul and funding boost to the women's game is widely seen as a large step in the right direction. With this have come some transitional challenges which Sam Green-Armytage from the Sports Governance Academy has considered below.

Photo: J&G Meakin Cricket Club by Brian Deegan

Date: 10th Jun 2024

Author: Sam Green-Armytage

The Growth

The ECB recently announced the eight counties that successfully gained Tier 1 status in the new Women’s County structure for 2025 and a further two which will attain the status by 2027.

The governing body will commit £1.3m of ring-fenced funding annually to each Tier 1 side for 15 professional playing contracts per team, the requisite staffing provision, and the enhancement of the talent pathway. Misalignment has occurred through women’s teams being governed by various cricketing stakeholders (some of which are counties) but owned by the ECB. This resulted in a system that lacked accountability, leaving women’s teams relying on the goodwill of men’s counties to share facilities equitably as they were offered little incentive to invest. Team names such as ‘The Blaze’ and ‘Thunder’ have struggled to inspire local interest among casual fans as teams have lacked the identity that men’s first-class counties possess. 

Overall, the increase in funding and the re-alignment of the men’s and women’s game under the same structures is being welcomed as a strong step in the right direction. The 40 additional professional contracts represent a fantastic opportunity for more women to make a living playing the sport. The ECB’s move to leverage the already existing brand value of the county sides to boost engagement with the women’s game represents a smart strategic acceleration towards a more level playing field. Furthermore, the ownership structure will clearly establish where accountability lies for each team to incentivise them to improve and develop themselves for competitive and commercial purposes.

Transitional Challenges

Despite the many positive strides, certain stakeholders have inevitably been left disappointed as 16 counties applied for 8-10 Tier 1 places. The previously disjointed chain of accountability left all 8 sides ambiguously associated with certain counties through geography, governance and brand alignment. Consequently, there was a greater expectation that counties such as Nottinghamshire and Surrey would receive Tier 1 status than their respective cricketing neighbours of Leicestershire and Kent, irrespective of any additional funding these counties could provide on top of the ECB’s £1.3m.  The resulting awarding of Tier 1 status to Durham instead of Yorkshire therefore took many by surprise, none more so than Northern Diamonds players, who are almost exclusively based in Yorkshire and play for the team governed by the county.

Average salaries in the league of £25k offer limited financial stability to many players. To have your current team dissolved, likely need to relocate, and compete for contracts with others more settled in an area will do little to quell the concerns of players who have not received much guidance from administrators. Diamonds captain, Lauren Winfield-Hill recently expressed her and her teammates’ disappointment at the decision plus the confusion and uncertainty this has caused for the group which could have been anticipated by administrators beforehand. Players, including but not limited to, those from Northern Diamonds, are expected to simultaneously be geographically mobile and have a high tolerance for uncertainty among the backdrop of the little breathing room that living wage salaries offer. Even if players can see the bigger picture for the women’s game, that will not pay rent or mortgages until they have a contract secured. This is not to say that the ECB should not have accepted Durham’s application over Yorkshire if it were superior; however, it does not appear that relocation effects (monetary and psychological) on players were considered sufficiently with players not receiving any clarity or justification for this decision. Contract negotiations for the new counties opened on 1 June 2024 as teams look to construct their squads for the 2025 with players' futures up in the air until they sign with a new team. Upon the announcement of the successful Tier 1 counties, the ECB could have released a roadmap for players to offer some assurances to their most valuable stakeholders. Four days after the announcement, the ECB announced that they would bring forward Yorkshire's elevation to Tier 1 status by a year to 2026. This recognised the disruption on stakeholders in the region but did little to answer questions around the 2025 season.

Finally, the tender document states that counties could seek clarification on why their bid was not accepted albeit the ECB is under no obligation to explain their process. The Professional Cricketers’ Association could have been included as a party that could seek clarification to represent the interests of the players. Although vague rating criteria were provided by the ECB along with an outline of the application process, the decision making has remained very opaque to public scrutiny and could have benefitted from clearer, more accessible justifications of their choices.

Lessons learned

If we view this process through a wider lens, the investment and realignment are likely to vastly improve the women’s game in England and Wales across multiple metrics. If we zoom in on the transition process itself, there were evidently a few blind spots around player welfare. Many of these could have been mitigated through greater transparency and inclusion of players in the process as key stakeholders.

Steps the board could have taken to alleviate these effects include:

  • Creating a transition committee to undertake scenario planning – A committee external to those who created the overarching strategy would have offered a more focused and objective perspective on the implications of any distribution of teams. They would have prepared advice preceding any tender decision that the ECB would then be able to lean on to support concerned parties.
  • Improved stakeholder engagement – greater transparency with players would have helped them feel more included in the process and given them better understanding as to why certain steps were taken.
  • Developing a more concrete roadmap upon the announcement of the reform – this would help to alleviate uncertainty and entirely understandable concerns among those most directly affected.

In all likelihood, any sport serious about closing any structural gender disparities between their participants will need to make significant structural changes which will inevitably entail some uncertainty for certain parties in the short term. This should not stand in the way of progress, but administrators have a responsibility to identify who this uncertainty is most likely to impact and to provide clarity and support to help them with the process.