The Hundred - the ECB’s new 100-ball cricket competition - began last week to record TV figures, with the inaugural tournament delayed a year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
While the ECB worked throughout the first lockdown to set up bio-secure bubbles and host world class cricket again in the summer of 2020, The Hundred’s inaugural season was put on temporary hiatus becuase of the pandemic - though the decision to postpone wasn’t simply taken because of lockdown, but also because the competition's ethos would have been disrupted by the need to play behind closed doors.
Crucially, now the competition does start, it will lean into the live experience. And it will do so beginning with the women’s competition. The Oval Invincibles host the Manchester Originals in the female competition, before the male tournament gets underway a day later.
The move was a signal of intent from The Hundred not just to promote the women’s game to a larger audience, but to place it on exactly the same platform as the men’s competition. With the first game taking place between the end of Wimbledon and the start of Tokyo 2020, you can’t help but notice the power shared platforms have when it comes to drawing audiences.
“Starting it as a men’s and women’s competition from inception is massively important,” said The Hundred's Managing Director, Sanjay Patel.
“Other men's competitions have added on a women’s competition at some point and they can feel like a bit of an add-on. We don’t want The Hundred to feel like that, we want it to feel natural.
“But I think people need to be patient with the women’s competition. It might not be an overnight success in terms of attendance or figures on TV, but it’s already been a success - because it’s raised the profile of the women’s game.
“If we can inspire some young girls to pick up a bat and ball during The Hundred then for me it’ll be success in year one - and then we’ll lay the foundations for year two.
“You have to start somewhere. This is the start for us, and I can only see it getting bigger and bigger and that’s why we’re investing in it.”
With restrictions now removed throughout much of the UK, The Hundred is leaning heavily into the live events space. A new partnership with BBC Music Introducing will see a DJ embedded into each team, further enhancing that live experience, but also creating a unique audio identity for each of the eight new teams.
“We’ve been desperate to get crowds back in our venues,” said Patel.
“It’ll be brilliant to see people enjoying live cricket, and getting the full event experience as well.
“It’s been challenging, selling a new event to a family audience in a global pandemic. That hasn’t been easy. But I’ve actually been blown away by where we are on ticket sales and I think it’ll far exceed our budget.
“We are not an established event. We’re not Wimbledon or The Open where you’ve got an established audience. We’re creating demand, and we’ve got to work very hard to get people in. The country opening up will help, and we’re in a strong place with ticket sales. I think it might capture the imagination of the British public.
Despite the challenges of selling tickets over the last year, the impact competition can have will be defined by its reach.
Broadcast partnerships are in place with Sky Sports, who will screen games on free-to-air channels including YouTube, including all of the women’s competition - and the BBC, in a partnership that goes much deeper than live broadcasts.
The last year, however, has been a productive one for the competition.
A number of new partnerships have been put in place, including the BBC Music one, but also with LEGO, Universal Pictures, and Cazoo, helping to further establish the competition before it has even begun.
Meanwhile, the ECB has also found itself further along the path with its other new platform, Dynamos Cricket, which aims to engage children in the sport - a programme that will complement The Hundred’s aims of getting a younger audience engaged in the sport by giving them an outlet to participate afterwards. The ECB has also ensured that grassroots facilities across the country are opened later in August to ensure it can capitalise on the extra demand The Hundred might create.
“The extra year of preparation has definitely helped us,” said Patel.
“It means we’re one year further on in terms of development in some areas.
“There’s definitely areas around participation that we’ve built in: the Dynamos programme is something we were going to do in 2020, but it’s bigger and bolder in 2021.”
The Hundred will begin at The Oval and end at Lord’s towards the end of August, by which time it may be another established member of the British sporting summer.