“Show us your vision.” That’s the challenge the ECB has sent down to the 18 first-class counties in a second major overhaul of its professional women’s playing structure in five years.
Invitations to tender for one of eight women’s professional “Tier 1 Clubs” are being sent to the counties and the MCC on Thursday. It is a move away from the current regional structure which began in 2020, whereby teams contesting the 20-over Charlotte Edwards Cup and 50-over Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy fall under central ECB control and largely encompass more than one county.
By aligning teams more closely with existing counties – and their men’s teams – from the beginning of the 2025 season, the ECB is seeking to address an identity crisis that has afflicted some of the regional teams. The expanded marketing of the domestic women’s game will shift ownership, responsibility and governance to the clubs.
The eight teams will compete in the top level of an expanded three-tier women’s domestic structure and while it is expected that they could still compete for trophies bearing the same names, one possible scenario is for those matches to be played as part of the Vitality T20 Blast and Metro Bank One Day Cup – which are currently men’s competitions – with the scope for some fixtures being played as double-headers.
In October 2019, the ECB announced its ‘Inspiring Generations’ strategy for 2020-2024, aimed at making cricket a gender-balanced sport. That included introducing full-time professional contracts for women playing domestic cricket, the eight regional teams and the domestic 20-over and 50-over women’s competitions. It came after England had been soundly defeated 12-4 in a home Women’s Ashes series in 2019 and the ECB vowed to do better in the wake of Australia’s then-superior domestic structure.
But last summer’s report by the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket concluded that there was still much work to be done to correct deep-seated discrimination within the game, particularly on the grounds of race, class and gender.
Beth Barrett-Wild, ECB Director of Women’s Professional Game, said that while the initial revamp was aimed at professionalising women’s cricket on-field, the next phase had more of a commercial focus. It was hoped that aligning with the counties would help grow audiences, boost teams’ visibility and offer the women’s teams a sense of stability and inclusion, which would in turn attract sponsors to the counties themselves.
“The regional model was launched in 2020 with a very clear remit to professionalise women’s cricket domestically on the field as quickly as possible and I think it’s done a brilliant job at that,” she said. “We are now up at around 88 professional female cricketers across those eight teams, over 100 coaching support staff, 102 fixtures this year and they’ve gone up year-on-year.
“I spent a lot of time speaking with the players. I think there is an element at the moment with the way the women’s and men’s professional games are set up, they are slightly separate, and there is this sense of otherness around women’s teams. It will give us a better platform to commercialise the women’s game.
“I also truly believe that it allows us to protect and enhance revenue streams for the first-class counties themselves. We’re increasingly seeing brands and commercial partners are no longer prepared just to invest in male-only sports properties. Being able to co-present men and women together is crucially important.”
The existing regions – South East Stars, Thunder, Sunrisers, Central Sparks, Western Storm, The Blaze, Northern Diamonds and Southern Vipers – will remain for the 2024 season.
There is an underlying sense that some of the teams for 2025 and beyond are foregone conclusions (South East Stars, which currently draws players from Surrey and Kent, is expected to become Surrey Stars, while Thunder are likely to become Lancashire Thunder), Richard Gould, the ECB chief executive, warned against counties assuming that would be the case.
“We need to make sure that we use the right partners,” Gould said. “People that have got the best facilities, who will show the most love, have got the biggest fan base, are going to be at an advantage, but it’s going to be a mix between the financial and the feeling… who really is going to make their best efforts to try and drive this forward. So you may get a very large club that doesn’t treat the tender process as seriously as they think they should. Well, that will be a mistake.”
Surrey chair Oli Slipper recently told members the club intended to bid for the Stars and was exploring opportunities to develop a second ground to address “space and pitch capacity limitations we have at The Kia Oval, particularly as the women’s game develops and its audiences grow”. Essex, who along with Middlesex are represented by the Sunrisers, have impressed during early talks on facilities.
Meanwhile, Southern Vipers is a strong existing brand, based at Hampshire and built via the Kia Super League, which could mount a strong argument for retaining its identity. Barrett-Wild said team names would be decided on a case-by-case basis once the successful tenders were known.
“We are looking at the three key objectives,” she said. “How are they going to deliver quality cricket? How are they going to grow their fan base? And how are they going to return on that investment from a commercial lens? But for me, actually, the bigger point – and this is the fourth, overarching point – is around show us your vision, show us your ambition, show us how much you care about this. What impact will this have on your organisation?
“Because I think that depth of feeling and that sense of belonging, along with cash investment – clearly money matters, money is needed – but it’s that depth of feeling and that ambition, which is the bit that I’m most excited to see.”
The ECB will invest a minimum of £1.3 million per year into each of the eight Tier 1 teams, a proportion of which will be ring-fenced for player salaries, sports science and medicine and talent pathways. There will be no mandated minimum financial commitment sought from the counties, who will be expected to outline their projected investment as part of the tender process.
The deadline for submitting bids for Tier 1 teams is March 10. First-class counties not awarded Tier 1 status, plus all National Counties, will then be invited to take part in a process to determine the make-up of Tiers 2 and 3, which is expected to be finalised by September. Tier 2 is expected to comprise 10-14 teams and Tier 3 16-20 teams.
Between the start of 2025 and end of 2028 those tiers will remain “closed” with no promotion or relegation. Counties awarded Tier 1 teams will also be expected to work with Tier 2 and 3 teams in their area to develop effective talent pathways.
Valkerie Baynes is a general editor, women’s cricket, at ESPNcricinfo