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India's inaugural Women's Premier League cricket has generated hundreds of millions of dollars even before a ball is bowled on Saturday, with experts calling it a game-changing moment for women's sport.
The Twenty20 tournament's five debut franchises together sold for nearly $200 million -- more than the eight founding teams of the men's Indian Premier League in 2008.
Together with media rights for the first five seasons, the WPL has already earned India's cricket board a shade under $700 million, making it the second most valuable domestic women's sport competition globally after US professional basketball.
"That's an unprecedented amount of investment into the women's game," James Savage of the Deloitte Sports Business Group told AFP.
"That level of investment has come around because of the huge growth potential."
The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) is betting big on the WPL and women's sport is attracting higher levels of viewership, media coverage, TV rights and sponsorships globally.
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More than 86,000 people watched the 2020 Women's T20 World Cup final at the Melbourne Cricket Ground between hosts Australia and India, the highest ever for a women's cricket match.
And television audiences -- a crucial metric for boosting media rights revenue for organisers -- have also been hitting records across women's sport.
"It's additional confirmation that... women's sports is the next economy for sport," said Thayer Lavielle of The Collective, the women's division of US sports marketing agency Wasserman.
"I believe that marketers need to really start to pay attention to what satisfies us," she told AFP.
Underlining global interest in the WPL, British broadcaster Sky Sports said on Wednesday that it will show matches live.
The final of the tournament is on March 26. All games are in Mumbai.
The BCCI last year sold the media rights for five IPL seasons for a record $6.2 billion and hopes the women's equivalent will eventually prove similarly lucrative.
"The initial response to the WPL has definitely showcased the potential the league has to become the biggest women's domestic sporting tournament," BCCI secretary Jay Shah told AFP.
"The WPL will set a template for other sports to follow suit."
Top players lined up for the WPL auction, with India's Smriti Mandhana the top pick, earning $410,000 for her services.
Australia's Ash Gardner and England's Nat Sciver-Brunt tied for the highest overseas players' contract at $387,000.
Some players will earn more for the three-week tournament than they normally would in an entire year.
That could extend both the player pool and competitors' careers: Indian parents are often reluctant to allow girls to pursue sporting careers, but the emergence of a financial path could change the incentives.
Former New Zealand men's coach Mike Hesson, now director of cricket at Royal Challengers Bangalore, told AFP it would build participation.
"Young viewers can watch them play, then that's going to encourage them to pick up the sport," he said.
And retired Indian captain Mithali Raj, now part of the Gujarat Giants coaching staff, said cricketers who missed selection for the national team could "stick longer with the game".
Show me the money
A 2021 Deloitte study found the gender gap between men's and women's sports revenue was "beginning to close", while the three main revenue streams for elite women's sport -- TV rights, event-day attendance and sponsorships -- were all growing.
"But the entire sports industry should invest in creating more opportunities for women's sports if it is to prove its commercial worth," the report said.
Investors have already ploughed huge sums into the WPL, including Indian tycoon and Gujarat Giants owner Gautam Adani, but it remains to be seen what audiences the tournament can attract and whether it will turn a profit.
"This investment can pay rich dividends only in the long term, provided women's cricket attracts mass following in India," said Elara Capital media analyst Karan Taurani in a note.
Deloitte's Savage says the true benchmark of success will be whether women cricketers such as Shafali Verma can have the same profile as Indian cricket hero Virat Kohli.
"I think a dream scenario would be you don't need to prefix a sport with 'men's' or 'women's'," said Savage.
"You just say, it's cricket."
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