The first match in the Hundred will be played between women's teams on July 21, with the ECB targeting a sell-out at The Oval on the competition's opening night.
Fixtures for the ECB's new 100-ball competition were released on Tuesday, after the inaugural season was postponed by a year due to the Covid pandemic, with Oval Invincibles playing Manchester Originals in standalone women's and men's fixtures on the first two nights. It is thought to be the first time that a major sporting event in the UK has seen men's and women's tournaments launched alongside each other with the women's fixture chosen as the curtain-raiser.
From that point on, all fixtures will be played as double-headers - branded as "matchdays" - with women's and men's games taking place back-to-back at the same venue.
There had initially been plans to stage women's matches at smaller county grounds around the country, but they were shelved in November due to Covid-related logistical complications. Instead, all fixtures will be staged at the eight men's Test venues, with every game broadcast on Sky Sports. The BBC will show 10 matches in the men's competition, and have the rights to broadcast up to eight in the women's. They have confirmed they will broadcast the opening fixture and the final of the women's competition live on BBC2.
"All of the women's matches will be first," Beth Barrett-Wild, the head of the women's Hundred, told ESPNcricinfo. "We did have some discussions as to whether we'd look to flip that [but] we've had a few trial runs of the women playing after the men and sometimes you get a different vibe and crowd to the one you'd want. I went to a Surrey Stars match in the KSL [Kia Super League] a few years ago after a men's match and you got the horrible scenario of people leaving, which looks dreadful.
"It's mega news that every single one of those women's matches will be broadcast live on Sky Sports - all 34 matches. It really is an unprecedented level of coverage."
Tickets will go on sale to the general public from April 7, with earlier priority windows for county members and 2020 buyers. While tickets had been cheaper for standalone women's fixtures when they went on sale in early 2020, they will now provide access to the ground for a full double-header at the original price of a men's ticket. The prospect of fans being able to attend games was enhanced on Monday, when the UK government announced plans to lift all Covid-related restrictions by June 21.
Barrett-Wild played down any concern that the requirement to buy a ticket for both games - rather than just the cheaper women's ones - could put families off going to games. "It will be one ticket but it's so reasonably priced that we don't see that as being a barrier," she said. "The whole matchday experience will hopefully make it worthwhile."
There has also been a change to the format of the knockout stages, with the 'eliminators' - a single semi-final between the teams finishing second and third - and the finals being staged back-to-back at The Oval and Lord's respectively on August 20 and 21, rather than separate women's and men's Finals Days. Hove had been due to host the women's Finals Day, but will no longer stage any games in the competition.
"Having the women's and men's final at Lord's on the same day on that Saturday is massive," Barrett-Wild said. "They're both going to be on the BBC - that's enormous. When we talk about playing in front of 4000 people in Hove, that's great and we've seen that working brilliantly. But in terms of the scale and the uplift for the women's match being played at Lord's, hopefully in front of a full crowd, on that Saturday - it's huge. That's something the players will be really excited about."
Kate Cross, who could bowl the competition's first ball for Manchester Originals, said: "We love breaking boundaries and making history. This generation of women's cricketers are doing a lot of that at the minute.
"Actions speak louder than words and sometimes you see a lot of words on paper about how much they [the ECB] want to support us. Well, this goes to show that they are taking it seriously. It's a big step. It shouldn't be a surprise that the women are playing the first game - it should just be the first game of the Hundred. Unfortunately we're in a time where women's sport has taken to the back-burner and we are doing this stuff to push it forward. It's incredible and long may it continue."
Cross also highlighted the importance of playing on the best pitches in the country. "We were joking about the fact that some of the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy games were being played at better venues than our international games," she said. "We were playing at Test grounds for the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy compared to Derby as an international team.
"It's so important for us: if you put us on slow pitches, then you're going to get a slow game, and that's not what people want to see. If you put us on faster, better wickets, you're going to see more runs and more wickets. It's not even necessarily just the pitches - it's the quality of the ground, us being able to get our fielding right and also having that kind of atmosphere with the crowd as well, which I think is really important. Put us on better pitches and instantly you'll see a better product."
Initial men's squads for the competition will be finalised on Tuesday, when the ECB announce the outcomes of Monday's behind-closed-doors player draft. Further women's signings will also be announced, including several Australian overseas players.