The Flipside of Growing the Game: Women’s Hockey in 2015

Wednesday 25th, March 2015 / 20:33 Written by
The Flipside of Growing the Game: Women’s Hockey in 2015

Photo Credit: Masha (Creative Commons)

We’re almost four months into 2015, and it’s become clear that this is the year women’s hockey has come to a tipping point in the size and expectations of its fanbase. That fanbase is growing organically, with almost no promotion or media coverage, thanks to passionate word-of-mouth and a host of marketable stars. The hockey world now has a choice to make: put its money where its mouth is and “grow the game” further, or tell us outright that women’s hockey matters only a little, and only once every four years.

In many ways, it’s never been easier to be a fan of women’s hockey. The CWHL has crowned eight Clarkson Cup winners, and fans could watch this year’s victorious Boston Blades take home the cup for less than ten of our fine American dollars from anywhere in the world via streaming video. While coverage in mainstream sports media hasn’t been mindblowingly spectacular, it’s been occasional – certainly a step up from years past, where coverage was limited to glaring silence or “wait, there’s a women’s hockey league?” And bloggers have stepped up to fill the considerable gaps, with Stanley Cup of Chowder bringing excellent Blades coverage throughout the season and Habs Eye On The Prize stepping up with Montreal Stars coverage during and after the Clarkson Cup. The CWHL has even finally beaten out the Children With Hair Loss Nonprofit for the top Google result when searching for CWHL, a final feather in the league’s cap.

NHL teams have begun to form relationships – either formal or informal – with their CWHL counterparts, too. With the Bruins currently sitting outside the playoff bubble, it’s increasingly likely that the Clarkson Cup is the only championship hockey trophy Boston is going to see this year, so it was only fitting that the Bruins honored the only winning hockey team in Boston at the moment at one of their games. The Habs, though, have taken it further by entering into an official partnership with the Stars which will funnel significant resources into the Stars’ efforts to grow the game among women in Quebec as well as putting the Habs considerable marketing, development, and fan engagement knowledge at the disposal of the Stars.

While the partnership is a start, and better than what many of the other CWHL teams have available, it’s a long way from a formal partnership between the CWHL and the NHL, league-to-league. As others have pointed out, there is not even a link to the CWHL on the NHL’s website. And with the women’s game growing at the rate that it is, female fans have begun to question why this is.

Fans of the women’s game are beginning to stop accepting crumbs as a favor and the game’s second (or, considering the attention the AHL and major junior leagues get, fourth) class status. That means when the state championship for the girls high school hockey league in Connecticut went to triple overtime and was abruptly declared a tie by the state organizers so the boys teams could take the ice, it made national news. And it means that when USA Hockey responded to questions about streaming this week’s Women’s World Championship with, more or less, “Uhhhhh… what now?” there was actual, legit backlash from fans.

Fans are also increasingly aware that, unlike in the men’s game, the women who play in the CWHL work multiple jobs and spend a considerable amount of time and money in order to play the game they love at the highest level. Rather than being catered to, they give of themselves for hockey. It’s evident that fans understand and appreciate the level of sacrifice the women of the CWHL make for the game they love, but no more so than after Morgan Rielly’s comments in February – which he has since apologized for – saying that the Toronto Maple Leafs don’t want to “be girls” when it comes to their work ethic. Fans were quick to point out that, unlike the hapless Leafs, the women of Toronto’s professional hockey team had actually, y’know, won something recently. The amount of backlash Rielly’s comments received from across the hockey world is indicative that views of women who play hockey at the highest levels are shaping the way fans talk about not just the women’s game, but the sport as a whole.

But for those in charge, building the game is a double-edged sword. Hand in hand with the potential for increased revenue comes the immediacy of accountability beyond what they’re used to. The “traditional” fanbase – young, straight, mostly white men from Canada and the northern United States – might be counted upon by the NHL and the sport’s national governing bodies to show up, watch, play, and pay for merch, but new fans of both the NHL and the CWHL are coming from other demographics. And it’s becoming clear that, as word of mouth creates fans in new places, they aren’t blithely accepting what they’re given.

The question is – will the league and the sport’s national governing bodies be willing to listen and step out of their comfort zone in the name of growth? Is “growing the game” all talk?

If the first three months of 2015 is anything to go by, this is the year that question will be answered.

Update 3/26/15: The first part of that answer came today from the organizers of the reborn NWHL, who less than 24 hours after this piece was published announced the launch of their newly reformed women’s league beginning this October. Crucially, the four-team league will have room in its budget for player salary, though currently not enough to make hockey a full-time job for players. While fans of hockey have greeted the media-savvy launch with excitement – the NWHL and all four of its teams began with a social media charm offensive which looks as polished and professional as one would expect from any national sports league – the CWHL’s response was, to put it mildly, unenthused.

Whether this new league will be an unequivocal positive, as the initial response may indicate, will depend largely on three things. First, will the NWHL’s business model live up to the hype? Some pundits have indicated that the biggest problem with the CWHL has been the lack of a quality business plan, something which the NWHL looks to be trying to rectify. Second, to what extent can the NWHL develop fans with concerted, thoughtful outreach beyond what the CWHL has attempted? Less than 24 hours into their launch – before the official event on April 13, even – and the NWHL has already won praise with the level of flash they’ve displayed. Will they be able to keep it up? Finally, will the NWHL be able to attract the kind of marketable, high-quality talent on which the CWHL has had a virtual monopoly up to this point? Without high quality competiton, the NWHL will essentially be all flash and no substance. Are there enough talented hockey players out there to sustain two leagues without sacrificing quality of play?

Buckle up, kids. It’s gonna be an interesting year.

Eliza Eaton-Stern
Eliza is co-owner and Editor-in-Chief of The Other Half. She did her undergrad at the University of St. Andrews, where she once played air guitar with Prince William, and her Masters at the London School of Economics, where she wrote her dissertation on the history of military veterans in the Paralympic Movement. Despite the amount of time spent in Great Britain, she remains staunchly Midwestern in her feelings about how much cheese should accompany any given meal (lots). She lives in Colorado with her Hockey Hating Husband, where she plays rugby and yells at the TV about a wide variety of sports, including hockey, football, and other football.

2 comments on “The Flipside of Growing the Game: Women’s Hockey in 2015”

  1. DiscussionStarter says:

    “Ok, I feel as if I need to leave my thoughts about this here as a current women’s university hockey player who knows a lot of current CWHL players, some of whom were instrumental in setting up the CWHL itself.
    As happy as I am to see some excitement about expanding women’s hockey, the idea of this league leaves an extremely bad taste in my mouth for several reasons. First of all – the funding. Obviously one of the biggest goals in women’s hockey right now is paying the players. The CWHL has been trying to work towards this for years, but the fact is they struggle to even break even on profits, let alone have enough to give the players a dime. In fact, members of the Boston Blades are required to pay[1] in order to play in the Clarkson Cup (CWHL finals). How, even with corporate sponsors, is a startup league acquiring $260,000 per team JUST for player salaries, in addition to providing equipment? That’s a HUGE jump from the minimal profits the CWHL faces. They’re saying “Yeah we’ll pay everyone! And here’s free equipment! Check out all our fancy marketing and logos! Come to our launch party!” without actually outlining HOW they’re getting this money or how they plan on running this league. They have not established any partnerships with NHL teams, like the Montreal Stars & Canadiens did last week. It feels extremely similar to the Mars ONE craze – saying “Yup we’re sending people to mars in a couple years with billions of dollars from corporate sponsors” – yeah, we all know how feasable that one is. Until they start announcing how they’re getting over 1 million dollars per year (plus all the costs of actually running the teams/league), I’m not buying it.
    Second reason I don’t like this is women’s hockey is a very young sport, with a pretty small market. Why should we splinter the already small fanbase into two leagues, especially by putting a second team into Boston? It seems like the minds behind this completely glossed over the fact that there is already an established women’s hockey league that is making some great progress for the sport (again, see the Stars-Canadiens partnership – it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Flames, Leafs, and Bruins follow suit in the next couple of years). The fact is, women’s hockey is not big enough to support two pro leagues – very few sports are. Why turn it into a competition and splinter profits/support when you can put your efforts into GROWING the current league? It’s a complete disregard for wanting the best for women’s hockey, and it pisses me off. Anyone who doesn’t really know anything about women’s hockey would be excited for this because what harm comes of it? But all my teammates who I’ve discussed it with agree – the promises this league is making just don’t make sense, something smells fishy, and the last thing we want is to see some players or the sport overall get screwed by this.”

    • Eliza Eaton Eliza Eaton says:

      First of all – I definitely appreciate your perspective. I don’t necessarily think that 100% of the people who are excited about the development “don’t really know anything about women’s hockey” or have “complete disregard for wanting the best for women’s hockey” – having seen the reaction from some collegiate women’s players, though clearly not the ones on your team, that have greeted this with excitement, I presume they want the best for the sport they play. Additionally, a lot of excitement has come from some journalists who have been covering the CWHL all season, who have been frustrated with the lack of transparency, media-friendliness, and fan outreach strategy from the league.

      I haven’t seen the business plan for the NWHL, so I obviously can’t speak to the costs. That being said, the total cost for player salary for the league with the salary cap they currently have set would be just over a million dollars. This is not NHL money or even AHL money – as someone who has done professional fundraising before, this is extremely feasible to raise, especially when spread over four cities with the level of media-friendliness they’ve already displayed.

      As for the two-league thing – especially given that the bulk of the teams in the CWHL are in Canada, I’m not convinced that there would be competition for dollars or butts in seats anywhere but Boston. Beyond Boston, I think that two different models of growth – the CWHL model and the NWHL model – could potentially function the same way that has happened with other sports in the past century, where two leagues with slightly different rules and styles of doing things have grown simultaneously, eventually merging when both have the resources to do so. This has happened with all other major sports leagues in North America except for MLS and WNBA.

      Furthermore, with the growth of niche sport television, it’s not an impossible idea that some sort of TV partnership could be negotiated, especially given that there are almost 70,000 registered women’s hockey players in the US alone, and all of them have family and friends who might conceivably want to watch the game with their daughters. What I’m saying is, there’s a lot of reason to be positive about this. And it’s understandable that the people with the NWHL, especially if they were frustrated by the same things that have frustrated the people who have tried to cover the CWHL in the past few years, might not want to put their efforts into building a league whose methods they disagree with. I don’t think we can fault anyone for wanting to put their efforts into something they think will be successful. And I certainly don’t think it’s fair to say that people who disagree with that don’t want the best for the league.

      Thanks for commenting, though – I do genuinely appreciate your perspective, and I’d love to hear what you thought about the rest of the piece beyond the edit.

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