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.