Back in early May, 200+ of North America’s top female ice hockey players announced that they would collectively sit-out the 2019-2020 N.W.H.L. (NWHL) season as a means of demonstrating their displeasure with the current working conditions (think: pay, benefits, facilities). Monique Lamoureux-Morando (one of the faces of the boycott) cites the W.N.B.A. (WNBA) “as a great example of what could be” if the National Hockey League were to make a comparable investment in women’s hockey. The players have since formed the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association – a trade organization that will “work with companies, business leaders and sports professionals worldwide who already have voiced support” for the sport – to increase the public pressure on the NHL to backstop the league. There has been no indication to date that the NHL wants a sister organization.
Howie Long-Short: Despite its name, the National Women’s Hockey League has no formal affiliation with the National Hockey League beyond the nominal annual donations made by the men’s league to the women’s game (was $50K as recently as ’18-’19, the figure reportedly doubled when the C.W.H.L. folded).
I found it odd that Lamoureux-Morando cited the WNBA as a beacon of success considering the league is 23 years in and many of its teams still lose money, NBA commissioner Adam Silver readily admits that the league still lacks “a winning [business] formula” and its players are vocal about their disdain for everything from compensation to travel accommodations and broadcast coverage. Then again, the WNBA’s median annual player salary is $71,500 – or $61,500 more than the WNHL’s highest paid players.
NHL participation would likely open the door to some sponsorship opportunities and help the women’s league off-set a large portion of its expenses – which in theory would help its long-term viability – but professional women’s hockey is a “non-profitable” endeavor; there simply isn’t a large enough audience for the product (one team drew just 423 fans/game last season). Team owners in cities like Brooklyn, Florida, Arizona, Carolina, Ottawa and New Jersey have a difficult enough time filling their buildings 41 nights/year (all averaged under 15,000 fans/game last season), one can understand why they would be hesitant to invest in product that’s significantly more difficult sell.
There is a case to be made that despite limited financial upside, the NHL should invest in the NWHL because a successful pro women’s hockey league would offer a boost to the long-term sustainability of the sport. Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff – a sports historian and consultant – points out that “if you look at soccer on a global basis, the opportunity for growth is in the women’s game. It would seem more logical for the NHL to invest in existing fan and player support bases than opening outlets in the desert” (see: league expansion).
Krasnoff also makes the argument that the NWHL’s struggles to date have had more to do with a lack of support from the NHL and its teams than it does fan interest. “The most successful women’s pro sports teams globally are ones that are either part of a larger sports organization (think: F.C. Barcelona) or tied to a professional men’s league” (like the WNBA). The reason those models work is because the women’s club(s) can leverage the infrastructure (think: marketing, training facilities) already in place to support the men’s side, which reduces overhead and makes them that much more feasible as long-term businesses.
It’s important to point out that most women’s soccer teams in Europe – even the ones associated with a men’s club – are not profitable, but that statement comes with a caveat; “the majority of the women’s clubs are less than a decade old. Olympique Lyonnais (OL), which has been around since 2006 (in its present form), is an example of a team that has begun to generate significant revenue” ($7 million – $8 million/year).
OL’s women’s soccer team generates more money than most female pro sports organizations because ownership invested significant resources into the club. The players are paid well and receive the same elite level training and medical support as the men’s side. As a result, Olympique Lyonnais has won the French league championship 16 years running. That on-field success has brought “sponsors and television contracts”, the revenue streams a pro sports team needs to survive – particularly if they’re not selling tickets.
Fan Marino: If the omni-channel model works at the team level, it’s worth wondering if a few NHL owners would be willing to play the long-game and invest in NWHL clubs without the league’s formal participation. Krasnoff believes that it would make sense to focus on “established hockey markets that are much stronger and more supportive of the local club than some of the newer markets where the men’s team is still trying to gain a foothold. Sections of the Midwest and Northeast – where hockey culture has long been ingrained – are much more viable markets for the league.” It would also seem logical that owners in the NHL’s most successful markets would be the ones best suited (and most willing) to absorb early losses.
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