[Ed. Note: Welcome to the first Women's Hockey Notebook featuring the NWHL and CWHL. Every week we’ll feature a main story on one or both of the leagues, followed by a round up of the top news and notes in the women’s hockey universe and preview the weekend games. I fully admit the layout is borrowed from Richard Deitsch’s weekly media column on SI.com.]
When talking about the reasons the NHL has not dipped their mitts into fully supporting a women’s professional hockey league, the WNBA is used as an example. The comparison warranted but not entirely appropriate. It starts at the top.
The WNBA was the brainchild of then-NBA Commissioner David Stern. From ESPNW’s Mechelle Voepel in January 2014:
Part of [Stern’s] vast résumé is the founding of the WNBA in June 1997, thanks to Stern's belief in the concept -- and his ability to sell the NBA's owners on it.
"Without his vision and engagement, the league wouldn't have gotten off the ground," said Val Ackerman, who was the first WNBA president. "He was the mastermind, and the WNBA was really in line with his vision about how sports and society are intertwined.”
Read that last sentence again, “He was the mastermind, and the WNBA was really in line with his vision about how sports and society are intertwined.” Now more than ever is having that understanding critically important to women’s sports.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is a pupil of Stern’s. At least outwardly, he doesn’t share the same conviction of gender equity in sports on many levels. (Too many, actually, but for this purpose of this piece, we’ll focus on the expansion of women’s hockey.)
"My own view is it's very important to support women's hockey, to maintain its presence at the Olympics. The way women's hockey will get bigger and better around the world is if there's an inspiration of excellence that people can strive for," Bettman said at the Beyond Sport Summit, designed to promote the use of sports to create social change.
"I think it would be a huge mistake for the IOC or the [International Ice Hockey Federation] to consider doing anything that diminishes the role of women's hockey," he said.
To be fair, Bettman is speaking about the women’s hockey in the Olympics and the possibility of the International Olympic Committee removing the games from the lineup. Yet, he opened the door. He knows the growth of the women’s game hinges on the opportunity to strive for something beyond a college title.
At the winter games in Sochi, Bettman was asked about the league’s involvement in women’s hockey by NBC’s Al Michaels. Kevin Kaduk of Yahoo reports:
"We actually had a consultant take a look at this for us," Bettman told Al Michaels Thursday on NBC Sports Network. "The overall development at women's hockey at the grassroots level through the college level isn't at the point where a pro league is viable."
A couple things:
He makes this statement in 2012. The CWHL had been in business for five years by this point with many of the players he’s watching in Sochi in their league. The women are not paid because of the lack of major financial backing BUT they’re still committed to the game while they work. Additionally, the fan base is growing and would see a major bump following the games in Sochi.
Using his reasoning from 2010 combined with his comments in Sochi, if young girls playing hockey need to see success in order to want to play, it needs to happen more than every four years. Making the Olympic roster is a most players goal and it goes to a small select group of players. Men have the opportunity to strive for greatness in the NHL when they aren’t selected for their country’s roster. Without legitimate women’s pro-sports leagues, the dream ends for many in college.
Lastly, he uses the dreaded term ‘viable’ in his response to Michaels. By that, of course, he means a money maker, which in reality, it probably won’t be for a while.
Part of this inability to commit to the women’s game comes from the owners he serves. The NBA and NHL are two totally different entities when it comes to business decisions. The NBA was thriving when the board of governors approved the WNBA business plan in 1996; the league had cemented itself within the Big 3 of American sports. On the other hand, the NHL has had frequent instability as a result of labor battles in the past two decades. The league finds itself having to win its own fans back time after time. It’s the old cliche of taking two steps forward and one step back.
NHL owners are constantly bickering about the distribution of hockey revenue and it will undergo a major shift - positively and negatively - if teams are added in Las Vegas and Quebec. Herein lies the problem.
Like Stern did with the WNBA, Bettman would have to take this matter upon himself to sell it to the owners. Owners who are in a vastly different financial situation than their NBA counterparts at the time of the WNBA introduction. The NBA took on full ownership of WNBA franchises until 2002 when they opened the teams up for purchase; the league owned the gains and the losses from inception. The NHL will have to do the same. Will it hurt the bottom line, yes. But it’s a bottom line that’s been increasing for nearly a decade. According to Statista, between the 2005-2006 season to the 2013-2014 season, league revenues have increased by $1.43-billion in that time period.
With the league diverting funds into supporting a women’s league on top of two possible expansion franchises and weak market teams, there is less money for the owners; something we all know will not fly with that group.
Give credit where it’s due, the Calgary Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens have given a small amount of financial support to their local CWHL clubs, but full fledged ownership of a women’s team isn’t something any of those teams are considering. Hell might actually freeze over before Jeremy Jacobs supports one of two Boston women’s teams in his market, let alone own one of them.
Both the CWHL and the NWHL have approached the NHL and have offered these comments on the relationship between the groups.
From Sasky Stewart, Director of Marketing and Communications for the CWHL:
"The NHL has been an invaluable partner to the CWHL not just through the financial and non-financial support from their teams (Toronto, Montreal, Calgary) but through consistent support and guidance at a league level and from league staff including Gary Bettman and Susan Cohig since our inception 8 seasons go. Not only at a league level though, but the support of individual teams have helped the CWHL’s dramatic growth over the past few years.The Toronto Maple Leafs active support of the CWHL has helped us host our first All-Star game, an event we can’t wait to bring back in February for its 2nd time and partnerships with the Flames and Canadiens have put our players front and centre numerous times to people who may not have seen them otherwise."
And from a league representative at the NWHL:
"The NWHL and NHL have had an open dialogue since our formal announcement earlier this year. These talks have been open, positive and focused on the overall growth of the game. The NHL has been a driving force of women's hockey from the grassroots to the pros. If something happens between the leagues, the emphasis will be to do it in the right way, which sometimes isn't the quickest. These things take time and we're grateful to have a seat at the table."
The NHL was contacted for comment and at the time of publication has not provided a response.
As much as we’d all love to see the CWHL and the NWHL survive on their own, in reality, they’re going to need the NHL’s financial backing if they want to see growth and stability.
In business, the saying “you have to spend money to make money” is often used. This is relevant to where the NHL finds itself. Bettman and the owners have to make the financial commitment to the women’s game, even if it comes at the detriment to their already large piggy banks. The league needs to take the hit now to serve the growth of the sport for years to come.
It may not make business sense, but it’s common sense for the greater good.
News and Notes Dossier:
Does the NWHL Need a Fighting Code? Players address the physical altercations that took place between the Boston Pride and the New York Riveters.
Boston Blades announce Clarkson Cup tour schedule. 2014-2015 CWHL champion Boston Blades will begin to take the trophy around Boston starting Tuesday, October 27.
An Agent’s Perspective: Signing with the NWHL. Insight into the process that delayed the players associated with Team USA leaving the CWHL and signing with the NWHL from an agent involved in the process.
The CWHL 40 Player Roster. Explaining why teams in this league have a huge roster.
Riveters: Chad Wiseman Not Satisfied With Compete Level. The head coach talks about his team’s 0-2-0 start to the NWHL season.
Genevieve Lacasse could be the Blade’s savior this season. The netminder brings stability to a shaken Blades roster.
Want to play professional hockey? Now you can, as part of the NWHL! Amy Pohler's Smart Girls platform - YES THAT AMY POHLER - shows girls they can go pro, too.
[Cover women’s hockey on your blog? Drop us a link to stories, videos, podcasts, Tweets, etc. you want included here and in Puck Headlines at firstname.lastname@example.org]
If you watch only one video this weekend...
It should be Boston Pride superstar Hilary Knight and her GoPro camera treatment on the ice. MOTION SICKNESS WARNING!
Weekend Hockey Agenda:
Toronto Furies (1-0-1) @ Brampton Thunder (0-0-2) 6:30 PM ET
Boston Blades (1-1-0) @ Calgary Inferno 8:15 PM ET ($$ stream)
Boston Blades (1-1-0) @ Calgary Inferno 10:00 AM ET
Toronto Furies (1-0-1) @ Brampton Thunder 1:30 PM ET ($$ stream)
NWHL (all streamed free)
Boston Pride (2-0-0) @ Buffalo Beauts (0-2-0) 3:30 PM ET
Connecticut Whale (2-0-0) @ New York Riveters (0-2-0) 7:00 PM ET
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