The fight to sell women's hockey: Can the CWHL become the WNBA?
Montreal's Julie Chu will look to add the 2014-15 Clarkson Cup to her trophy case this weekend. (photo by Jess Desjardins/CWHL)
The fight to sell women's hockey: Can the CWHL become the WNBA?
The female pro game wants to be taken seriously. It needs more sponsorship and increased day-to-day commitment from its athletes. But how can one happen without the other?
People close to Julie Chu consider her superhuman. But you’d have to forgive her if you spotted bags under her eyes in winter 2013. It was a non-Olympic year, so Chu, one of Team USA’s most decorated forwards ever, worked as an assistant coach with Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., as a day job. She gave instruction wearing full equipment so she could squeeze daily workouts in simultaneously. She stayed with the team from Monday to Saturday, including game nights, which were typically Friday and Saturday. Her rest and recreation after a game consisted of hopping in her car and driving to Montreal (215 miles), Toronto (367 miles) or Boston (186 miles), depending on where her Canadian Women’s League team competed that weekend. She’d arrive to join it late – often at 2 a.m. or so. She’d get what sleep she could and play in the Montreal Stars’ game the next day. After that? Back in the car. Back to Eastern New York to get ready for work Monday. Rinse, repeat.
It’s not quite the glamorous life you’d picture for a Harvard graduate who finished her amateur career as the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer, was her country’s flag bearer at the end of the 2014 Sochi Games and donates oodles of money to buy hockey equipment for children of military members. Yet Chu’s story paints an accurate picture of everyday life for elite female hockey players – and she’s one of the lucky ones. She’s been fortunate enough to find work in the sport when she’s not competing. Still, she can’t get paid to play the game professionally. No CWHL players can. They’re forced to work other jobs, yet they’re expected to perform at the peak of their abilities on game day. They’re attempting to attract interest, sponsors and enthusiasm while playing the sport with one hand tied behind their collective back.
It doesn’t feel that way to outsiders during an Olympic year. Those are the times when international eyes fawn over women’s hockey, at least for Canada and the U.S., and the individual sponsorships pour in.
The 2014 Games were extra special for the Canadian and American teams, as they played one of the most memorable international contests, male or female, in the history of the sport in the final, with Canada rallying from a 2-0 deficit late in the third period to win in overtime. Players from both teams felt like they were put on the map at that moment.
“The outpouring of support from everyone across the U.S., to my knowledge, was unbelievable,” said Team USA captain Meghan Duggan. “People were coming from everywhere, and if you look at social media, everyone’s followers went up. People were contacting us, emailing us, writing us. And even coming home, and bumping into people in airports, or in the mall…things like that. The exposure was fantastic.”
Canadian legend Jayna Hefford, a four-time Olympic gold medallist, said 2014 had a positive lingering effect because that final game was so exciting. At her subsequent speaking engagements and at her hockey school, people wanted to talk about Sochi. They wanted to touch her medal. But, soon enough, the Winter Games disappear in the rearview mirror and they’re suddenly forgotten by mainstream fans. Players experience an adrenaline dump.
“Some people say, ‘Post-Olympic Depression,’ ” Duggan said. “There is all this buildup, all this excitement, all this media attention…and then the Olympics come, and then they end after two weeks, and then it all just goes away. ”
After the Olympics comes life uncertainty. Do these players return to school? Search for a job?
“We’re not just robots who play hockey,” said Canadian blueliner Tara Watchorn, a 2014 gold medallist. “We like to have family and significant others, so it’s hard balancing everything in non-Olympic years.”
Most of them spend their non-Olympic years in the CWHL. Now in its eighth season, it’s considered a professional circuit and has by far the best collection of worldwide female hockey talent. It’s the closest thing to a women’s NHL. The CWHL consists of five franchises: the Boston Blades, Brampton Thunder, Calgary Inferno, Montreal Stars and Toronto Furies. The league’s funding is centralized, meaning all revenue and expenses are shared equally between teams.
The CWHL’s regular season attendance has grown every year since the league’s 2008 inception, from just 2,000 total league-wide fans (not per game) in Year 1 to about 12,000 last season. Viewership, via broadcasting and streaming, exceeded 40,000 last year, almost doubling from two years prior. The CWHL website’s traffic is up. Name the metric and it’s trending the right way. Attendance didn’t rise as significantly last season, but it was an Olympic year, meaning the elite players were absent the entire season as national teams centralized for training.
Players don’t yet earn salaries in the CWHL, but commissioner Brenda Andress said the league’s $1.5-million budget ensures “the player doesn’t pay a cent.” Travel, hotels, equipment and ice are covered.
“We are on our target for getting the players paid down the road, and that’s the great news,” Andress said. “Everybody’s said, ‘Oh, you’re not getting any closer. And I’m thinking, ‘No, actually, here’s the plan. We’re going to pay the players at this date.’ And we’re sitting at Year 3 of that plan, and we’re dead on with Year 3 and where we want to be.”
That’s the optimistic way to look at the CWHL. The pessimistic way? The league remains years away from being taken seriously. The entire season’s attendance is about half a Chicago Blackhawks games’ worth of people. And until interest skyrockets, the dream of turning CWHL players into full-time employees is of the pipe variety.
The main problem impeding the league’s growth consists of two items: one chicken and one egg.
Let’s call the game itself the chicken and money the (golden) egg. Is the chicken fertile enough to yield the egg yet? In other words, is the CWHL game elite enough and entertaining enough to deserve and attract more fans? It’s certainly closer during years when the Olympians are home to play, and the Canadian and American ones at least get stipends from their governments to focus on training and performing at peak levels.
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword right now, because we have Olympians and people who play on the national team who are supported by the government and can focus on themselves and use hockey and training, get the proper nutrition, et cetera,” said Team Canada forward Jennifer Wakefield. “But you need other players who still want to play a game, and they’re the girls who have the full-time jobs and need to be able to balance the full-time work schedule and play hockey. And in order for the game to grow, we need those types of players. It’s unfortunate that's what it’s come to, to put a product on the ice. If we had more players able to be sponsored and make a living playing hockey, the product on the ice would escalate dramatically.”
So the non-Olympians endure schedules similar to Chu’s hectic routine from a couple years back, but with no extra financial support for their training from the government. The eight-hour-a-day full-time job gives way to weekend travel and CWHL games. As Andress points out, they also somehow have to squeeze in fitness training and any type of therapy their bodies require to recover from injury. Considering how much these players burn the candle at both ends to stay financially afloat, is it any wonder the CWHL hasn’t yet reached the elite skill level to draw in more eyeballs?
And it’s not like getting a full-time job is the easiest thing in the world when you’re a pro athlete on the side.
“I’ve never done it, because I’m almost afraid of what someone’s going to say to me,” Watchorn said. “I can’t imagine going into a job saying, ‘I have all these abilities, you should hire me, but I’m going to miss this week in September, this week in November and two weeks in April. And that’s not even including the Fridays and Mondays I might miss travelling with our CWHL team.”
The athletes who devote themselves to separate professions – lawyers, doctors and so on – have no choice but to treat the league as a hobby. These are the CWHLers we hear less about. They may have the ability to become elite, but they don’t spend enough time practising. They choose to make money in their other professions, and it’s difficult to blame them. Some potential stars have even left the sport altogether to pursue their separate careers. The best female player on the planet, Meghan Agosta-Marciano, chose a paying career path outside the CWHL. It’s officer Agosta-Marciano now, and she laces ’em up in the Vancouver Police Department men’s league.
Sweden’s Pernilla Winberg, who tied for the scoring lead in Sochi, finds herself in strange predicaments back home. She can actually make a living as a player in Europe – if she can find the right team. Last year, she moved from southern Sweden to the northernmost point to play for a team that compensated her well enough to survive. So she can uproot herself to live paycheque to paycheque in remote locations or she can search for a different job. The options aren’t prestigious if she chooses the latter.
“I guess you need a bad job, because you don’t have to be there all the time,” Winberg said. “So you have to be, like, a cleaning lady, where you can just come whenever they need you.”
Why don’t North Americans pack their bags and get paid to play overseas? Most of them believe the overall talent pool in those leagues pales in comparison to the CWHL’s.
The CWHL’s quality of play has made tremendous strides, and Andress suggests the league can be more entertaining than the Olympics because it has parity instead of only Canada and the U.S. having a shot to win anything. Still, to progress further, it needs money. Without it, the talent has improved almost as much as it can.
Now, the aforementioned egg. How does the CWHL improve upon the $1.5 million it uses to keep its nostrils above the waterline? How can it start paying its players? Individually, sponsorship is within reach. The game’s biggest names get the larger endorsement deals. During Olympic times, even mom and pop shops reach out. Wakefield had a car dealership in her hometown give her some wheels and cover her insurance. Hefford believes it’s about time, as the players can offer sponsors a symbiotic relationship.
“You can do a lot with the great role models, really well-educated girls, elite athletes,” Hefford said. “We’re at a point where we want to give back to the people that are helping us. So it’s not a matter of writing a cheque and ‘here you go.’ If you had sponsors that are going to get involved financially, they’re going to get payback from Olympic athletes. They’re going to have role models in the community. Maybe they don’t understand that part of it.”
The CWHL has prominent sponsors in Scotiabank, IBC, Bauer, Molson, Tim Hortons, Winsport and Bridgeforce. But those companies don’t provide the significant aid the league needs to break into a new popularity stratosphere.
The natural place to look, of course, is the NHL. Where is Gary Bettman in all this? Why doesn’t the NHL create a WNHL? First off, the leagues have met with each other. Andress said she wanted the NHL’s marketing expertise, and the CWHL also felt it had plenty to offer the NHL. Women comprise 14 percent of all registrations today, Andress said, so she feels it would make sense for the NHL to tap into that chunk of the pie. But there’s one crucial problem with the WNBA-style partnership.
“If you ask Mr. Bettman or if you ask the NBA people, were they happy with that particular partnership, they will tell you ‘No, it was a disaster,’ ” Andress said. “So, the WNBA made out OK, but the NBA said it cost them a lot of money until the WNBA grew. If you ask me if that’s a partnership that was worth it, I would say absolutely, because if you look at their fan base, their fan base now has grown based on those opportunities created because of the dollars the NBA put in there.”
The CWHL doesn’t feel totally left out in the cold by the NHL. Andress said it supports the CWHL by acknowledging and applauding the league’s existence. Individual franchises, like the Toronto Maple Leafs, Calgary Flames and Montreal Canadiens, have taken it upon themselves to sponsor and cross-promote with their sister CWHL teams. Brant Feldman, agent for players such as Agosta-Marciano, Chu, Duggan and Tessa Bonhomme, said it’s a huge win for the CWHL. The NHL teams deploy their massive group sales forces to reach a much wider ticket list and can pitch CWHL games along with other events in the NHL arenas, from ice shows to concerts. The NHL teams have the expertise to reach schools and the family and female demographics.
So far the women’s league isn’t an attractive enough sell yet to woo the NHL as a whole. How does that happen down the road? With more eyeballs. The most obvious source is TV, and the CWHL has made strides there. It struck a four-year deal with Sportsnet in September to broadcast three games during the Clarkson Cup tournament in March and special events such as this past December’s CWHL All-Star Game. Sportsnet’s website also features CWHL scores for the first time. The next logical step is the TV ticker.
“You must be on them, because you need those highlights to get out if something great or dramatic occurs,” Feldman said. “If you’re in Canada, if you’re at (the bar) Real Sports and you’re watching TSN or Sportsnet and there’s a ticker, this ticker has to have, ‘women’s hockey, Toronto over Calgary 3-2, Montreal over Boston 5-0.’ “It’s got to show up so people go, ‘Oh, women’s hockey, I didn’t even know there was a league.’ ”
Part of why the CWHL needs help promoting itself? It lacks experience in doing so. Feldman said Andress wears many hats. What if it’s too many? She has another career to juggle, running a company that teaches leadership courses and public speaking. She doesn’t have experienced sports marketers at her disposal. And as Chu points out, the majority of the CWHL’s promotional staffers are volunteers who have full-time jobs. Even when the big sponsors help for the Clarkson Cup, Feldman said, the staffers they lend to the CWHL aren’t necessarily hockey experts. Adding big names to its board of directors, including Flames president Brian Burke, Arlene Dickinson, the entrepreneur from CBC’s Dragon’s Den, and former Bauer Hockey chairman (and current GTA Sports and Entertainment CEO) Graeme Roustan, will help fill the experience void.
The athletes can promote the league by being more visible. That includes appearing on reality TV shows, as Tessa Bonhomme did on Wipeout Canada and Battle of the Blades and Meaghan Mikkelson and Natalie Spooner did on The Amazing Race Canada.
“You’ve got to break them out,” Feldman said. “You’re not going to sell anything in shoulder pads, but if (U.S. soccer star) Alex Morgan is great for anything right now, it’s people going, ‘Damn, that soccer girl is really hot.’ And I know that brings up a whole other issue, but to me it’s not whether they’re hot or not. It’s whether an athlete can be seen in another light and not just in a cage.”
It’s important to clarify Feldman’s point. It’s not about objectifying women. It’s not about gender. The comparison works whether it’s Alex Morgan or Zach Parise. Women’s hockey is at a disadvantage because its athletes play behind face cages. It’s more difficult to recognize them and get to know them.
The women’s game has some nice victories in recent years: a memorable Olympics, slow but steady growth in attendance and exposure. Without a significant investment, however, a breakthrough to mainstream popularity looks unlikely. It may require a leap of faith from all parties involved. The product may speak for itself if the players keep improving and finding creative, individual ways to showcase themselves. A major investor like the NHL could decide to stomach a temporary financial hit in the name of future gain or at the very least good PR, as the NBA did. And lastly, prospective fans can’t be spoon-fed everything. They may have to get off the couch and grab a taste.
“If the fan truly wants to help us build this game, we just want them to buy a ticket,” Andress said. “Because if I fill an arena, I don’t have to bang on the sponsor’s door. They will bang on my door.”
The path is clear. It’s just a matter of who walks it first.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin