Better Know a League: National Women's Hockey League

It doesn't say much for the state of women's professional sports when an article on Yahoo, reporting on the creation of the National Women's Hockey League, has the headline "NWHL, new women's hockey league, promises to pay players". It's a promise that has to be made, though, especially when the only option in North America for female hockey players is the Canadian Women's Hockey League... which doesn't pay its players. Even America's biggest female athletes are heading overseas for big money, and when the WNBA--the biggest women's professional league in any team sport--has an average yearly salary of $72,000, and caps its salaries at $105,000 a year. Former WNBA MVP and two-time WNBA Finals MVP Diana Taurasi is actually sitting out her WNBA season to rest for her season in Russia, where her yearly salary is $1.5 million.

Even with the current reality, it’s still easy to understand why new sports leagues are created. There is a demand for more pro leagues that feature women, and it plays into the greater demand of increased exposure for women’s team sports as a whole. But the “how” of things—as in, how do you make a sports league both become successful and stick around—is a far more difficult question to answer. It’s doubly difficult to answer when it hasn’t been done before by a women’s hockey league. 

Is there a formula to success for a new pro league? If by “formula” you mean “kindergarten math equation”, then yes. The formula is Money + Exposure = Success, and even then, results may vary. Ask the USFL or the XFL. Both leagues featured the most popular sport in the country played by true professionals and veterans. Steve Young, Jim Kelly, and Reggie White all played for the USFL, while the XFL featured several players that continued their careers in the NFL, most notably Tommy Maddox. Both leagues also had major network television deals; the USFL was shown on ABC for three seasons, while the XFL was featured on NBC. Both leagues had everything they needed to succeed at their disposal, and didn’t. This is where we get into the whole “results may vary” section, and dive a little deeper into the “money” part of the equation.

How does a millionaire or a billionaire stay so fabulously wealthy? How does a television network remain on the air? How can a sports league afford to pay its players? Three questions, one answer: advertising revenue. Anybody with enough money can start a league of some kind, or at the very least own a team. But it costs a lot, and we’re not talking one-time costs here, either. Yearly salaries of every employee, every piece of equipment and supplies needed, marketing costs, and arena upkeep are just a few of the costs that need to be covered by a team’s owner, and there isn’t a team in any organization on the planet that survives on ticket sales alone. For crying out loud, the 2013 UEFA Champions League final (yes I’m referring to soccer) between Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, two German teams, was viewed by 360 million people worldwide, and every team STILL has corporation names sprawled out across the very front of their jersey. One of the most popular leagues in the most popular sport on the planet is still beholden to the corporate masters.

Obviously television networks need advertising revenue, as it’s been at the core of their business model since Philo Farnsworth got tired of listening to things on the radio and didn’t have a ride to the movie theater. So how did this play into the failures of both the USFL and the XFL? Addressing the latter league first, it depends on who you believe. Vince McMahon and the WWE would tell you their ambitious (though well-executed) league went kaput due to the NFL blackmailing sponsors, threatening to cut ties if they advertised during XFL games. Everybody else will tell you it’s because NBC and the league lost a combined $35 million. The USFL, on the  other hand, was dissolved by its owners when they weren’t satisfied with the TV contracts ABC and ESPN were offering. Of course, some owners, like Donald Trump of the New Jersey Generals, always had the goal of integration with the NFL in mind, as it would greatly multiply their already large investments.

Comparing these two leagues to the NWHL is a little unfair. As previously stated, football is a far more popular sport than hockey, and neither one of those leagues had to face the uphill battle than any all-women league has to face. They’re important cases to bring up in when new leagues spring about, simply because it shows how fragile those first few years can be. Think about the two most recent examples of successful new leagues: Major League Soccer and the WNBA. Neither league has had decent ratings at any point in their existence, but had major partners in the sports world to fall back on; most WNBA teams are affiliated with a counterpart NBA team in some way, sharing the same stadium and frequently the same owners, while MLS teams are recognized internationally and have competed in international play in the CONCACAF Champions League. Both leagues were filling a huge void, had a large number of players and teams to start out with, TV contracts in their inaugural season, and played in huge arenas. They were blessed from birth.

Most teams in new leagues are forced to play at small colleges, minor league baseball parks, and high schools. The four teams in the NWHL play in a variety of locations, with some teams luckier than others. The Buffalo Beauts, for example, will play across the street from the Buffalo Sabres, while the Boston Pride will play in a club arena outside of Boston, in Everett. Like most new leagues, the NWHL doesn’t have big name stars, or the resources for major marketing and advertising campaigns, so getting people to even notice the existence of a new team in their city, much less buy tickets for games, is a massive challenge unto itself. Even with the amazing reach social media can have, there’s only so many ways to get a post or a tweet across someone’s computer or phone screen without resorting to the almighty dollar.

Wow, there’s a lot of negativity in those above paragraphs. Let me get to the core of why, even against all the odds, having a women’s hockey league is so important: representation. Who are the women in the world of hockey that a young girl that’s interested in hockey can easily look to and see what she wants to become? Are we really supposed to tell these young women to wait every four years to watch their idols? What about when they finally do reach the age when they can turn pro? Are they just supposed to keep playing as a hobby and wonder “what if?” Pardon me if I go all “A League of Their Own” here, but women deserve a pro hockey league. They deserve a pro football league, a pro basketball league, a pro soccer league, a pro baseball or softball league. They deserve the chance to play professionally in any damn sport a man can, and get paid to do it.

So pay attention to the NWHL. They’re giving us something women deserve, and something we all need.