Everything Else

A few days ago, a major story broke that the CWHL (Canadian Women’s Hockey League) would be folding in total. That leaves the NWHL as the only women’s professional hockey league running in North America, and leaves a lot more questions than answers.

I’ve never really known where to stand when these discussions. On one side, at the end of the day all of sports are a business, or entertainment if you prefer, and a given league or team either succeeds in the market place or it doesn’t. There’s either interest or there isn’t.

On the other, that really only works in a completely fair marketplace, or in a vacuum one. Women’s sports as a whole deal with a lot of prejudice or myopia or fallacies, and hence has more to overcome than others. Although to counter that, we just watched the AAF turn into dust nearly instantly and it’s not like this nation has a small appetite for football.

Triangulating this debate, I guess, is that while sports and leagues are not and should not be a charity, there is something beyond dollars and cents to the continued growth, promotion, and coverage of women’s sports. As we know, in every facet of society, representation matters.

On the other side, having a job or being professional in whatever your chose vocation is not a right, and you can ask thousands if not millions of bloggers about that. Just because you happen to be among the best in the world at something doesn’t mean you’re entitled to make a living at it, even if your male counterparts do. That’s a harsh reality, but it’s kind of the way things are.

I can’t seem to do anything but stand at the nexus of where all these things meet, never leaning to one side or angle of it.

Women’s hockey has greater challenges than basketball or soccer. Women’s basketball has been in the nations consciousness longer, and both of those sports have greater participation at the youth level (though hockey continues to grow). While some would point to the popularity of the US and Canadian women’s team during the Olympics, even the men’s side can’t turn viewing numbers and following during the Olympics into something tangible for the league in which these players play afterward. What chance would the women have?

Another sharp end of these kinds of debates is where the NHL fits in and how involved or not involved it should be with a women’s league. It’s easy to point to the NBA’s involvement in the WNBA, but the NBA has a lot more money to play with and again, women’s basketball has a stronger base from which to work from. Women’s hockey’s base is getting stronger, but may never approach that.

Without getting a look at their books, it’s hard to know how much money the NHL has to set aside to either help, or totally fund, a WNHL as it were. Or just to do the same with the existing NWHL. What I do know is it’s probably more than this:

That’s $100K. That’s a little over $3,000 per team. In a league that just got $650M in expansion fees from Seattle, and isn’t too far removed from just about the same from Vegas, both totals the league didn’t have to share with the players in anything other than maybe salary. Except those fees weren’t included in the league’s revenue that’s subject to players salaries. Curious, no?

I don’t even know if this would qualify as a token gesture. This feels almost like the dude throwing a quarter out of his moving BMW at the homeless person next to the underpass off the Stevenson.

Again, I have no idea what NHL teams would have to give to a women’s league. This is a league where the Hawks still claim to lose money, but hey check out that new scoreboard next year! What I do know is that if you’re going to wade in and say you’re going to help, you have to do a lot better than this. Do or do not, there is no try.

What the NHL probably has to figure out is how much of an investment a women’s league is. Would cultivating a generation of young girls as fans help in 10-15 years? That might sound cold, but the correct things done for selfish reasons are certainly better than nothing at all. You have to believe that was the calculation, or in part was, the NBA made with the WNBA. And it’s been able to hang around long enough to be in a fairly strong position. Or much stronger than it was.

It’s hard to see where that kind of investment could hurt. Part of the NBA’s calculation wouldn’t work for the NHL, I don’t think, which is that they can run a WNBA season when the NBA isn’t playing and then maybe catch new fans in the fall and winter. Or give idling NBA fans something to do in the summer. Maybe hockey can work in the summer, but I tend to doubt it. And that’s based on nothing but feel.

Let’s just say you asked every NHL team for $500K. I’m just going to go ahead and say they have it. And I would imagine $15M for the NWHL would make a difference. Maybe not as much as I’d first guess, but a difference. Surely the publicity and the appearance is worth that to teams that are all valued at several hundred million?

Maybe that’s not enough, maybe the NHL doesn’t have that to give, maybe women’s hockey just isn’t going to work anytime soon. But I’m fairly sure we can do better than this.

Everything Else

As we settle into a deeper state of depression over the lack of activity, and the seemingly intended lack of activity, from the Hawks, let’s kick around some news outside. Eric Duhatschek of The Athletic did an interview with Hayley Wickenheiser, the most decorated women’s hockey player of all-time. Her comments about what a women’s professional league should look like has raised a few eyebrows. Here it is in full:

” I was just in the NHL offices three weeks ago meeting with them about WickFest, which the NHL is on board with and partnering with us on – and then we had a discussion about women’s pro hockey. The NHL is ready and willing and has a plan in place to take on women’s pro hockey. The problem right now with women’s hockey is the women in hockey. It’s not anyone else. It’s the women in hockey…

…I know the Canadian Women’s Hockey League would be happy to fold and hand it over to the NHL. They seem to be the reasonable people in all of this. The NWHL wants to make a go of it – or if they are going to hand it over to the NHL, want a lot of money to do so, and that doesn’t make any sense. So, I question the motives there.

But at the end of the day, the power in all of this is the players. And I’ve said this to many players. It’s time for the players to band together and rise up and they can make instant change if they wanted to – and make this thing (a unified league) happen. It was the same at the WADA event, watching the athletes of the world realizing, ‘wow, if we all collectively say something, we might make a change.’

It’s the same in women’s hockey. Get the best 40 women’s players in the world to say, ‘we aren’t playing in either league until we have one league to play in.’ That would be the easiest way forward. Gary Bettman does not want to be seen to be breaking any league — or want any lawsuits on his hands. I think that’s a weak way of looking at it. The WHA and the NHL, same thing happened (a merger). I think they should just do it. I don’t think there’s anything they can lose. They would put everyone else out of business and then be able to do it the right way. To me, that’s the only way forward – and again, people want to complain that women need pro hockey, and the women need TV. Well, then the women in the game need to do something about it. So that’s my view – and the first time I’ve ever said that (laughs).”

There’s some pretty meaty stuff in there, but I remain unconvinced it’s as simple as Wickenheiser says it is.

First off, it’s not really clear what is meant by Gary Bettman “being on board.” Does that mean they’ll simply lend the NHL’s name to a possible women’s league, a WNHL as it were, without taking ownership of it? A dual-marketing drive? Or does she mean more the WNBA arrangement where NBA owners also own WNBA teams? The latter isn’t as simple as well.

The NBA is bathing in money, and thus can afford to take on a loss like the WNBA (and the WNBA still does lose money, though not as much as it used to). The NBA recognizes there are benefits to having a women’s league associated with it, and is willing to deal with the financial ramifications. But it’s also in a position to do that.

While I’ll never truly believe the NHL’s claims on their books, it is clear it doesn’t make anywhere near the money. How many teams, if that’s what the NHL was actually considering, could take on a “WNHL” team, at least to start before finding new ownership? Toronto? Montreal? That might be it. Maybe the Rangers? I’m not sure. Again, it would be great if the NHL could take on a loss because “it’s the right thing to do,” but I’m not convinced it’s in that spot.

It’s also never sat comfortably with some that the WNBA is a league that the NBA basically lets use the gym when the boys aren’t. It’s a little more natural to have basketball in the summer, but would a WNHL take place in the summer to have more attention? Would it run along with the NHL season as the CWL and NWHL do now? There are marketing benefits to that obviously, but there are challenges as well.

Secondly, the idea Wickenheiser puts forth here that fans and especially players should just go along with his idea seems a bit short-sighted. I don’t have any idea what the actual reasoning the players would have to try and stay out on their own, but it wouldn’t shock me if some of them said, “Um, the NHL is trash?”

One, this is a league that’s about to have several teams competing to sign Slava Voynov. It’s one that’s put Patrick Kane front and center of its marketing. This list could go on long enough to cause a lot of us to throw up so hard we wet ourselves at the same time. Maybe that’s not something the players have thought of, but maybe it is. Quite simply, it could be the world’s best female players don’t want to be associated with a league that has demonstrated it couldn’t give a flying fuck about its female fans.

Secondly, we know the NHL isn’t that well run. Even if the first part wasn’t as big of a concern as it could be, you’d have to wonder if a possible professional women’s league that can’t really ever seem to unfuck itself.

It’s obviously ideal to wish for one, unified women’s league, as basketball and soccer have, but even the latter has had a dizzying time maintaining that and  that has more participation among kids than hockey does. The challenges are greater for hockey as well. Women’s basketball has been at least part of the sports scene at the college and Olympic level far longer. The NCAA tournament is on TV, so anyone who’s a fan can follow those players into the WNBA. Arguably the soccer team gets more attention because it has World Cups and Olympics to grab eyeballs, whereas the hockey team really only has the Olympics.

The CWL and NWHL at some point are going to have to figure out some merger, you’d have to think. And even then it will be a struggle. But there’s nothing to suggest the NHL is the one to help them navigate that.

Everything Else

This is part II of our Q&A with Zoe Hayden from VictoryPress.org (@ZoeClaire_) and Hannah Bevis from TheIceGarden.com (@Hannah_Bevis1).

While it’s completely understandable to keep the four cities close for travel concerns, and Boston and Buffalo being hockey-centric markets, is the NWHL missing something by not including Minneapolis, which already has the strong Gophers program as a base. Or Chicago with a rapidly expanding youth hockey scene and even more so for girls (though the Cubs might start stunting interest in a hurry. No, honestly that’s how it works around here). Obviously the logistics are a nightmare for a league struggling to get by to be in the Midwest, but shoot for the moon and all that?

Zoe: The Midwest is such a quandary and even the NHL has really struggled to get a quality pro team going in Minnesota (all due respect to Wild fans, but it’s been a long time since a Minnesota NHL team competed for the Stanley Cup).  Wild games sell out nevertheless, but they are not a huge draw to television audiences.  For women’s hockey, the Whitecaps are out there but they haven’t been part of a league in quite some time.  Chicago, like you said, has so many other competing sports, but in Minnesota and Wisconsin the college teams have such huge followings.  I think the main hurdle is travel; it’s much harder to get anywhere via bus out there (and bus is currently how the NWHL teams travel, busing distance being a major reason for why the locations were chosen for the original four teams).

In the CHWL you have Calgary which is a huge outlier in terms of distance, but Calgary is a very important hockey city and it’s where the national team trains, which makes it impossible to exclude them or pressure them to move closer, I think.

If you can stabilize the original four NWHL franchises I think Pennsylvania is a good place to look at for expansion (really, anywhere, there’s a ton of hockey in PA at all levels, but I’m from near Pittsburgh and I live in Philadelphia so either of those would be amazing—and there’s also Wilkes-Barre and Erie).  Chicago is also not a bad idea.  Team USA has practiced/had camp in Chicago recently.  But like Hannah said I think it’s a ways away before that happens.

Hannah: Technically, there is a team in the Midwest already- the Minnesota Whitecaps, which isn’t affiliated with either the CWHL or NWHL, where the Minnesota-based players play against local area teams (last year, they played against a couple NW teams in exhibition games). They have a small fan base, and Minnesota is probably the last place that needs more focus on women and girls hockey right now- they’re hockey-crazy as it is. It makes a lot of sense to go there next, but the location isn’t ideal.

This may sound cynical, but the NWHL shot the moon when it said it was going to pay its players in its first year and now we have this, so…I don’t think they’re missing anything by not including Minneapolis. As someone who lives near Chicago, I would LOVE to have a team out here, and if we’re talking expansion, yes, I’d say a Midwest conference might be good if we could maybe have three or four teams to help make travel for Calgary a little easier. But I think there were points in the CWHL’s beginning where Calgary didn’t play every CW team because the distance made it so hard to get there. Weighing the pros and cons, I’d rather wait. 

Everything Else

A couple weeks ago, as you might have seen, the NWHL cut their players’ salary in half without any input from the players. I had a few questions about that and the league as a whole, so I went to two of the leading authorities. Zoe Hayden is the editor of VictoryPress.org (@zoeclaire_) and Hannah Bevis is the editor of TheIceGarden.com on the SB Nation network (@Hannah_Bevis1).

With the NWHL cutting salaries in half, clearly they had some projections that were not met. Do we know what those were and why that might be?

Zoe:

To be clear about your first question, I believe New York Riveters forward Madison Packer said that it was “more like 60%” and we don’t have exact figured on the amount of salary that players will be receiving if they sign the proposed changes to their contracts.

With regard to projections, NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan was not specific in her statements, but she did say that lower attendance had been a factor.  Three NWHL teams changed their home rinks after year one which may have in part contributed to this.

I am actually working on a longer article about this so I don’t want to get too in-depth, but it’s been known since its inception that the NWHL was getting startup funds from private investors.  Translating that into sustainable income has seemed to be a problem, which is why the players are calling for an independent financial review, something that I think is a more than reasonable request.  I think that when you start talking about falling short of projections, it also becomes a question of how well expenses were planned for ahead of time relative to those projections.  

You also have to start to wonder where those projections were coming from; for example, how conservative were they when planning for Year Two with regards to growth, especially considering rink changes and an expanded schedule?  Ice time is expensive and fan retention with regard to ticket sales seemed an obvious hurdle with three teams moving to new facilities.  I don’t think this should have been such a bombshell.  It’s halfway through the season.  The logistics need to be closely looked at if this was a surprise.  And a vague answer about “projections” leaves a lot to the imagination.

In addition, we know that the league has had issues with some of its investors, namely Michael Moran and George Spiers (I can provide  source links if you need).  If the league’s Year Two revenue model included a significant amount of private investing as opposed to incoming revenue from ticket sales, merchandise, and sponsorship agreements, that’s a huge concern.

Everything Else

This is something we’re hopefully going to do regularly, but our friend Cyndi B drops in to update all on what’s going on with the NWHL and CWL. This is from yesterday’s C.I. program. 

NWHL

BUF 4 – BOS 3 (OT)

Boston dug in early in this one with a 2-0 lead, but Buffalo’s Hailey Browne tied it up with a goal in the middle of the first and another early in the second. Browne also assisted on Devon Skeats’s go-ahead goal in the third, but with five minutes to go Hilary Knight and Brianna Decker tied it up again. Buffalo went into overtime riding a 4-on-3 advantage, Megan Bozek got the power play goal, and that was the end of that.

Many years ago, in October 2015, I went to Buffalo to watch these two teams open their inaugural seasons against each other. Back then, it was an easy and common assumption that the Pride were going to be the juggernauts steamrolling the rest of the league; not only was their roster heavy on USWNT players, many had hopped leagues from the CWHL’s Boston Blades and had history together in pro hockey as well. In any brand-new league, it was inevitable that the one team of women who already knew each other would have an advantage. As an event it was a great place to be live; as a hockey game…well, there was a very visible difference in level of play.

This weekend looked nothing like that. This was a matchup between two professional, alarmingly good teams, and no one watching should have doubted that.

From the viewers’ end, an advantage to a new league with only four teams is that it’s easy to follow as teams grow into themselves. (This was the fifth of six games between the Pride and Beauts this season.) Buffalo may have stumbled out of the gate–they’re still only 2-7-2–but the quality of their game is grinding upwards with impressive consistency. They started out getting creamed, and then losing by narrow margins or sheer bad luck, and then scattering some wins in there. If ever there was a team winning or near-winning games by sheer force of will, it’s probably the Beauts right now, and I would be surprised if their record in the second half of the season looks much like their first half.