M. Ann Hall is the author of several books about the history of women’s sport including The Girl and the Game: A History of Women’s Sport in Canada.
Every once in a while, a women’s sport story hits the headlines, making us pay attention to something that only rarely is in the news. In this case, it was the announcement by the professional Canadian Women’s Hockey League that effective May 1 it would cease operations, citing an “economically unsustainable” business model. Only a week earlier, the Calgary Infernos beat Les Canadiennes de Montreal to win the 2019 league championship and Clarkson Cup. Some 175,000 fans (a record for the league) tuned into to watch the game live. And yet, the league may not be given a chance to grow and build on its success.
The naysayers jumped right in with unhelpful suggestions, the gist of which was that women’s hockey was an inferior product, probably no better than the hockey played in rinks across the country by teenage boys. Women’s hockey generated little public interest because it simply was not entertaining. We’ve heard this narrative before. But there are examples that when women’s professional sports are given a chance to flourish, they can become both an economic success and a hit with fans.
The history of women’s professional sport in North America, compared with men’s, is incredibly short. In the 1940s, talented female golfers in the United States, including the famous (Babe) Didrikson Zaharias, began to organize efforts to create a professional association. The Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) was founded in 1950 to develop tournaments, seek prize money and generally promote women’s golf. The first televised women’s professional golf tournament was the final round of the 1965 U.S. Women’s Open. By the end of the 1960s, LPGA prize money had grown to US$600,000 for 34 tournaments, and women’s professional golf became big business.
In September, 1970, women’s professional tennis was launched when nine players, including Billie Jean King, signed $1 contracts with World Tennis Magazine publisher Gladys Heldman to compete in a new women’s tour, the Virginia Slims Circuit. Today, the Women’s Tennis Association is the global leader in women’s professional sport with more than 2,500 players representing 100 countries competing for a record US$164-million in prize money.
The Women’s National Basketball Association was formed in 1996 as a counterpart to the National Basketball Association. Now in its 22nd season, the WNBA is the most successful women’s team sport league, consisting of two six-team conferences. The 2018 national television schedule included 54 regular season games on NBA TV and 33 on ESPN networks.
Women’s professional sports don’t get as much media coverage as men’s, and they receive a smaller piece of the commercial sponsorship pie.
Founded in 2007, the CWHL is structured as a non-profit organization. There are no team owners, since the league owns the teams. There are four teams in Canada, one in the United States and one in China. With a total budget of roughly $3.7-million, the league only started paying its players last season, with salaries ranging from $2,000 to $10,000.
Competing for the top female hockey players in North America is the National Women’s Hockey League, which was founded in 2015. It is a franchise-based league with teams in Boston, Buffalo, Minneapolis, New Jersey and Stamford, Conn., and all but one of these teams has an NHL partner. The NWHL is led by a female commissioner and deputy commissioner, and the nearly 100 players are paid, although salary information is not readily available.
As former player Hayley Wickenheiser said in a tweet, the end of the CWHL could be “one step back, two steps forward.” There is a long way to go, but having only one professional league in North America would also be helpful.
For women’s professional hockey to succeed, the ideal economic model is the franchise, where corporations or individuals own teams. Also, owners must be willing to lose money – at least initially. They need to do a better job of promoting their product and push hard to get more games on television. In a crowded marketplace, women’s teams need more time to carve out their niche. If given a chance, that will happen.