Top stars of women’s hockey are refusing to play in the National Women’s Hockey League, the only such league in North America, a stand that serves as a not-so-subtle message to the NHL: It’s time to throw your weight behind our sport.
And the players have long had a model in mind – the WNBA
While the NWHL name contains the letters “NHL,” it has no formal relationship with the men’s league, so similarities to the WNBA and the NBA end there. But the pro-basketball model is what women in hockey aspire to.
“The WNBA’s a great example of what could be,” said Monique Lamoureux-Morando, a leader of the movement for a more sustainable women’s hockey league.
The WNBA tipped off its 23rd season on Friday, with unparalleled longevity in women’s pro sports. However, challenges remain, including stagnant attendance and players citing vast inequity in accommodations, television exposure and pay compared with what their NBA counterparts receive, bringing into question how a “WNHL” would look under the NHL.
In a series of interviews, players, coaches and former WNBA presidents discussed how a “big brother” setup could work.
In 2010, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman hired Val Ackerman to write a report on the state of women’s hockey. Bettman, who 22 years earlier as general counsel at the NBA hired Ackerman as a league lawyer, knew that her experience starting the WNBA under the NBA umbrella would provide valuable insight.
Ackerman, the first WNBA president, concluded that a similar women’s hockey league was not viable at the time. But thrilling Olympic Games and rising numbers of girls and women playing the sport have convinced Ackerman that women’s hockey with NHL-backing today would be “a no-brainer.”
“It will likely be non-profitable because the audience is small and needs to grow,” said Ackerman, now commissioner of the collegiate Big East Conference. “So it will take time, but that’s all the more reason why an organization like the NHL, which has deep pockets, would be best to take it on.”
Last season, the NWHL’s five teams averaged attendances ranging from 423 to 1,200. The league also reported that games streamed on YouTube and Twitter had an average viewership of 70,000.
For the 2018-19 season, the NWHL received US$50,000 from the NHL, as did the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, which folded May 1. The nearly 265 players between both leagues, competing in 16- or 28-game schedules, earned US$2,000 to US$10,000.
In 2017-18, the value of an NHL team, on average, was a record US$630-million, according to Forbes. This past season, the salary of an NHL player ranged, on average, from US$650,000 to US$12.5-million.
“We do believe in the women’s game,” Bettman said this month in an interview with The New York Times. “We’re very supportive.”
Bettman said the NHL doubled its funding of the NWHL after the CWHL folded, but made no further commitments.
On Monday, the players seeking a better women’s hockey league announced the formation of a Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association, in part to “work with companies, business leaders, and sports professionals worldwide who already have voiced support for women’s hockey,” according to a statement from the organization.
The NHL and influential hockey bodies had an opportunity to elevate the women’s game after the 2018 Winter Olympics generated widespread excitement, but the promised support has been slow to develop.
The WNBA’s start was predated by a strong promotional push behind the U.S. women’s national basketball team before the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Official announcements for the WNBA lined up perfectly to follow the American women’s gold-medal performance.
Ackerman said it would be a mistake to wait for the 2022 Olympics, and estimated a “WNHL” could be started in a year.
“They have so much apparatus in place already; that’s the beauty of having a support system like that behind you,” Ackerman said. “You don’t have to hire every person you need to have success. They can add on additional job responsibilities. That’s what we did.”
While Olympic women’s hockey players appear more frequently at NHL events and can be seen on NHL Network, the league has long said it would only fully get involved in women’s hockey if there were no other professional options.
Without the NHL’s full support, the NWHL and CWHL struggled to open doors to an important audience: major sponsors.
That was not the case during the WNBA’s infancy. David Stern, who was then the NBA commissioner, gave Ackerman access to every league department – from sponsorship to NBA Entertainment – with a specific contact assigned to assist the WNBA and report to Ackerman weekly.
One of the easiest and most important decisions was keeping the letters “NBA” in WNBA, said Ackerman, who put the WNBA on NBC, ESPN and Lifetime in its first season.
But while the NBA was essential during the WNBA’s early life, the ensuing years have been less consistent, a worrisome sign for women’s hockey. Given the NHL’s lukewarm relations with the NWHL and the struggles of other women’s professional leagues, an NBA/WNBA-style alliance is by no means a slam dunk.
Last year, while the television audience was up, the WNBA’s average attendance fell 12 per cent to 6,769 fans a game. In April, 2018, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said on ESPN that a number of WNBA teams are losing money and, “We haven’t figured out a winning formula, to be quite honest.”
That led Washington Mystics star Elena Delle Donne to retort that WNBA players “don’t get the support and coverage we deserve,” with increased pay a major point of contention.
Theresa Plaisance, a forward for the Dallas Wings, suggested that men’s leagues still need to do a better job of merchandising for the women’s teams. When visiting athletic stores in Dallas, she sees nothing from her team.
Nike, the official supplier of WNBA merchandise, has recently been accused of treating female athletes differently. Its online store doesn’t sell any WNBA player-specific merchandise, a similar complaint of women’s hockey players.
“How do you build a fan base when you can’t buy jerseys?” said Layshia Clarendon, a guard for the Connecticut Sun.
The WNBA’s most-successful franchises are often those with engaged owners. The NWHL’s Buffalo Beauts, which were among the league leaders in attendance and made every Isobel Cup final, were owned by the active Pegula family, which also owns the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres. This month, the Pegulas relinquished control of the team back to the league in the wake of the mass player sit-out (the New Jersey Devils also ended their two-year partnership with the NWHL’s Riveters). But outside Buffalo, NHL clubs have provided little to women’s hockey teams.
When asked what would happen if someone such as Hilary Knight, one of women’s hockey’s most visible stars, called him and asked for help establishing one sustainable league sooner, Bettman answered: “We’d have a conversation and see what she has in mind.”