The 2019 Clarkson Cup winners, the CWHL's Calgary Inferno
Posted in personal
April 8, 2019

The Impossible Road for Women’s Pro Teams

The Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded suddenly this week. They had literally just had their championship game – the Clarkson Cup, where the Calgary Inferno defeated Les Canadiennes de Montreal. It came as a surprise to everyone – especially their star players, who were all on their way to Finland for the IIHF Women’s Worlds Championship.

There will be a number of people wanting to talk about what the next steps are. Or how this is a sign that women’s hockey or women’s professional sports are bound to fail.

I’m going to address the last part. Because that’s a bold and bald faced lie. Every men’s pro league, for any sport, faced all the same woes the women face – attendance, pay, talent. They just had to do it without social media and 24/7 news coverage looking for a hot take to set them apart from the next blogger or sportscaster.

The problem isn’t that the women don’t deserve our attention or more money – it’s because we as a society have been duped to believe they don’t.

Men’s sports have pipelines. We put young boys into youth leagues, which get them interested in sports and they play through high school. The exceptional (depending on the sport) go professional right away, those who need a little bit of development time get in college and then go pro. But more importantly, little boys from any walk of life can watch players and think… someday that will be me.

Girls? There are often girls’ leagues for softball and soccer – those could be for any age. If sports teams are cut, it’s usually the girls programs that suffer. Ditto for college programs. And little girls can’t look to women’s professional sports on TV – because most of the time, they’re buried on channels that their parents would have to pay for, or only viewable online.

Basketball, well, it’s hit and miss if you have girls’ leagues, but there is a pipeline for high school to college. Where all the top players go to the same few colleges and try to get themselves seen during the Final Four.

Not only that, it isn’t socially acceptable for girls to dream of playing professional sports. Without a pipeline of youth leagues for them to play in, girls have to petition to play with boys. Which sometimes pays off, but sometimes – when you’ve heard no so many times, it’s just easier to say you’re just going to play for fun and find a new dream. That isn’t even factoring in the adults who tell girls that since there’s no where for them to go, they shouldn’t bother – they should focus on a job that will pay. Whereas, they’ll tell boys to come up with a backup plan, but give them posters of their heroes to put on their walls. And dream.

Because that’s what it is. A dream. In women’s professional hockey the pay gap is so vast that unless you are one of the greats and have a lot of sponsorships, you have to work a day job and use all your vacation time for Friday games, in order to be able to have your dream job – as a professional hockey player.

Heck, it wasn’t until this past season that the CWHL was paying all of its players. It wasn’t until the season prior that even some of the players were being paid – and that was solely because of the arrival of Chinese teams, who came with a lot of capital.

So many people are taking the CWHL folding as being a sign that women’s sports can’t survive. Men and women say that. When it isn’t a sign of viability – it’s a sign that we’re holding these sports to an unrealistic standard. Of course women’s professional sports won’t bring in the numbers of their male counterparts. Not because the women aren’t good, but because we live in a sexist society that still believes that female athletes are inferior – in tennis, people still talk up the accolades of white male players, while trying to deny just how great Serena Williams is. Men’s sports faltered at the start of their leagues beginning, but they didn’t have sexism holding them back, too. That is to say, nobody dared to say these leagues didn’t deserve to exist.

We live in a world where the US Women’s National Team for soccer can out perform men both on the field and as a ratings draw on television – but still receive lower pay and play on substandard fields. (They are currently in the middle of legal action – suing Team USA for discrimination) Where the US Women’s Hockey Team had to go on strike in order to negotiate for even a sliver of the development support. When they’d asked for some financial support to tide them over during camps, USA Hockey replied that they didn’t support the male players. That’s right. They didn’t pay the men, who all come from the NHL.

We live in a world where players in the WNBA were labeled as being selfish for asking for a higher percentage of revenue. The video below from Always Late w/ Katie Nolan breaks down what they were asking for, and how wildly out of proportion critics were taking it.

But back to the NHL. I have complained at length about how apolitical the league is – how much they’ve groomed their players to be bland so as not to upset anyone. But the league itself was supporting affiliate women’s hockey teams to the tune of about $50k per team. With the CWHL folding, they’ve said they’ll now be able to give $100k per team.

$100,000. They gave their own players $25,000 for winning at the All-Star Game. Players with million dollar contracts, most of them. (You do get the occasional rookie competing in the Skills) The league itself makes so much more than that, it’s ridiculous to think that they couldn’t invest more. (I know, Bettman wants to own the women’s league, and that’s just a frightening thought)

More egregiously though, there are plenty of NHL superstars with sisters in the game – whether they play at the collegiate level like Taylor Crosby, or in the women’s leagues like Alex Carpenter, Amanda Kessel, and Megan Bozek. While their higher paid siblings have often paid their sister’s high complements (there is a reason that #bestkessel is a hashtag), none of them used their clout to make the NHL do more. (Though I do suspect that Crosby and Kessel are the reasons that one of the more recent All Star Games for the NWHL were held in Pittsburgh, and heavily promoted in the city by the Penguins)

And while it’s easy to say that the quickest way to support a women’s team is to buy season tickets or donate money – it’s hard for out of market fans to find the teams. There are streaming deals on YouTube for the NWHL. It was impossible for me to find legal streams in order to watch the CWHL, which was a poor move on their part – given that Hilary Knight, one of the sport’s superstars switched leagues after her Olympic win. And I can’t buy tickets or go, living in the void of women’s hockey that is Southern California. All I can do is hope that the sport continues to grow until they can support more teams across the country (the CWHL’s expansion into China was a financial win, but a logistical nightmare – since they had to schedule games in a way that was affordable and wouldn’t put the traveling teams at a loss, since the flight was so long).

But it isn’t a losing battle. Money needs to be invested, so that women can live off their pay. That will give women in college the idea that this is a dream they can have, and let them keep training and pushing themselves so that they can play competitively. Money needs to be invested in shoring up women’s programs in college. And in high school. And at the youth level, all across the country. If it’s something that girls can see on TV and in their neighborhoods, then it’s something they aspire to.

To prove my point, the lastest team to join the NWHL, the Minnesota Whitecaps is probably the most successful. An existing team, they joined the league fully formed. And what happened? They sold out of all their season tickets, and all their home games had higher attendance rates than the other teams. What made them be more successful? Minnesota takes hockey seriously. There are youth leagues, more women’s college teams – in short, it’s a state where girls can see themselves growing up to play hockey.

It’s possible. All we have to do is shift our mindset a little.