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Volume 22 No. 2
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Women’s leagues gain momentum with authentic alignment from the men’s side

When asked what the most interesting opportunities are for the NWHL, league founder and Commissioner Dani Rylan quickly answers, “It’s our team alignment with NHL clubs.” The most recent alignment involves the NWHL’s Minnesota Whitecaps and the NHL’s Minnesota Wild. The two teams will share best practices for marketing, sponsorships, digital media strategies and community relations.

It’s a business relationship Rylan calls a “no-brainer.” It’s also more than that. Building alliances between men’s and women’s sports is necessary. And this kind of support has already taken many forms, from an official business partnership to NBA stars showing up at WNBA games to tennis champion Andy Murray correcting reporters when it comes to the accomplishments of female players.

Thanks to a healthy head start, men’s pro sports have a wealth of expertise and experience. That head start also translates to greater visibility and popularity. So when women’s pro teams are devising marketing plans or looking for sponsorship leads, why should they start from scratch? That makes no sense, especially when women’s teams must make the most of much smaller budgets and much smaller staffs.

It doesn’t have to be a one-sided relationship with assistance flowing only from the men’s side to the women’s side. Women’s teams, tours and leagues pride themselves on being innovative and prioritizing accessibility. There are opportunities there to help men’s sports improve their product and reach new fans.

When Rylan pitches NHL teams on the benefits of partnering with an NWHL team, she tells them, “We all have the same goals: building forever fans and advancing the game. With an NWHL team in the family, you know you’re hitting every audience.” Out of five NWHL clubs, three are aligned with NHL teams. Beyond Minnesota, the Buffalo Beauts and Buffalo Sabres share an ownership group, while the Metropolitan Riveters and the New Jersey Devils signed a three-year partnership in 2017 that’s designed to assist the Riveters with financial and marketing support.

On a practical level, NHL facilities get more use. This season, the Whitecaps, Beauts and Riveters will play their home games at the practice rinks used by their NHL partners. The same is true for the Boston Pride, though they don’t have a formal partnership with the Boston Bruins. (The league’s fifth team is the Connecticut Whale.)

Three NWHL teams, including the Buffalo Beauts, have marketing alliances with NHL teams.
Photo: getty images

Need more convincing? There’s a range of strong alliances between men’s and women’s teams that are working well in different sports, success stories such as the Portland Timbers and Thorns in soccer and the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx in basketball. Of course, after 22 years, the NBA and WNBA offer the most visible, complex and successful example of how men’s pro sports can support women’s pro sports, and an illustration of how relationships between established sports entities and relative newcomers are inevitably tricky to navigate.

Right now, there’s also another selling point for these alignments, big and small: the cultural moment. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements empowered women and prompted serious conversations about gender inequality. They’ve also encouraged more women to use their voices and exercise their influence. And it appears the sports world is taking note.

Discussing the potential for more investment in women’s sports and what he sees in golf, LPGA Chief Commercial Officer Jon Podany said, “There is more openness to it these days. Whether it’s because of a stronger push toward equality or the ‘Me Too’ movement or ‘Times Up,’ I don’t know. But there does seem to be more companies putting more focus on diversity and inclusion and equality; and there’s a heightened awareness of it. So, hopefully, that helps stimulate all of this.”

In part inspired by how the Olympics and Grand Slam tennis tournaments draw attention to women’s sports, the LPGA has formed a strategic alliance with the PGA Tour. One of the objectives of that alliance? “We want to have a joint tournament with the men and the women on the same course,” Podany said. He believes there’s a good chance that will happen in 2020 with some potential concepts already well developed.

Meanwhile, the WTA wants to increase the number of events outside the Grand Slams that feature both men and women. Currently, there are 12 non-Grand Slam tournaments with men and women at the same location at the same time. WTA President Micky Lawler hopes to see an even closer relationship between the two tours in the future.

“A unified front always leads to a much more productive and healthy future,” said Lawler. “The combined product in tennis is the best. In fact, I dream about the day that both tours have governance under one roof, that both sports work hand in hand to reach the same fans and to do the best thing for tennis.”

The more alliances between men’s and women’s sports prove beneficial to both sides, the more momentum they gather. But to make these alliances work it’s going to take courage, commitment and an ability to see not only what the market is, but what it could be. It’s also going to take trial and error and patience.

No two markets are the same, no one partnership plan works for everyone. But regardless of location and concept, for the alliances to work — really work — there has to be buy-in on the men’s side, buy-in for reasons that go beyond the cultural moment. Men’s sports have to believe, as Rylan pitches, that their goals are fundamentally the same as women’s sports, namely growing the game they love.

It looks like that’s the case with the Whitecaps and the Wild. They have a “doubleheader” to celebrate both teams’ home openers on Oct. 6. The Whitecaps will play at 4 p.m. at the Wild’s new practice rink, then the Wild will play at 7 p.m. at Xcel Energy Center. Additionally, the Wild’s promotions at the Minnesota State Fair included the Whitecaps. Because in Minnesota the combination of cheese curds and hockey is another no-brainer.

The evidence that these business partnerships can work is there. And the more owners and executives see them for the no-brainers they are, the more likely they’ll transform the sports landscape for the good of everyone invested.

Shira Springer covers stories at the intersection of sports and society for programs on NPR and WBUR, writes a column on women’s sports for the Boston Globe and teaches journalism at Boston University. She can be reached at sbj.springer@gmail.com.