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Volume 23 No. 23
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Women’s pro hockey needs full support from partner leagues

Professional sports leagues fail often and consistently. Recently, another attempt at a major American football league in the United States went belly up. This time the Alliance of American Football (AAF) didn’t even make it through its first season before folding.

Big announcement, big dollars, big splash, speedy decline, gone. This is far from the first story of its kind and won’t be the last.

But that’s not the league that failed earlier this year that you should know more about. That one died rather slowly north of the U.S. border. With little fanfare, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) expired on March 31.  

The official press release included this phrase: “Unfortunately, while the on-ice hockey is exceptional, the business model has proven to be economically unsustainable.” This pithy remark followed 12 years of successful operations as a not-for-profit league.

Gone, girls.

In late May, at the SponsorshipX Conference held in Toronto, a panel involving former CWHL player and Canadian Olympian Laura Stacey (who was also the CWHL’s director of strategy) recalled the final days of the league. She noted that the CWHL’s demise led to players coming together to improve the business value of women’s hockey. 

This puts the focus where it needs to be more often: on women’s leagues. With the exception of the WNBA in team sports and the individual sports of golf and tennis, women’s professional sports continue to struggle mightily. 

In Canada, where hockey dominates, we’ve seen multiple failed attempts at women’s pro hockey. The CWHL had been the most successful to date. Still, even that league didn’t work.

Which leads to one question: Why?

Well, research and analysis suggests a few things. First, women (largely) do not underpin women’s professional sports. The majority of fans are men. In the case of golf, for instance, roughly two-thirds of the LPGA’s fans are male (as reported by Sports Business Daily).  

Second, sponsorship and media revenue are necessary for long-term sustainability. In the case of the CWHL, brands were interested in associating with the league and its assets but not in making a significant financial investment. Similarly, the media coverage of the league was growing but not sufficiently to generate acceptable revenue.

Finally, leagues and their member clubs need to be aligned on collaborative revenue generation and on surviving.

Katrina Galas, who was assistant GM of the Toronto Furies, told us the level of transparency and collaboration from the CWHL to each team was insufficient, contributing to a business sustainability problem. 

“The league was seemingly stuck in phase one of a startup scenario,” she said, “and the teams were left to their own devices to market, grow and evolve their team in their respective markets. Unfortunately the league’s sponsorship outreach lacked team alignment and integration, which innately generates value and strengthens any proposal.”

Galas added: “In our 12 years, the league attracted top players from around the world, welcomed new fans and committed volunteers, brought in ambitious and talented team staff, grew ticket and merchandise sales and increased television viewership and social media engagement. In our team’s case, a self-financed livestreaming platform called FuriesTV provided our own play-by-play and color commentators for every home game with our team partner, SportsCanada.TV.”

Although some positive momentum on metrics was observed, the overall, club-based business model was not sustainable. The ownership supported it for 12 years but opted not to continue.

So what went wrong? 

When Galas looked back on her time with the Furies, she acknowledged positioning the team as an official pro team in the over-saturated Toronto sport market was a challenge. Her second point was the absence of a unified approach with “all team staff having a seat at the table, allowing for a true entrepreneurial team culture to enable and drive growth.” 

The secret solution? A partner league that is completely committed.

Need an analogy? What about the Australian rules football league AFL Women’s, which started with eight teams in 2017, is now at 10, and is projected to be at 14 clubs by 2020? Not by accident, the men’s AFL, with more than 40% female fans, is incubating the league during its critical startup phase.

Is it possible that Australia’s men’s leagues are more forward thinking than their North American counterparts? Is it feasible to suggest that women’s leagues (think the WNBA under the NBA umbrella) will work only if economies of scale involving men’s leagues are truly leveraged? 

It was not NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s first priority to save the CWHL, nor should it have been. But men’s sports leagues, including the NHL, cannot ignore their obligation to launch or fully support opportunities for women. Some organization — be it USA Hockey, Hockey Canada or the NHL — must acknowledge the reality that letting women’s pro hockey fail repeatedly is not good for ice hockey overall.  

Rick Burton is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University and former commissioner of Australia’s National Basketball League. Norm O’Reilly is director of the International Institute for Sport Business & Leadership at the University of Guelph and partner consultant at T1.

Questions about OPED guidelines or letters to the editor? Email editor Jake Kyler at jkyler@sportsbusinessjournal.com