During the Winter Olympics in 2018, I stayed up way past my bed time to watch the US Women’s National Hockey Team beat Canada in a shootout for their first gold medal since 1998. That game garnered 3.0 million views on NBC Sports Network and 3.7 million across all platforms. The NBCSN-only audience exceeds all but five of the network’s total NHL telecasts according to Sports Media Watch.
There is always an appetite for more hockey, and particularly women’s hockey. This year’s Clarkson Cup had 175,000 viewers, and the NWHL’s All-Star Game and Skills Competition had a combined 945,000 viewers. But early on Sunday morning, the CWHL announced they were folding after 12 seasons.
The news came as a shock to players and reporters alike, leaving the NWHL as the only paying professional women’s league in America, and forcing the hockey community to ask itself what the future of women’s hockey looks like.
Is it possible to hug a sport? Or like a league? Or maybe like everyone involved in it? IDK I just want to give everyone a big hug tonight after a rough rough day.
— Michelle Jay (@michelle_jay3) April 1, 2019
Calls to unite both the CWHL and the NWHL ramped up in the past year. Interim CWHL commissioner Jayna Hefford and NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan had been in the process of negotiating the idea in April. The notion was that with one league instead of two, the talent pool would be centralized and easier to operate. Under the two-league system, most Canadian players played in the CWHL, and most American players played in the NWHL. A select group of international players were split among the two.
But combining the CWHL and NWHL for #OneLeague was going to be complicated. The CWHL was a non-profit organization that owned every team and distributed profit to players. The NWHL remains a for-profit business, whose profits go to business partners and investors. Reconciling those two business models would have been the first of many obstacles.
In November the CWHL reportedly lost a major investor, though details are scant. The only firm financial information we have is that players were paid between $2,000 and $10,000 Canadian dollars per season — barely a stipend — and that a ballpark budget for the entire league was about $3.7 million.
Financial details aside, the one-league proposal would have had to deal with distribution of teams. Both leagues had teams in the Boston Metro area: the Worcester Blades and the Boston Pride. It’s unclear if a single league could have maintained both teams — or if all twelve teams across both leagues would have continued to exist without consolidation.
The NHL’s potential involvement matters here. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman knows there is a market for women’s hockey. He’s had the WNHL name trademarked for years, and has spoken openly about creating a women’s league – once there are no longer two women’s leagues. Bettman’s approach has been backhanded; he believes in neither the CWHL’s nor the NWHL’s model or chances for success. Now that there is only one league, it’s unclear if he or the NHL will support the NWHL. Bettman’s position has been to “start on a clean slate”: one women’s league, fully controlled and operated by the NHL and driving its revenue. The CWHL stood in the way of that, and the NWHL still does.
The excitement about a unified league emerging in the wake of the CWHL’s collapse has made some people giddy — unfortunately obscuring the hundreds of women, including 25 headed to Worlds this week, who found out they lost their jobs on Sunday.
So who runs the CBJ twitter account pic.twitter.com/ZTzPrDOTvu
— Ashley (@AshonIce) March 31, 2019
The announcement to shutter the CWHL comes four days before the IIHF World Championships begin in Finland. CWHL players were not warned in advance, and it’s gut-wrenching to think that star players like Marie-Philip Poulin, Hilary Knight, and Brianna Decker found out four days before representing their countries that their main teams will cease to exist. Instead of having their focus on the competition and representing the sport, the players will be asked about the downfall of their league in every media scrum.
And those media scrums, particularly from mainstream media, are rare. Sportsnet does not have a tab for the CWHL, ESPN doesn’t have a tab for the NWHL, and it’s an exception, not a rule, that women’s hockey is covered by local papers. The Hartford Courant’s most recent article on the Connecticut Whale is about head coach Ryan Equale and the time he spent at UConn from January 9, 2018. The Whale had a playoff game against the Metro Riveters on March 7 that received no coverage from the Courant nor NJ.com.
After Kendall Coyne-Schofield’s fastest skater appearance in the NHL All-Star game, there was an uptick in mainstream media coverage. The NHL Network hosted the Rivalry Series between the USA and Canada, and they’ve gained the rights for the upcoming IIHF World Championships.
But there are independent sites that have been making a dent in this coverage, without constantly referring to relatives of the players or belittling them. The Ice Garden and The Victory Press both are must-read for in-depth coverage of women’s hockey.
We cover the Washington Capitals, but we realize we also have an important role, with the traffic we drive and the audience we have, to cover the women’s game too, and we will continue to do so in the future.
— Sen. Brant Feldman (@AGMSports) March 22, 2019
The future of professional women’s hockey in America is uncertain. A report from The Athletic’s Hailey Salvian said the NWHL is investigating the addition of two Canadian teams in light of the CWHL ceasing operations.
But it wasn’t too long ago that the CWHL was the only women’s North American pro league left standing, created after the first iteration of the NWHL collapsed and a merger with the now-defunct Western Women’s Hockey League.
CWHL players know this history, and they’re demanding a better future for posterity. “Five, 10 years down the road, I don’t want to be having the same conversation again,” CWHLPA chair Liz Knox told the Athletic. “I don’t want to be in the same position where we are not seeing the sponsorship dollars or the media coverage we want or still relying on our national team players to promote the entire league.”
Whatever the outcome, I know I’ll be watching. Will you?
Headline photo: @InfernoCWHL
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