Equal Play but Unequal Display: Why the CWHL Shutdown is Tragic and Unacceptable, Yet Unsurprising

I really thought we were past this point. I really hoped that enough people were investing in, watching and respecting women’s professional sports leagues now that these leagues would have enough support to expand, not fold. Unfortunately, this was not the case last weekend when the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) announced that it will discontinue operations on May 1.

The CWHL just had its biggest year yet, even setting a record attendance at the championship game held just last month. They expanded in 2017 to include teams in China hoping that sponsorship and business opportunities would provide league growth. Sadly, this was not the case and the board of directors grew concerned about the lack of funding for another season.

A lack of funding. A lack of funding for women’s sports. Where have we heard that before? The league was exhausting efforts to build sponsorships, ticket and merchandise sales, etc. An article in the NY Times quoted Brant Feldman, an agent representing many Olympic and pro women’s hockey players, as saying, “The infrastructure wasn’t there to make it work… You need a full-time staff to go out and market the sport, sell tickets, do sponsorships, understand integrated marketing communications and operate the professional sport. Neither league [the CWHL and NWHL] has that.” The NWHL (National Women’s Hockey League) is now the only pro hockey option for women in North America.

Unequal Display Cripples Potentially Great Leagues

In the comments of another article about the league shutting down, a man named Tom O’Connor wrote, “I have been to a game in Calgary. The hockey is very good. It’s very fast and entertaining. Few problems though: 1. Never knew when the games were 2. Didn’t know the players 3. Little television, radio or print reporting 4. Sportsnet, TSN, CBC didn’t broadcast it.”

This is so sad to see and read because not only does it mean the collapse of a league where 100+ hockey players have put in blood, sweat and tears, but it’s also exposing how women’s leagues are being built in a way where they are doomed to fail. The model they are built on isn’t meant for longevity or growth. They exist, but they aren’t promoted or sold or sponsored despite providing quality sport and entertainment. These leagues are being constructed as merely a means to get a foot in the door and give these athletes some exposure and some league play throughout the year when not competing on the world stage. It’s not too crazy to think they should have a national league to play in throughout the year, is it?

The Hope of the CWHL

This is where the CWHL stepped up and stepped in back in 2007. It created a league that afforded women the opportunity to play competitively year-round, but because no one else bought in at a significant level, the model couldn’t hold. Jayna Hefford, the interim CWHL commissioner, even said as much in regards to hoping something better will come along that will serve the sport and its athletes in a more impactful level, “We think the game deserves more, we think this current model cannot advance the game in the way we hope…we hope that there’s something better in place for a sustainable model.”

Because the truth is, women’s hockey is good and it’s always been good and it’s not going anywhere. In the 2018 Olympics, USA and Canada played in the gold medal game on a Wednesday and ranked as the most watched late-night program in NBCSN history (since 2003). CWHLPA (Player’s Association) co-chair and all-star goalie, Liz Knox said, “You can see where the women’s game is at the Olympics and on the world stage and the attention that it gains there… We should be competing with that market, that should be what our professional league looks like. And I think that in a way, if the CWHL thought that maybe they were standing in the way of that happening, maybe it was the noble thing to do — just say this isn’t working, we’ll have to figure something out… If the end goal is to have a pro league that’s widely recognized as such, this is a painful step, but hopefully one that leads to decades of something better.”

She Plays: Equal Play, Equal Display

We here at She Plays want to help be a part of making something better. We want a chance to show these women, these athletes, that we know they deserve more. We know they deserve a league that’s stable, that isn’t just established on good intentions but on solid financial backing and marketing. A league that attracts hockey fans, new and old, by simply marketing the incredible product they have in a meaningful way. And we want to help do that! We want to help introduce people to hockey who have never watched it. We want to show how incredible these women are in every year, not just an Olympic year. And we want to help the NWHL, or whatever future league of women’s professional hockey exists, to get as much attention as possible.

This is why we want to build fantasy sports for women’s hockey. We want to add another level of excitement and involvement to the game. It’s statistically proven that fantasy sports players watch, read and pay more attention to the respective sport itself. By introducing fantasy sports to women’s hockey leagues, we hope to be part of the movement to give women’s sports a bigger platform, a louder voice, and equal footing and sustainability in North America and around the world.

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