Most every sport faces more questions than simply when will it come back. The obvious ones are about TV revenues and salary cuts/deferments. Others are issues of scheduling next season or drafts etc. But perhaps none will see their future reshaped quite like women’s hockey, and perhaps none will be forced to either.
It might be prudent to restate where women’s hockey is at the moment in North America. This past season was the first that saw only one league in operation — the NWHL. The CWHL, which had run for 12 seasons, ceased operations last spring, leaving the NWHL as the only game in town. Perhaps sadly, perhaps fortunately depending on how full your cup is, the NWHL has only missed out on one part of their season due to the coronavirus shutdown. That just happens to be the most important one though, as its Isobel Cup Final between the Boston Pride and Minnesota Whitecaps was the one on the chopping block. They have not announced when that will be played, if ever.
If only it were that simple. After the CWHL shutdown, a group of players formed the PWHPA, or Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, a collection of women’s hockey players that essentially boycotted the NWHL in search of a real professional league/setting. Their goals are living wages, top-level training, medical facilities and personnel, and full-time jobs. The NWHL does not release financial data, and a couple of years ago players were making somewhere around $2,000 a season. That’s increased under new CBAs, but it’s unclear how much. Best guess is that number is somewhere around $12,000 after the new CBA was agreed upon before this past season. It also requires only two practices during the week before their weekend-only schedule.
What the PWHPA is really seeking, or one of its big targets, is a league backed and tied to the NHL, much like how the WNBA was started with the backing of the NBA back in the late ’90s. So far, the NHL has shied away from anything like that, deferring to the CWHL when it existed and the NWHL now. There are some partnerships at the local level, such as between the Boston Bruins and Pride, but no official agreement.
In the meantime, the PWHPA had set up something of a barnstorming tour during the season, and organized some exhibitions between Canada and the U.S., including one that drew 13,000 in Anaheim.
All of that has to be questioned now.
For one, the PWHPA’s long-term goal of an association or pairing with the NHL after this would border on farcical. Whatever kind of plan the NHL comes up with to finish this season, if it even does, is going to see major revenue losses. This is the one major sport that still relies heavily on gate receipts, and it’s going to be out of those until at least the fall, and quite possibly much longer. There is a laundry list of things to be figured out between the NHL and its players union about how to manage the reduced income—which could be anywhere from hundreds of millions to a $1B if the whole season is scrapped, and you can be sure that taking on a women’s league is going to be at the bottom of a very long scroll. If it even makes it onto the scroll.
It’s important to remember that the WNBA still loses money. A little over a year ago, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver admitted the league has averaged a $10M loss on the WNBA every year in operation. That might not sound like much now, but as those numbers were bigger at the beginning, that’s a number the NHL likely couldn’t stomach. The NBA and basketball are far more popular than the NHL and hockey, obviously.
Are there NHL franchises that could possibly absorb that kind of loss even after the pandemic? Maybe. Toronto and Montreal come to mind. Maybe the Rangers, Blackhawks and Bruins. The NHL wouldn’t have the advantage, possibly, of having a women’s league play in the same buildings as their NHL teams, as the NBA did. A possible women’s NHL isn’t going to run in the summer, one would think, when those buildings have more open dates. And running it during the season runs into problems, such as owners probably preferring to keep concerts and other events in those arenas that will sell out, as well as a lot of them also having NBA teams in there at the same time. If you own or co-own an arena and have very few open dates between your NHL and NBA tenants, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who would prefer to install a WNHL team instead of a concert that would sell out the place just out of the goodness of their hearts. These people don’t have hearts, remember. Possible WNHL teams would have to rent out other buildings.
That doesn’t mean things are bleak for the currently operating NWHL. Just last month, expansion into Toronto happened for next season, which is a pretty sure bet to thrive. Before the season there was new investment. It’s hardly perfect, but it’s a step. How it will come out of the shutdown is just as much of a guess as any other league. Unlike other leagues, it isn’t looking at how to reschedule a massive amount of games. Not having the Isobel Cup would suck, but it wouldn’t sink the league by itself. And it also provides time until the fall to figure out how it’s going to navigate a very different world. It also has a short enough schedule at the moment that moving to November or December for a start shouldn’t be a huge obstacle.
The PWHPA is in tougher mud. It won’t be having any events to support itself anytime soon, and those players can only go so long without working at all. Its stated goals of full-time professional leagues and perhaps an alliance with the NHL are only further off now. The goals are still noble and worth fighting for, but the time to get there has only been extended.
And the NWHL could use those players. Brianna Decker, Hilary Knight and Shannon Szabados are just some of the names that even those who just casually watch women’s hockey during the Olympics would recognize, and they could do a lot for the NWHL’s image. In fact, large portions of both the Canadian and U.S. national teams sat out the season. That certainly opened up opportunities for others to play in the NWHL, but should a decent number of PWHPA players want back in, it’s going to make for some very awkward conversations and situations. (We reached out to the PWHPA for comment but received no response.)
Having an expansion team helps with some of this, at least on the NWHL side. Upon the announcement of its creation, the first five signings — Kristen Barbara, Elaine Chuli, Shiann Darkangelo, Emma Greco and Taylor Woods — were part of the PWHPA and formerly played in the CWHL. But with an expansion team, they’re not taking anyone’s job. It won’t always be that smooth if the PWHPA has a larger group of defections.
The PWHPA has some big-time sponsors, such as Adidas, Bauer, and Budweiser. It probably can last a little longer than one might think. But how long that is without events to advertise all those sponsors is up for question. It’s also unlikely that there will be an NHL All-Star game next year, at least if next year’s schedule is impacted by either the shutdown and/or however the NHL finishes up this season. That was an excellent platform for the PWHPA this past season, as a 3-on-3 game between the U.S. and Canada was drawn from the PWHPA, and Kendall Coyne Schofield’s run at fastest skater and Decker’s run in the Puck Control competition the previous season also drew the kind of attention the PWHPA needs (though maybe not the kind the NHL needed, as is their way).
The best women hockey players in the world deserve a professional league at home. Even without the scorched landscape we now have, it was a real question if they could do that split into two. Now it’s an even bigger one, with even fewer answers.