Monday, 9 March 2015

Time To Include The Women

If you missed the final of the CWHL's Clarkson Cup Saturday between the Boston Blades and the Montreal Stars, you missed a beauty of a game. Charline Labonté was outstanding in the Montreal net throughout the tournament, but her team fell short in overtime to the Blades as Janine Weber's shot over Labonté's glove was the difference. The winners of the biggest tournament in women's professional hockey got a one-tweet congratulations message from both the NHL and the Boston Bruins as they celebrated their victory.

Let that sink in for a moment: one tweet each from the NHL and the Boston Bruins for the only professional women's hockey league in North America.

I have read a number of articles this weekend about the poor support that the NHL shows towards the CWHL, and I'm throwing my name behind that sentiment. It's time that the NHL and its respective teams start showing the ladies a little respect by supporting them, and there's a very good reason to do so: it will benefit the NHL. I'm sure that a number of NHL people will scoff at that thought, but there's a very good chance that by supporting the CWHL, the NHL will benefit.

There are a few sites that have pointed to the NBA as the model for which the NHL should follow. I disagree with this in theory. I'm not saying that the NHL shouldn't put its money behind the CWHL like the NBA has done with the WNBA, but I think that the NHL can learn from the NBA's mistakes in how it has handled the WNBA and where things have worked.

Toronto, Calgary, and Montreal have all jumped onboard in supporting the CWHL teams in those cities. The Toronto Furies get support from the Maple Leafs, the Calgary Inferno get support from the Flames, and the Montreal Stars get support from the Canadiens. Only the Brampton Thunder and Boston Blades are without NHL support at this time, but it shouldn't be hard for a couple of NHL teams to step up and support those franchises.

You might be asking what kind of support these teams receive. According to the Maple Leafs' release on the partnership,
The Maple Leafs will invest $30,000 annually for five years towards coaching costs and to help offset equipment, uniforms and travel expenses. The Furies will also receive support through the team website, at Leafs home games and on Leafs TV. Toronto Furies' players and coaches will also be invited to participate in other Leafs Community & Sports Partnerships initiatives including Scotiabank Girls HockeyFest, Tim Hortons Toronto Maple Leafs Coaches' Open House and Scotiabank Girls Only Learn to Skate Clinics.
Honestly, $30,000 annually for five years is less than what the Leafs are paying Randy Carlyle to sit at home after firing him this season, so it's not like they're pouring all their resources into this partnership. However, that $30,000 annual payment goes an exceptionally long way in keeping the Furies in the league when it comes to offsetting the expenses listed above. Personally, I believe the Leafs could up that payment to $100,000 - pocket change for MLSE - and we'd really see the Furies benefit.

This isn't about Toronto, though. There are five CWHL teams at this time, and it should be mandatory for the thirty NHL teams to kick in $20,000 annually as support for the CWHL teams. That would mean that six NHL teams would make a combined payment of $120,000 annually to one of the five CWHL teams, making the CWHL teams immediately better in that the costs of running a team would be reduced immensely each year. Again, $20,000 is nothing to NHL teams who likely spend more on coffee and stationary annually, so let's start investing that money where it counts.

With the added funds, the CWHL can start to focus on developing additional revenue methods by working with the NHL. The NBA features a link to the WNBA's website prominently on their website, and the NHL can do the same. In fact, the NHL should cut the CWHL in on some of its deals with sponsors as well in order to help the CWHL add some more revenue. How hard would that be for the NHL? Not hard at all. The only difference is that they'd have to give up a little green to the CWHL. I'll say this: it's not like the NHL is hurting for cash or sponsors right now. In fact, both Tim Hortons and Scotiabank - two of the NHL's partners in Canada - already sponsor the CWHL.

Ok, so we've established a revenue stream for the CWHL to continue its operations and build upon its success thus far, but you might be asking, "Teebz, you said this would benefit the NHL." It will. Here's how that will happen.

The most-watched event at the Winter Olympics is the men's hockey final. The second most-watched event is the women's hockey final. It makes the IOC a ton of money, and the NHL has to know this. According to TVbytheNumbers,
The thrilling women's gold medal hockey game between the United States and Canada at noon ET on Feb. 20, won 3-2 by Team Canada on an overtime goal by Marie-Philip Poulin, averaged 4.9 million viewers on NBC to rank as the most-watched hockey game in the U.S., excluding Stanley Cup Finals, since the 2010 Vancouver Olympics men's gold medal game (Canada defeated the U.S. 3-2 on an overtime goal by Sidney Crosby).
In other words, Americans watch women's hockey. A lot of Americans. What about those pesky Canadians and their viewing habits? According to The Hollywood Reporter, "Nearly 13 million Canadians tuned in last Thursday when the Canadian women's team defeated Team USA for the gold medal, including more than 3.1 million viewers via the CBC's online stream." In short, lots of people are watching women's hockey already.

You might point at those numbers and say, "Yeah, but those are the Olympics, Teebz." Good point, I say. However, the NHL's Canadian broadcasting partner, Rogers Sportsnet, has already committed to a four-year television deal with the CWHL. While the CWHL doesn't have a regular timeslot on Sportsnet's broadcasting grid, having the CWHL on TV is good for the women's game and for Sportsnet. ESPN, for example, saw a 28 percent increase in viewership in 2013 for WNBA games, so there is definitely interest in women's sports as these WNBA games on ESPN regularly draw higher ratings than MLS games do. If you air it, people will watch. You have to start somewhere, right?

Because of these factors, the NHL could benefit in this partnership with the CWHL. If the NHL is providing financial support and sponsorship dollars, they should get a cut of the commercial buys that sponsors make during broadcasted CWHL games. The players, who are paid nothing by their teams or the league and play simply because of passion, deserve a salary as well, so that would be the ultimate goal of this partnership: achieve sustainability to pay all players a decent salary within a reasonable salary cap system.

We're a long way from talking about incorporating women into NHL All-Star Games and Skills Competitions, but the first thing the NHL should do next season is put the women on the NHL's biggest stage: the Winter Classic. The Bruins will host the Canadiens on New Year's Day next season, and I see no reason why the Blades can't host the Stars on the same ice. It would be a huge step forward if both NBC and Sportsnet/CBC broadcasted the game as well.

You have to walk before you can run, and the NHL has the walked the path of building the game quite well over the last two decades. The NHL-CWHL partnership won't be profitable for some time, but there's an entire chunk of the hockey market who may see more NHL games if the NHL supported the CWHL.

Hockey is a community. The NHL supports all sorts of efforts from the grassroots right up to the AHL. The one segment of the community they don't support is the women's game, though. And it's a shame they don't support the women's game because the NHL is missing a lot of great hockey.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!