Saturday, 17 June 2017

You're Part Of The Problem

Having been around the game for some time, I can tell you that there's one group that has emerged who gives me cause for concern about how this game is covered. While mainstream media has always been in the game for one reason, they have generally avoided women's hockey for the most part outside of the major tournaments. Part of this is due to their apparent knowledge of their own market, but some may be due to a non-acceptance of the women's game as viable entertainment. This is where bloggers have picked up the gauntlet and made the women's game their own. While this effort is commendable, there still remains a major problem within this segment of the population.

The problem, as it is, stems from the fact that the women who are covering the game seem to believe that a tried and tested business model that values building a sustainable and viable market should be eradicated in place of paying players. The CWHL's announcement of their expansion into China was groundbreaking and monumental, yet some writers covering the game still had the audacity to ask the Commissioner of the CWHL where was the money for the players. Dollar bills, yo!

This fascination over the money being paid to the women is something I don't understand. And let me be very clear on this issue: the women should be paid as much as they can be paid without risking the sustainability of the league. As any business owner will tell you, if there's no market for your product, there's little in the way of take-home so you better have something people want before you start handing out raises and pay hikes.

There's a women's hockey league struggling to pay its players after slashing salaries and taking a major PR hit because said league thought they could simply show up and play and everyone would come and watch. The slashing of the salaries was not only dramatic, but it was admittedly done to save the league from folding mid-season which would have been a major blow to the sport in the US. Demands from the players for explanations were met after a rather ugly back-and-forth in the public's eye with the league unable to restore salaries for this upcoming season.

They would exclaim, "We have Olympians!"
They would proclaim, "We're paying players a livable wage!"
They would declare, "We're the only league to pay players!"

In the end, the market screamed back, "We don't care!" as virtually empty rinks made up the majority of seats. Except those empty seats didn't make up any difference in the bottom line, and there have been a number of players who have opted to move to the CWHL this season after their take-home pay went from livable wages to peanuts.

As it was stated over and over by Commissioner Brenda Andress at the announcement of the expansion Kunlun Red Star team, all teams would follow the same financial plan as set out by the league. Yes, she avoided the "are you paying players" question at the outset, but she never explicitly said that the CWHL was NOT going to pay players this season. This is where a vast number of that contingent of women's hockey bloggers went out and lost their minds.

I'm not going to post the commentary here made by those who seemingly lead the way in this area, but I'm shocked how quickly they began to bite the hand that feeds them. Forget that the CWHL has posted profits as a women's hockey league in recent years by building a market in cities where they know there is a market for women's hockey. Forget the fact that the CWHL has successfully attracted sponsors and partners who have bought into this business model so that they could survive for a decade against all odds and a rival league. Instead, focus on gettin' paid, yo, because apparently that's all that matters.

Well, this happened. And it happened outside of the expansion press conference. And it happened on its own after ten years of sustainability, good business practices, and good management.
I give full credit to Robyn Flynn for her work on this front because instead of standing there and performing the "making it rain" motion as seen at the top of this piece, she went out and asked questions like a true journalist would. Logically, based on what Miss Andress said at the introduction of the Kunlun Red Star team, the goal to pay players in the 2017-18 season would be met, but it's always nice to hear that directly from the source. Miss Flynn went and got that confirmation like a good journalist would.

Another women's writer made the quick connection that the same people who own the KHL's Kunlun Red Star will be funding the CWHL's Kunlun Red Star. And while she's not wrong about where the money is coming from, using the shady practices of the KHL teams' financials - which has been pointed out on this very blog - to cast doubt on the Chinese team's owners is, well, underhanded. The problem with Russia's KHL is that there are no rules on conflicts of interest, it seems, and the Russian-based teams take full advantage of those breaks. Case in point? The same ownership group owns both Finalnd's Jokerit Helsinki and Russia's SKA St. Petersburg and is tied heavily to the Russia government through both business and personal factors, hence why "Jokerit's new owners were put on a sanctions list by the US Treasury Department 'due to their actions on behalf of the Russian government'".

Kunlun Red Star, however, operates in China and they do not own any other KHL teams. They have one goal, it seems, and that is to grow the game within China as the leader of that movement. As Vice's Sheng Peng wrote in regards to Kunlun Red Star's first KHL game,
"As for the game itself, official attendance was 7,832 for an arena which seats 14,000 for hockey. To their credit, it was an enthusiastic mob. Just a couple minutes in, speedy Kunlun winger Oleg Yashin rushed the puck through the neutral zone, backing off the Admiral Vladivostok defenders, creating a surge in the crowd... and he dumped it in, which was exactly the right thing to do because the Red Star were on the penalty kill. They're still picking up the beats of the sport here."
Like the CWHL, they are working to create a market for the game while trying to develop players faster than any other program on the planet has or may ever will. Both the men's game and the women's game is literally in their infancies in China, and the KRS group has been tasked with accelerating those programs to become relevant on the world's stage by 2022.

How are they doing that, you ask? The same way any other program would - paying heavily for it. The hiring of players such as Noora Raty and Kelli Stack weren't just coincidence. These women are being paid as hockey ambassadors to help the CWHL team become competitive quickly as winning teams see growth in their respective sports at the grassroots level and to go out into these Chinese communities and introduce the people of China to hockey with the hopes that they can attract a few players who may not have considered hockey as an opportunity. That "ambassador" role is the definition of growing the game, a phrase that another league enjoyed using while promoting the latest new drinks from their coffee sponsor.

"But they're being paid as ambassadors in China, not as players!" was a retort. Does Sidney Crosby get extra money from the Penguins for hand-delivering season tickets to fans? Being paid as a player means that you accept the ambassador title with your hockey job because you're selling the game every day of the week, every week of the month, every month of the year. So while Noora Raty might be making a pile of dough this season as an ambassador, she's doing it as a hockey player. If you demand pay for players and then split hairs over what they're being paid for, you might be missing the bigger picture as to why these players are playing in China.

Look, people may lose their minds over me writing this article, so humor me by saving me from your subtweets and chatter behind the scenes. There have always been questions as to when the CWHL would start paying players, and it was escalated in ridiculous ways when that other league introduced payment for players despite no one knowing where the money was coming from to pay said players. It's clear that the markets in which they exist either can't or won't support the model that was introduced which led to salaries being slashed dramatically mid-season while the CWHL focused on building their brands within their markets. If people don't want your product, there is no business. If there is no business, there is no pay. This is simple economics.

With Kunlun Red Star handling the majority of the costs associated with the expansion into China, there would be no change to how the business model of the CWHL is run. All five teams would still be on-track to seeing players being paid since KRS is handling their side of the equation. Yesterday, through Robyn Flynn, that goal that was always stated by Brenda Andress became a reality with the framework of how players are to be paid still being finalized.
"The pay structure has not been finalized yet," a league spokesperson said. "But as Brenda [Andress] said at the press conference [announcing the expansion to China], it has always been the strategic plan to compensate the players this year. The details and specifics are still being worked out."
The CWHL has always been about sustainability to ensure that the best hockey players in the world have some place to play. Their strategic plan wasn't based entirely on capitalism, so I understand why there may be some confusion as to why players weren't being paid in the past. Socialism - working for the good of all regardless of status - has allowed this league to remain in business for ten years and beyond. With the league achieving a sustainability not ever seen before in women's hockey, the profits being realized can now be returned to the players for their efforts in growing the league and developing a successful product in five current markets and attracting one massive, new market to its fold where the opportunities may be endless for new sponsors and new investors.

That's how you get paid, yo.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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