Friday, 3 May 2019

Get What's Yours

This sign was on display at the Ford plant in Dagenham, England in 1968 when the women working there walked off the job after they discovered their pay was significantly less for the same work than the men who worked at the Ford factory. With Ford boasting 54,813 men compared to only 187 women at the factory at that time, Ford classified the women as "unskilled workers" despite the fact they were doing similar trades work as the men. The 187 women were sewing machinists, responsible for the car seats in the majority of Ford cars built in the area, and their walk-out cost Ford nearly $8 million. It also prompted the walk-out of 195 women at another Ford factory in England, all but halting Ford vehicle production in England.

There's a striking similarity in what happened in women's hockey this week as the CWHL players along with the majority of NWHL players banded together to demand better pay, better benefits, and significant improvements in funding and resources for their sport by announcing that none of the more-than-200 players will participate in professional hockey this season until their demands are met. This is a bold and courageous decision, but it's one that needed to happen if women's hockey was ever to become more than a niche sport in North America. I'll say it right now: I fully and completely stand with the women in this fight 100%.

The one current women's professional league who is still operating - the NWHL - has already said that they'll forge ahead this season without the women who choose to sit out in what seems like a monumentally stupid decision, so we'll see how long that lasts without the most skilled players on the planet suiting up for that league. If history has taught us anything, refer to the lede paragraph where Ford lost $8 million once their skilled female workforce walked off the job. It's entirely likely the losses the NWHL may suffer this season could force that league into folding like the CWHL did. Only time holds that answer at this point.

Having spent some time on social media today, there are a lot of people - virtually all men, admittedly - who seem to believe that this demand by the women will never work due to the economics of the current state of women's hockey. Yes, currently, that's entirely true. But let's look at this objectively so that we compare apples to apples. For starters, there has never been a national television contract for any version of women's hockey where the league has been paid by a network to air their games.

If we jump back in time, there were a total of zero NHL games shown on American network television between May 24, 1980 and January 21, 1990. ESPN, USA Network, and SportsChannel America aired games, but these cable channels weren't available in all markets nor on all cable subscriptions. Those three cable networks paid pennies on the dollar for NHL rights through the decade, and the result was that the NHL lagged behind the other three sports in growth, coverage, and presence in the largest television market on the planet.

As a result, the highest paid player in 1989-90 was Mario Lemieux who pulled down a $2 million salary. Compare that to Jaromir Jagr's $17.4 million salary in 1999-2000, and you can see how television revenue greatly influences how owners spend money. When one considers that since 1996, the lowest of the highest-paid players annually earned $8,360,000 - Jagr in 2005 and 2006 after the introduction of the salary cap - it becomes pretty clear that having additional revenue to spend filters down to the players as general managers spend to win. If NHL teams were forced solely to rely on ticket sales, merchandise sales, and local advertising and sponsor monies, it's very likely salaries wouldn't have escalated as quickly as they have over the last twenty years in the NHL.

The other thing that women's hockey has never had to the degree that men's hockey has seen are the long-standing sponsorship revenues. Women's hockey certainly has had long-standing partnerships with a number of companies, but there haven't been those regular multi-year, multi-million dollar revenue-driving relationships that men's hockey has fostered thanks to its growing popularity. According to reports, the NHL generated $559.5 million in 2017-18 from league and team sponsorship revenue worldwide, up from 2011's numbers of $356 million.

Those numbers alone would be more than enough to fund a women's league at this point, and it's something that the women's game has never experienced when it comes to sponsorship revenue. Some of that may have to do with the leagues mostly being regional. The infancy of the leagues may also be a factor. But tying into the fact that they don't have a national media presence likely hurts their abilities to garner big-money sponsorship deals.

For all the detractors out there who are ripping on the economics of the women's game, for those ripping on the NHL for what will ultimately be their involvement in running a women's league, or for those doing both, what the women are doing in this boycott is fighting not for today or their careers currently, but the future careers of your daughters and nieces. They're ensuring that the next generation doesn't have the carpet pulled out from underneath them like the CWHL players had done to them. They're taking a stand against salary reductions and a lack of transparency shown by the NWHL. They're boycotting for the better of their game today, tomorrow, and for the foreseeable future.

The Ford strike, mentioned at the start of the this piece, lasted all of 22 days - June 7 until June 29, 1968. Two years later, England passed the Equal Pay Act which made it "illegal to have different pay scales for men and women." The hockey boycott by these professional women isn't a hockey issue or a gender issue or a money issue. It's a societal issue, and this boycott has forced the conversation about women's hockey players making livable wages into the spotlight. While no one is suggesting that the women will see NHL salaries at this point, that's also not their demand. They simply want to be able to live on a salary paid for by hockey without having to pick up second jobs or working odd jobs to make ends meet so they can train and work like the highly-skilled professional women that they are.

I stand with the women in this battle. Like the women in Dagenham, they are extremely skilled in their positions, and they deserve to be paid for that skill. And even though this boycott will last more than 22 days, the end result should see these women paid a livable wage for their amazing talents and skills.

It's 2019, folks. Any other thoughts on this matter will automatically be categorized as rubbish because the women in 1968 at the Dagenham, England got what they deserved. Women's hockey players are doing the same.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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