THERE CAN BE MORE THAN ONE: or, why women’s hockey isn’t the Highlander

Ever since the NWHL was just a rumor on Twitter, people have been predicting a merger with the CWHL. It seems natural– two leagues, based on the two different sides of the US-Canada border, drawing from the same talent pool of players. Why not have a combined league, they said, and have all these players play each other? Cross-border promotion, the highest-quality talent playing each other, great hockey, and Bob’s your uncle!

Here’s the problem with this idea: it’s framed in a deeply sexist way, and often ignores the very real differences between the NWHL and the CWHL.

First, the idea of the two leagues merging is frequently couched in terms of “women working together.” Much of the argument is framed through the idea that if these women really wanted to make an impact, they would work together and not against each other, that this kind of divide needlessly splinters the talent pool.

This assumes that in order to make the most impact, women have to play nice and work together.

When is the last time independent businesses were told by the public that a merger was the only way forward?

Apple and Microsoft were never told to bury their philosophical differences and become one company so they could be more successful. In fact, their competition ended in the creation of products that many of us use on an hourly basis to organize our lives, do our work, and connect with family. The personal computer market is richer and more varied for their competition.

However, the CWHL and the NWHL aren’t just being told they need to do that to become more successful, but are in fact being told that the only way to become successful at all is to smile, bury the hatchet, and become one league. With most businesses, including men’s professional sports leagues, we assume that they can differentiate their product and succeed–– or they will fail. With women’s hockey, and women’s sport in general, the assumption is often made that they need outside help and no competition to succeed at any level. That is grossly sexist.

We live in a society where unfair and unbalanced expectations are put on women, especially women athletes. Women’s sports leagues need to navigate that as best they can, but that doesn’t mean we, as fans, need to also put that expectation on our leagues.

Women do not need to smile and play nice to be successful.

And women’s sports don’t need to be protected from competition in order to succeed.

From a pure business standpoint, the idea that only one league can succeed is also busted. How many pro, paid men’s hockey leagues does North America have? A hell of a lot more than just the NHL, buddy.

Looking outside of hockey, the CFL and the NFL come to mind. Though the two leagues sell the same sport, in the end they market different products when taking into account their set-up, their marketing approaches, and more. They’re really different in terms of the levels of their financial success– but at the end of the day, they are both successful, paid professional leagues. (The comparison stands even if I don’t want to see women’s hockey ever take a page from the NFL’s concussion management and labor practices handbooks.)

Arguing that the talent pool is too small to sustain two leagues is a smokescreen for the sexist idea that women must cooperate to be successful. Perhaps it’s a misconception of exactly how many high-end players there are, and the Olympic Games are a likely culprit. Each country’s Olympic rosters are only so large, and with international play being the only place a lot of fans know players from, it might very well have fostered this misunderstanding. Now, with two leagues rostered, we’ve seen that the elite talent pool for women’s hockey player is larger than it’s largely been thought to be.

While there might be a brief dilution of talent, as players move to the league and team that suits them best, it’s in a lot of ways a re-balancing of the scales.

The CWHL’s Boston Blades didn’t get to be the overwhelming juggernaut you may remember from last season without being the most accessible option for US players, after all, and particularly US Olympic players, who are often encouraged to stay and train in the Boston area. By “diluting” the talent pool, the addition of a league ensures that more players will get time with these Olympic-caliber players, will learn from them and grow their own abilities.

The quality of player will only increase as time goes on. The more players see that there’s the opportunity for a hockey career after college, the more non-North American players see that there are elite pro opportunities period for them, the more players we’ll see interested in playing at the elite level. We’ve already started to see non-North American players that we normally only see at the second-tier Worlds or some Olympics start to come out of the woodwork. The more players who don’t have to choose between paying their car loan after college or putting their time and money into playing the best hockey they can, the more we’ll see the pool grow.

Second, arguing for a merger between the CWHL and the NWHL ignores the very real differences between the two leagues. In all fairness, we don’t know a ton about how the NWHL will operate. They’re a squeaky new league, just starting their first practices, while the CWHL has years of operation and successes under its belt. The CWHL has some big name sponsors: Bauer, Rodgers, Under Armour, and more, as well as NHL team partnerships for multiple teams. The NWHL’s funding is unknown, and their announced sponsors are much less prominent.

But what we do know is this: The NWHL has very different priorities than the CWHL. The NWHL is already demonstrably a players-first league; their commitment to paying players, to providing all the gear and medical care players need to compete at an elite level has already been shown. They also have tried to be very transparent about this. Concussion baseline tests were done for players at their first practice, equipment fittings done in front of media, and a players’ association was one of the first things announced by the league. Admittedly, it’s sometimes been a little rough, and things haven’t always been as polished as they could have been. The NWHL’s draft model, for example, was changed partway through due to NCAA regulations. 11 players have committed to the league whose names we don’t know, and so on. That aside, the NWHL is a league clearly trying to be bold, transparent, and player-first.

The CWHL, on the other hand, heavily values sustainable growth, and has been insistent on ensuring they have the budget in place before pursuing their end goal: raising the profile of women’s hockey while providing a place for the best female hockey players in the world to train and compete. They have been aggressively courting sponsors, and working on creating and growing ties to their local communities. They have a large emphasis on growing the love of hockey in young girls as well, trying to #GrowTheGame as we hear all the time. The CWHL wants to provide high quality training and competition for players, and as such part of their goal is to pay players and enable them to spend more of their time on hockey and not on paying the bills. They want to expand, but responsibly, and they want to make sure teams are placed in locations that will embrace them. The CWHL has focused on having clinics and meet-and-greets for young women and girls, so that they can meet and learn from the best in the world. It’s apparent the CWHL is taking a slow and steady wins the race approach– they want to last, and the way they think they can best support women’s hockey overall, their league, and their players is by taking their growth one step at a time.

What the constant call for merger misses is that the two leagues, with their two very different approaches, might not be compatible. To top it off, we don’t yet know which is more successful. The CWHL has sustained itself this long, but they are already changing and improving in response to the competition of the NWHL. In a few short months they have gotten a better social media team together and are starting to provide more equipment to players.

I’m not totally against the idea of collaboration or, even, eventually a merger between the two leagues. I think collaboration could be fun. Each league’s champions playing for a trophy or bragging rights sounds like a great idea to me. Someday a merger might be the right thing for each league. But it’s not a forgone conclusion, and indeed may never occur. This insistence that the two women’s leagues take their separate models, staff, and players and combine them devalues the very real choices that each league has made in how they position themselves. It’s also, in no small way, sexist.

2 thoughts on “THERE CAN BE MORE THAN ONE: or, why women’s hockey isn’t the Highlander”

  1. It’s been tough and frustrating following the cwhl. They seem to be more reactive than proactive with the introduction of the nwhl. They use terms like “come out and support us” and the league comes across as more of a charity the anything and that’s NOT how it should be branded.

    With that being said I think the nwhl has the advantage of being second league in this case because of much improved social media compared to when the cwhl started. It appears that already the nwhl has more than double the following than the cwhl on twitter, Facebook etc.

    My guess is the nwhl survives the cwhl. I am quite impressed with the professionalism and marketing strategy of the nwhl so far. I’ve also said all along that paying players adds to the legitimacy of the league and will help grow the game in the long run because you won’t lose those younger players who stop playing hockey because they see no financial future.

    On a last note I can’t believe it took this long for the cwhl to get new jerseys with actual logos. I never bought a toronto furies jersey because quite frankly I don’t want a jersey with just toronto on the front…. So boring and not at all special.

    1. I think we’ve already seen the CWHL start to improve in response to the NWHL, particularly in the social media area! Hopefully that only continues.

      Yeah, I think the CWHL will always run into the “but it’s not pro unless you’re paid”/legitimacy issues until they’re paying players. I think it *is* one of their goals to pay players, but it doesn’t look like a priority– having the revenue to support the league first, and then enough revenue to pay players looks like their plan.

      The NWHL has been very close-mouthed about where their money is from/where they’re planning on getting it from, and while I think that’s a legit position for a new business, it’s one that’s going to haunt them for a while. That said, I don’t think they’re selling bullshit, so why the NWHL thinks they can afford to pay/provide equipment and the CWHL, more established with some big name sponsors doesn’t, does raise some questions too.

      I think it’s too early to make predictions about how this all is going to sort out, and I don’t think we’ll necessarily see just one league coming out at the end. 🙂

      On the jersey note, SAME. You can make a name-mark work, but… you still need A LOGO. Looking forward to seeing what the Furies’ new logo is!

Comments are closed.