Cheers to Sportsnet Magazine for its article on the Canadian Women's Hockey League. Said article helps bring awareness to a league that desperately requires one. The imbalances that exist are eye opening. The concept of a world class athlete like Jayna Hefford (competing for the Brampton Thunder) having to work three part time jobs, while a fourth line forward in professional men's hockey can earn $500,000 reflects a great disparity. Although it is true that Hefford will one day be in the Hockey Hall of Fame, the road to get there will have been a hard one.
Based on past failures in the United States of professional women's soccer, and the struggles of some franchises in the Women's National Basketball Association, attracting a potential investor will be an arduous task. It would be easy to say that professional men's hockey has a moral obligation to subsidize the league. As the CWHL is a not for profit organization, a strong selling point would be the idea of a contribution as a potential tax deduction. With the wealthiest men's team based in Toronto, and three of the CWHL franchises competing in the Greater Toronto Area, it would seem possible that they could be approached for a contribution.
The painful reality is that although hockey is a sport and a strong symbol of national pride in many nations, it is also a business. Regrettably, many businesses will only invest in smaller enterprises if there is a potential for profit. If the CWHL can prove that it has the ability to generate revenues, and finance itself without worry, its potential could reach fruition.
A big step towards tapping into that potential would be television coverage. With so many sports networks struggling for content (while airing poker, fishing and horse racing in the early hours) , the CWHL could offer the networks their programming for free. Whatever revenues are raised could be shared equally between the two. There are local cable channels throughout the country that feature minor hockey on their cable access programs. There is no reason why the CWHL could not be part of a local cable programming schedule. While it may not generate revenue for the teams or the league, it would create exposure. If these are not viable options, a YouTube channel with weekly highlights should be feasible.
Part of being a sports fan is the connection to a team. A strong element of any connection to a team emanates from merchandising. If the CWHL teams were to auction game used jerseys or game pucks online (preferably signed), many sports memorabilia collectors might see it as a more cost-efficient way to build their collections. A hockey card license with a company such as In the Game (which has produced women's ice hockey cards in sets such as O Canada and Between the Pipes) could stimulate interest in the league. (Some of the first year players or bigger name stars could easily be included in ITG's Heroes and Prospects annual card set). Another effort at merchandising is a calendar featuring player autographs and a certificate of authenticity to appease collectors (in addition, half of the proceeds could go to cancer research).
At this point, seeking support from professional men's hockey may be aiming too high. The Ontario Hockey League offers many opportunities, considering it has five franchises in the Greater Toronto Area (Barrie, Brampton, Mississauga, Niagara, Oshawa). Perhaps the CWHL teams from the GTA could entertain a joint venture with these franchises.
The benefit is that the franchises, (and the league in general) already has an audience. Any partnership would create exposure, with the hope of rapidly increasing interest. Many patrons of the OHL are families, so the CWHL could captivate the interest of younger fans. Doubleheader games with the OHL and CWHL (where the CWHL could play after the OHL game has finished) would bring value to the sports fans dollar.The plight of these players borders on tragic, as it is reminiscent of many sports leagues during the Great Depression, where athletes participated for love, rather than money. In addition, the idea that many of these players obtain celebrity status when participating for their countries in the Winter Games every four years, while returning to obscurity afterwards could make any player feel dejected. The concept of women participating in sports traditionally played by men is still a nascent concept for many sports fans. Until this concept is firmly established in the hearts and minds of sports fans, the league will have to find innovative ways to grow and expand their product. If the league is unable to find and develop these ways, the league will not only struggle to obtain growth, but will run the risk of eventually being undermined by someone who not only knows how to capitalize on those ways, but will have deep enough pockets to make it a reality.