The time is now for brands to get behind women’s sports. The growing popularity of women’s hockey offers a lucrative opportunity with increased exposure and a growing fanbase. With equality at the forefront, these opportunities contribute to creating a more sustainable option for professional women in sport.
When the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) disbanded in 2019 after 12 seasons, citing difficulties securing sponsorship amongst reasons for folding, the future seemed bleak. There remained one professional league in North America, the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) and another group of athletes without a league to play in. But out of the disappointment, momentum shifted.
Today, there are once again two professional options for female hockey players in North America, the NWHL and the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA), formed from the collapse of the CWHL. Both provide women with the opportunity to compete but operate in vastly different capacities.
Despite the challenges imposed by the pandemic, this has been a historical season for both the NWHL and the PWHPA. Sponsorship announcements, amplified support and media coverage are making strides in the right direction.
NWHL Sees Continued Growth
As the NWHL prepared for its sixth season to begin in January, a shortened two-week bubble tournament in Lake Placid, New York, the league was starting on a high note with over a dozen new sponsors. It was also expanding to six teams with the addition of the Toronto Six.
The growing support was highlighted by a partnership with Discover, announcing them as official credit card of the NWHL and presenting sponsor of the Isobel Cup. It’s reportedly the largest deal in league history. Already a sponsor of the NHL, this signifies the deep commitment Discover has to hockey and the growth of the women’s game.
The unique setup for the NWHL relies on investors and sponsorship. Revenue is split 50-50 with players after operating costs are recovered, a motivating factor for sponsors whose support directly impacts the league and its athletes. The NWHL is regarded as the first professional women’s hockey league to pay its players. Salaries range from $5,000 to $26,000, averaging $7,000 per player. The league has made additional attempts to support its athletes, including providing players 15 percent of all jersey sales featuring their name on the back. Far from a sustainable wage, these athletes balance playing professional hockey and full-time jobs.
New sponsorships, particularly when COVID-19 has severely impacted sports, are a promising sign of growth and investment in the future of women’s hockey. These range from deals with national reach like Discover and Dunkin, a partner since the inaugural season in 2015, to team-based sponsors in local markets. The league owns the Minnesota Whitecaps, the Metropolitan Riveters (based in New Jersey), the Connecticut Whale and the Buffalo Beauts. The other two teams - the Boston Pride and the Toronto Six - are independently owned. Additional sponsorship categories have been added for additional revenue opportunities.
Building up visibility has been instrumental in securing new support. Currently in the second season of a three-year deal with Twitch, the streaming service helped facilitate the Discover deal. A 140% year-over-year increase in viewership has been reported thanks to the streaming partnership with Twitch and a 304% year-over-year increase in followers. Over the course of the 15 completed games in Lake Placid, the league saw its biggest audiences ever with a total of 1.62 million live views and 14.2 million minutes watched. The matchup between the Boston Pride and the Buffalo Beauts on January 30 recorded the highest audience with 32,000 concurrent viewers during the game.
The NWHL is on its way to making history during the postseason. While the Isobel Cup playoffs were postponed in early February due to cases of COVID-19 reported inside the bubble, the season will finish up at the end of March at Boston’s Warrior Ice Arena. Despite the setback, all three games will still receive national exposure on a major U.S. television network, a first of its kind for women’s professional hockey in the United States. The deal with NBC Sports will televise the games on the NBC Sports Network, and stream them on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app. Internationally, all the action is available through Twitch. As women’s hockey has shown again and again, it will find a way to persevere.
PWHPA Gets a Boost of Confidence
Following the disbanding of the CWHL in 2019, roughly 200 athletes, including Canadian and American national-team players, announced they would not play in any professional league in North America until a stable professional women’s league is established. Thus, the PWHPA was formed.
Home to the majority of the best female hockey players from around the world, the PWHPA is not a league but instead operates a series of showcase tournaments and exhibition games known as the Dream Gap Tour. Training hubs are centralized in Calgary, Toronto, Montreal, Minneapolis and Hudson, N.H., with 25 players per roster.
In late 2020, the PWHPA announced what they called “the most lucrative deal in women’s pro hockey history.” Secret Deodorant signed on for $1 million as the official Dream Gap Tour sponsor. Relying solely on sponsorships to operate, this deal supports efforts in pursuit of a professional league. It also contributes prize money for players to compete for as they are not paid.
The Secret Dream Gap Tour has several reputable brands behind it. Team Minnesota is sponsored by Adidas, Team New Hampshire is sponsored by the Billie Jean King-founded Women’s Sports Foundation, Bauer sponsors Montreal’s team, Scotiabank sponsors Calgary’s team, and Sonnet Insurance sponsors Toronto’s team.
The PWHPA has been actively trying to engage the NHL to support a women’s professional league. While the league has not made any commitments, the teams are listening. In partnership with the New York Rangers, the first-ever women’s professional hockey game was played this year at Madison Square Garden. The following week, the Chicago Blackhawks hosted two more Secret Dream Tour games. Partnerships with the Toronto Maple Leafs and St Louis Blues have also been announced.
With a new social media campaign titled “#StickInTheGround,” the PWHPA has rallied a tremendous amount of support and shared its message in an impactful way. The one-minute video includes many significant figures, like Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, P.K Subban, and Billie Jean King, pledging their endorsement of the PWHPA. There needs to be equal opportunities for men and women and a future where a professional hockey career is possible.