For at least four years, professional female hockey players strongly advocated for a unified league.
About a week ago, it finally happened when Mark Walter, co-owner of MLB’s Los Angeles Dodgers, announced that his company purchased the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) and would cease operations. Days later, the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) ratified a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the Walter group to start a new unnamed professional league in January 2024.
There will reportedly be six teams split evenly between Canada and the US, with player salaries ranging from $35,000 to $80,000.
A difficult part is over. The next one, however, is just beginning.
Experts say that among the key next steps to ensure the league’s success are identifying the right markets, assigning players fairly throughout the league, negotiating a fair media rights deal and securing sponsorship. A deal with the NHL could be beneficial, they say, but only on certain terms.
Laurel Walzak, who was chair of the board of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) when it closed in 2019, told CBC Sports that the new vision for women’s hockey is promising, especially with the backing of Walter, who also co-owns from the English Premier League club. Chelsea and whose estimated net worth, according to Forbes, is $5.3 billion.
“The way it was done with the media rights deal before and the sponsors before and the events before and all that, it can’t exist that way. If it exists that way, then it will fail,” he said. . “I don’t believe for a second that it will continue to exist that way because so much has changed since then.”
Both Walzak and Ann Pegoraro, president of sports management at the University of Guelph’s business school, said the league’s early business model, in which it owns each of the six clubs, was intriguing.
Pegoraro said that laying the foundations equally would be crucial in the initial construction of the league.
“But the idea that they can sell their franchises, provide future revenue streams and develop the league by adding new franchises at the same time, I think that should be the ultimate goal where there would be individual franchise owners and the ability to expand across North America. Pegoraro said.
In the CWHL’s final season, teams were located in Toronto, Montreal, and Calgary, in addition to Markham, Ontario, Worcester, Mass., and Shenzhen, China.
A grouping of teams in the Northeast might make more sense to limit travel costs and focus hockey on its biggest markets. The Associated Press has reported that Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, London, Ontario, Washington, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Boston and New York are under consideration.
Stan Kasten, the Dodgers president who is seen as a key man in getting the new league off the ground, told The Canadian Press that his goal is to make public the name and logo of the league, the team locations and the game schedule in the next two months.
Wherever the league ends, Walzak said it’s important to keep fans in mind, even those who are off the market.
Within the cities that the league chooses, Pegoraro pointed out that they should choose stadiums with growth potential.
“I think if you put them in decent sized arenas that are hockey-specific and in good locations, I think there’s a demand. We saw the women’s games at the Olympics, the World Championships drew a huge audience on TV So there is a group that wants to see these games,” he said.
‘Short term pain, long term gain’
Which is also where the media rights agreement comes into play. As Walzak points out, it doesn’t benefit anyone to play on Sunday mornings or only broadcast important games. Instead, there needs to be a comprehensive deal where all games are available, either on traditional TV broadcast or streaming.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be traditional linear. There may be something similar to what you do with MLS with an Apple TV deal. Who knows?” Walzak said.
“I think they’re going to have to do things differently because, if you think about it, nobody in North America to date, other than the big games, really invested a lot in broadcast rights for the CWHL or PHF.”
Some PHF players were scheduled to earn as much as $150,000 next season.
“For short-term pain, there will be long-term gain and there will be sustainability in this league that will be in perpetuity similar to what’s happening with the WNBA, how it’s finally taken off after so many years, and the NWSL is starting to take off.” Walzak said. “Now is the time for women’s sports.”
Still, there may have to be some sort of relationship fix between the PWHPA and the PHF.
“It seemed, wow, [the PHF] really turned the corner and now potentially a good part of [players] lost jobs. And I think that’s an immediate success in the game,” Pegoraro said.
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When asked what he might advise the new league based on his CWHL experience, Walzak cautioned against endorsement deals that provide little to no value.
“I think the stakeholders, the sponsors need to pay. So the old ‘I’ll give you jerseys to play’ deals, no, where’s the money? Also, we’ll wear your jerseys. Because that’s part of the deal is you want everyone people wear your t-shirts. Okay, great. That will cost you X amount of dollars.”
It’s the same principle that should be used in talks with the NHL, which has said in the past that it will support women’s hockey when there is a unified league.
But while the new league should be able to operate on its own, it will compete with the NHL for eyeballs during the winter months.
“Whether they need an investment from the NHL or a specific relationship to tie it into existing franchises, I’m not sure they need it right now,” Pegoraro said. “But I think they need some kind of relationship that allows them to promote and support each other without necessarily having the men’s league dominate all the time.”
Pegoraro added that the pitch for all potential partners should be to look at NWSL side Angel City FC, who paid a franchise fee of $2-3 million before being valued at over $100 million before playing a game.
“This is the time, this is the time that we’re seeing a huge return on investment… We know the only place you can get that kind of growth and return on your money right now is in women’s sports.”