Written by: Dan Gladman
There was a specific vibe and energy during the first-ever Professional Women’s Hockey League Draft in Toronto in September.
Perhaps it can be best summed up with a twist on the sport’s most famous vernacular:
“She shoots. She scores.”
Indeed, something feels different and more definitive about this iteration of a women’s hockey league. This time it feels like the business will last.
“I think it was fragmented before,” said Mike Hirshfeld, the general manager of the team in Ottawa. “There were two leagues so you didn’t have best on best.
“[This time] there is money willing to support it and believing in doing it the right way.”
That money is spearheaded by Mark Walter, an American businessman and the CEO of Guggenheim Partners, a global financial services firm with more than $305 billion (USD) in assets. His personal sports portfolio includes ownership stakes in the Los Angeles Dodgers, Chelsea FC, and the Los Angeles Sparks of the WNBA.
It’s this stability that gives the PWHL a legitimate shot at enduring success. The inaugural season is expected to begin in early January, with each team playing a 24-game schedule.
Women’s sports landscape
Hockey is not the trail blazer in North American women’s pro sports but it aims to be the next to capitalize on the explosive emergence of women’s team sports.
The Women’s National Basketball Association Finals are currently underway with the New York Liberty facing the Las Vegas Aces. This will mark the conclusion of the WNBA’s 27th season. According to globaldata.com, sponsorship revenue for the league will surpass $860 million USD for 2023 with corporations like Nike, PepsiCo, Microsoft and Google leading the way.
“These figures are inflated due to the NBA’s broader commercial appeal but this affiliation allows the WNBA to leverage the NBA’s popularity and maximize its revenue potential, at least in terms of apparent value,” states the GlobalData report.
According to The Huddle Up newsletter, the National Women’s Soccer League has broken attendance records in 2023. Last year the NWSL’s sponsorship revenue increased by 87 per cent, with the average team having 37 sponsorship deals.
Almost a million viewers watched the 2022 championship game between the Portland Thorns and the KC Current. Importantly, the league signed its first-ever collective bargaining agreement, considered a must from the get-go for the PWHL.
The importance of collective bargaining
According to the Toronto Star, PWHL player salaries will range from $35,000 to $80,000 (USD) combining with a CBA that puts female hockey players into a sturdy professional environment for the first time in North America.
“When I read the CBA, I thought, these owners are really serious about doing it right,” Gina Kingsbury told The Toronto Star. Kingsbury is the GM of the Toronto team, leaving her post as Vice President, Hockey Operations at Hockey Canada to become a builder in the women’s league. “There’s going to be a pro league that’s going to last for a very long time.”
The question, like in any start-up business, will be how the revenue is generated. Stan Kasten, a member of the PWHL Advisory Board, said that as teams build out their player rosters, they are also hiring people to work on business operations.
“Sales, ticketing, and marketing roles at the league and team level will help connect with our growing fan community and our family of partners,” he said in a statement.
A sponsor steps in
Canadian Tire became the league’s first funding partner with a multi-year agreement. The company was one of Hockey Canada’s top-level sponsors before ending the relationship in the face of the organization’s handling of past sexual assault allegations.
Canadian Tire is now earmarking at least 50 per cent of its sports sponsorship money toward women’s professional sports by 2026.
“This is helping to increase the visibility and viability of the women's game, making life in Canada better for the next generation of girls in sport,” said Kim Saunders, Vice President, Environmental, Social and Governance Strategy and Community Impact at Canadian Tire Corporation.
News broke two weeks ago when a story in the Twin Cities Pioneer Press reported that the Minnesota team would play its home games at the Xcel Energy Center in St.Paul. This was the first public information about where the PWHL games will be played and suggests a potentially cozy relationship with the NHL and its owners and venues.
PWHL revenue projections have not been made public. But according to The Huddle Up, NWSL franchises are not yet profitable, with the teams bringing in, on average, $3-4 million per year. A recent $53 million expansion fee for the Bay FC suggests near-future profits are the expectation.
Women’s hockey is here
The original six locations to house women’s hockey teams are established – Boston, Montreal, Minnesota, New York, Ottawa, Toronto – with team names to be announced in coming weeks.
Ticket sales will be key, with broadcast deals to follow. Sponsorship dollars will be critical as a foundation for the business, as well as promoting the league and women’s hockey in general.
“Hire good people and spend money on the marketing,” Hirshfeld said. “The explosion of women’s sports around the globe is exciting.
“It’s blown me away how great the players and coaches are.”
The energy surrounding women’s hockey and the PWHL is crystal clear. Many indicators and people believe the development of the business is certain to achieve its aims, and net many goals.