Women’s hockey has avid fans but needs a corporate cash infusion

Written by Katie Lebel, Ryerson University. Photo credit Dave Holland. Originally published in The Conversation.

The Toronto Furies huddle up before their match-up against crosstown rivals, the Markham Thunder.

Kawhi Leonard recently registered one of the most iconic moments in Toronto Raptors history with his Game 7 buzzer-beater against the Philadelphia 76ers. The thrilling shot was captured by five different camera angles, the play-by-play commentary was available in multiple languages and corporate partners immediately activated, enhancing the value of the moment.

It also engrained Leonard’s awe-inspiring feat into the minds of millions of fans around the world.

In the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) this past season, the Toronto Furies won their final five games in a row to clinch a playoff berth. In a classic win-or-go-home matchup against their crosstown rival, the Markham Thunder, the game-winning goal was scored by the Furies’ top draft pick, Canadian Olympian Sarah Nurse, in a storybook finish.

How was this different from Leonard’s immortalizing shot?

Only the 500 people physically in attendance at the game had the pleasure of witnessing it. The event was not covered by any legacy media, there were no cameras to capture the moment nor any audio commentary to preserve the excitement of the play. Like trees in a forest, even the most extraordinary sport achievements fall silent if there are no tools in place to showcase them.

The power of visibility

Women’s sports are not promoted in the same ways that men’s sports are. This shortcoming has an impact on the awareness of women’s sports, which in turn affects the public’s ability to get to know female superstars, understand key rivalries or bear witness to historical performances — all important ingredients that foster fan engagement and inspire sport participation.

These systemic limitations make it incredibly difficult to even try to be a fan of women’s sports. They restrict opportunities for revenue generation and perpetuate the common misperception that there is no market for women’s sports.

These pitfalls are among the root causes of the CWHL’s downfall earlier this year.

There is a market demand for women’s sport. Lack of awareness is different than a lack of interest. In fact, women’s hockey has been called one of the fastest growing sports in the world, with 34 percent growth worldwide over the past decade.

We know that when women’s hockey is promoted, fans turn out — the late-night battle between Team Canada and Team USA for 2018 Olympic Gold broke midnight-hour programming records for both NBC (2.9 million viewers) and CBC (4.8 million viewers).

IMI International found that 22 percent of Canadians engaged with the CWHL brand this season, a figure on par with the fandom of athletics, gymnastics, the Ryder Cup, Champions League soccer and National Lacrosse.

Beyond this, few data points exist to corroborate the undeniable growth and value of the sport.

Sponsorship opportunities in women’s sports

On the heels of the CWHL ceasing operations, 200 of the best female hockey players in the world banded together in an attempt to create an economically viable professional women’s hockey league.

A formal leadership group has just been established known as the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association (PWHPA). While providing a means for players to stay connected and co-ordinate with one another, the players’ association is also meant to serve as a front door for discussions with potential investors and business leaders.

Currently, men’s sports enjoy 99.6 percent of all commercial sport investments. While there are cultural norms at play, insufficient data again stands as a key challenge.

When prospective sponsors are not provided with the traditional business elements used to argue value, it’s difficult for them to validate serious investment. Instead of working to document relevant metrics and provide context around measures of viewership and awareness, investors are often asked to simply overlook poor profit margins.

The CWHL didn’t struggle with attendance because fans were ambivalent; fans didn’t attend games because they didn’t know they existed. There was no media publicity or promotional advertising, there wasn’t even team-specific signage at venues.

Any sponsorship was treated as more of a gift than a serious investment; brand return-on-investment research wasn’t even considered.

The need for revenue generation

We need to recognize these types of barriers and develop a system that provides legitimate opportunity to generate revenue. Emotionally charged campaigns have been helpful in elevating the conversation, but true success will require sponsors to invest with intention and activate as more than just advocates.

Keep in mind there is a precedent for this.

In 1970, nine women dared to envision a better future for women’s professional tennis. Lead by Billie Jean King, these trail-blazers signed $1 contracts with magazine publisher Gladys Heldman, who arranged a partnership with Virginia Slims to sponsor a tournament at the Houston Racquet Club.

Women’s tennis has never looked back. All it took was for one brand to believe in the product and over-invest to create the tipping point necessary for success.

Clockwise from top left: Valerie Ziegenfuss, Billie Jean King, Nancy Richey, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kristy Pigeon, promoter Gladys Heldman, Rosie Casals, Kerry Melville and Judy Dalton. Photo Credit: Creative Commons.

Brands now have a similar opportunity with women’s hockey. All they need to do is have a little imagination and take a chance on long-term potential. It always seems impossible, until it’s done.

Sport strategy consultant Katrina Galas, who served as the assistant general manager of the CWHL’s Toronto Furies, contributed to this piece.