Women’s professional team sports seem to be flourishing, especially basketball in China and the United States (WNBA), and various soccer leagues in Europe. The news is not so good for women’s ice hockey in North America.
The Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) discontinued operations on May 1, 2019. In the U.S., the recently established National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) is in a vulnerable position. Many of the players are hoping to develop a more stable women’s league by partnering with the National Hockey League (NHL), following the model established by the WNBA and the women’s soccer leagues in Europe.
As a sociologist of sport, I am interested in the conditions under which women and men play sports. Here, I consider some of the potential risks of partnering with a men’s league and suggest some alternative ways of developing a successful women’s hockey league.
At the end of March 2019, a week after the Calgary Inferno won the Clarkson Cup (the women’s equivalent of the Stanley Cup), the CWHL announced that it was closing down because it was “economically unsustainable.” That announcement was overshadowed by a remarkable statement signed by more than 200 professional players from the CWHL and the NWHL.
The players’ statement – fittingly released on May 1st – declared that “we will not play in ANY professional leagues in North America this season until we get the resources that professional hockey demands and deserves.”
In this unusual demonstration of solidarity by professional athletes, the CWHL players highlighted the circumstances under which they had been working. Using the Twitter hashtag, #ForTheGame, the players declared: “We cannot make a sustainable living playing in the current state of the professional game. Having no health insurance and making as low as two thousand dollars a season means players can’t adequately train and prepare to play at the highest level.”
Seeking stable alternatives
In the CWHL, salaries ranged from CDN$2,000 to $10,000 per season. In the NWHL salaries in the first season of operation (2015-16) ranged from US$10,000 to US$26,000 per season, but these were reduced in the second season, often by 50 per cent.
Players who also play for their national teams in North America and Europe are often relatively well-funded, but the majority of professional players have careers outside hockey. Some also have children. Some older players realize that the job action could mean they have played their last game of high-level hockey.
As with other forms of labour action, those who have withdrawn their labour acknowledge that any gains that are made will be most likely to benefit the next generations of players. The protesting players have recently formed a union, the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association (PWHPA).
It seems that the players’ actions to improve their working conditions, as well as the overall image of women’s hockey, may follow the lead of their peers in the WNBA and European professional soccer leagues. That is, they advocate affiliating with men’s professional leagues and teams, in this case the NHL and select teams in that league.
Part of my work as Director of the Centre for Sport Policy Studies at the University of Toronto involves monitoring the rights and working (playing) conditions for athletes in professional and high performance sport.
What if players controlled the game?
Prompted by the corruption and mismanagement evident in many national and international sports organizations and by the disturbing “ownership” model of many professional team sport leagues –where players are bought and sold, drafted, traded and auctioned – I have been asking the question: “What if the players controlled the game?”
Low pay and short careers for the majority of the world’s professional athletes are accompanied by health-compromising behaviours and extraordinary rates of injury that would be a topic of major concern in any other industry or institution.
In the authoritarian conditions under which most sports are played at the highest level, athletes have very little opportunity to determine the form, the circumstances and the meaning of their participation. Partnering with the NHL to form a women’s professional hockey league is likely a much better alternative than the status quo, but the billionaire owners of NHL teams are not likely to include players in their decision-making.
The NHL has declared no interest in partnering with a women’s hockey league, despite the fact that such a move has been a profitable declaration of corporate social responsibility in other sports. Some women’s soccer teams in Italy and Spain are now demanding to play in the men’s team’s stadiums because of the size of their fan base. NHL team owners may be waiting until they can partner with women’s teams on conditions most favourable to themselves.
Given the solidarity demonstrated by so many of the top women players, perhaps they would be ready to consider some alternatives – player ownership, community ownership or some combination of these in order to form a league of their own.
Before the NFL Players’ Association (NFLPA) went on strike in 1982, the union produced a pamphlet titled “We Are the Game”, which stated that the NFLPA wouldn’t only run exhibitions games, it “would create a league of several teams, owned and operated by the players themselves.” Two games were played, but the experiment failed under enormous legal resistance from team, media and stadium owners. However, the players’ recognition that “we are the game” remains a resource of hope.
The best current example of player ownership is in roller derby, the international Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), where teams and leagues are owned by the players, for the players. A hybrid example is the U.S.-based Freedom Football League (FFL), where teams are co-owned by players, fans and investors. Crowd-funding is another potential alternative to establishing their own league, and working toward community ownership.
Community ownership is the best established model of alternative ownership. Examples can be found in soccer, with teams and leagues in at least 31 countries, and also in American football, Canadian football, Australian rules football, baseball, basketball, ice hockey and rugby leagues.
The PWHPA might consider one of these alternatives if they do not “get the resources that professional hockey demands and deserves” from the NWHL or the NHL. Community tax bases have provided major support to men’s professional sports, including hockey, in the form of direct subsidies, tax holidays and financing stadium or arena construction. Player- and/or community-owned women’s teams would also have an equity-based right to call on community resources … For The Game.