In a country madly in love with hockey, why has the women’s game never been able to ride the excitement of big events like the Olympics and form a full-time league?
For Canada’s best female hockey players, it remains a sorepoint, a perplexing and never quite answered question.
Brianne Jenner, who has been part of the Canadian national team’s core for more than decade, has been trying to answer that question for years.
“It’s tremendously frustrating that more fans won’t see the prime years of [long-time Team Canada captain] Marie-Philip Poulin,” Jenner told CBC Sports.
“For our generation, it’s frustrating that outside of the top 50 players that are playing on their respective national teams in North America, players 50 through 200 have to get 9-to-5 jobs and never have the opportunity to realize their potential as pro players.”
WATCH | Professional women’s hockey struggles to take hold:
Grassroots girls hockey has grown exponentially in recent years but professional women’s hockey has struggled to take hold. Experts say there is potential for a league to thrive if it is approached the right way.
The Premier Hockey Federation, the one existing women’s professional league, has two of its six franchises based in Canada. But since the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded in 2018, there has been no domestic league in Canada.
More than two decades after women’s hockey arrived with a bang at the Nagano Olympics in 1998, Canada’s best are still searching for traction and widespread relevancy.
Changing the narrative
Jenner says there is a “momentum” around women’s sports that will change this narrative.
“The public is starting to realize some things that those involved have known for a while… it’s entertaining sport, [and] there’s money to be made there.”
A new report released this week by Canadian Women & Sport entitled It’s Time supports Jenner’s assertion.
“From hockey and soccer to basketball and esports and beyond, professional women’s sport in Canada is ripe for investment,” Nan DasGupta, Managing Director and Senior Partner at Boston Consulting Group (BCG), who helped put the report together.
BCG paints a rosy picture of the possibilities, estimating the total size of the Canadian women’s sports market to be between $150-$200 million. DasGupta says that nearly half of that estimate is linked to revenue generated by Olympic athletes. Most of the rest comes from one-off events held in Canada like the LPGA’s Canadian Open.
“We had to make estimates, we had to for data that wasn’t readily available and that was a challenge,” DasGupta says. “Because we have so little professional women’s sports available to us in Canada as fans, we struggled to really be able to find lots of data points around sentiment. It’s difficult to have a point of view about something that you can’t see or feel.”
The report instead leans heavily on data from a global market where women’s sport is booming. In the United States, the WNBA (which is heavily subsidized by the NBA) continues to attract new fans and eager investors. So does the National Women’s Soccer league. The recent women’s NCAA basketball tournament drew record interest.
In Britain and India, domestic soccer and cricket leagues have thrived. Nearly all of these leagues are linked to previously existing entities and have benefited from these partnerships.
In Canada, past domestic leagues have had to make it on their own with expectations of near-immediate success, a main reason why they have failed.
Some are trying to write a new story. Former national team soccer player Diana Matheson is spearheading a new eight-team domestic soccer league that plans to kickoff in 2025. And the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association, home to nearly every member of the Canadian and U.S. national teams, is expected to launch its long promised new league in the coming months.
In predicting a bright future for these ventures, this new report acknowledges many areas experts say have greatly hindered success in the past and provides some advice going forward.
DasGupta says Canadian leagues must seek out patient investors — those who recognize the industry is still in its infancy and avoid promises of immediate financial success.
“I think the business model needs to … recognize that we’re building the game, building interest, we’re building engagement,” she says. “We liken it very much to venture capital type of investment. The price of entry is actually fairly low right now. It will take time to really develop the business and some of these new revenue streams. But in the end, we believe the valuations are very, very positive.”
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Diana Matheson, the CEO of Project 8, shares her excitement about a professional women’s soccer team coming to Toronto. Vancouver and Calgary have been previously announced as team locations.
At the same time, those who have been involved with or watched past leagues fail stress that emerging leagues don’t always have a long time to demonstrate viability. It takes quick work to turn “growing interest” and “momentum” into fans actually buying tickets and coming to games. Even the most noble, patient investors want to see early signs of growth.
“Women’s hockey is not a charity. It is a professional business that is run like a business,” Brenda Andruss, the former commissioner of the CWPL, recently told CBC Sports. “To be run like a business you need the fans to come to the game to pay the dollars, you need the sponsorships to come, you need broadcasting and streaming rights.”
“You need people in the office that are not former coaches and players and have nothing to do with the on-field product,” adds Cary Kaplan, whose company Cosmos Sports has provided advice to leagues and teams across North America.
“You need to focus on community relations, marketing, public relations, ticket sales, outreach, and social media. And women’s hockey, for some reason, hasn’t done that.”
Putting fans first
The report also encourages would-be investors to focus more attention on building fan engagement, something Kaplan says women’s sports in Canada has often ignored. He says leagues need to focus more on building individual player profiles and focus on stats and achievement the way most men’s sports do.
“When fans come, that drives your revenue and allows you to grow. Any incarnation of leagues in Canada have not been fan-centric,” Caplan says. “They’ve led with lots of other things like equality and parity, which are all good. But if you don’t put fans first and make that priority number one, the revenues tend not to come to sustain growth.”
It’s a model Brianne Jenner says leagues must embrace if the potential projected in the Canadian sports market is ever to be realized.
“We are rightly changing the way that we talk about female athletes away from simply being role models,” Jenner says. “Of course [that]is a super important thing, but we’re also talking about female athletes now for their skill, their speed.
“Male athletes have had that sort of coverage forever, but female athletes haven’t …and that is the content that fans want to hear about.”
Jenner says all the indicators show women’s sports can thrive in Canada, that it is the “ripe investment” reports like this say it is.
“We’re not viewing ourselves as a charity nor do we fit that category any longer.”