Women’s hockey took a baby step in the right direction this week when it was announced that the CWHL would begin paying its players. Following the path forged by the rival NWHL two seasons ago, the Canadian league will now have stipends ranging from $2,000 to $10,000 for its athletes, according to an article in the Globe and Mail.
It’s not much, but it’s a start.
What is most interesting about the news is that the financial boon largely seems to be coming from the league’s expansion to China, where new squads Kunlun Red Star and the Vanke Rays have brought with them corporate sponsors and broadcasting and licensing rights. Bringing in those Chinese firms makes for an interesting schedule – teams are going to play three-game sets in the Chinese cities, and vice-versa for Red Star and Vanke when those teams come to Canada – but in a crowded hockey world, you have to give the CWHL credit for doing whatever it takes to get a foothold.
Interest in hockey is booming in China, in large part because the Asian powerhouse is hosting the Winter Olympics in 2022. Right now, China’s women rank 18th in the world, according to the IIHF, while the men rank 37th. Clearly, the national program wants to up those numbers in time for the big show.
And if this is the route that gets more funding for professional women’s hockey, then that’s awesome. The enthusiasm surrounding the NWHL’s initial player salaries was dampened a bit when the league was eventually forced to slash the pay due to financial constraints, but it set a precedent: professional athletes should get paid, that’s why we call them professionals.
Trying to compete in the frothing North American sports market is not easy when you’re pitching something new and for many casual sports fans, that’s what women’s hockey is: an entity they aren’t too familiar with. Even for hockey fans, the CWHL and NWHL are competing against the NHL, minor pro, men’s and women’s college hockey and junior teams for eyeballs and wallets. That’s not easy to do when everyone else has had a head start (let’s not forget the NHL just turned 100 years old).
There is an intrinsic value in having professional women’s hockey, for many reasons. Even for the most cynical in the crowd, it’s still pragmatic to embrace it, because the sport has a chance to attract new fans and players – and expanding hockey’s pool benefits everyone involved in the game.
But the new salaries, as small as they are, represent at least a token acknowledgement that what these women do is very hard and that they are the best in the world at it. If China is the marketplace that helps make this happen, then I’m all for it.
Will the new stipends translate to more fans in the stands? Probably not in the short term, especially since most of the CWHL’s best players will miss this season due to extended Olympic camps. But again, this is a game that needs time to grow. No one was breathing down the NHL’s neck in 1955, wondering why a league that once boasted 10 teams in the late 1920s only had six franchises 30 years later – because sports weren’t a 24-7 thing back then. The NHL was allowed to grow organically, just like the crops that half the players in the league had to harvest on their family farms before they headed off to NHL training camps back then.
What women’s hockey has now is a real start – and that should be celebrated.