Welcome to part two of the series Courtney Szto and I are writing on the dominant myths around the popularity of women’s hockey. It is common for women’s professional hockey, executives, experts, and players to argue that it “takes time” for leagues to establish themselves, and to remember where the NHL was at the same point in its history. While I am not suggesting that success will happen overnight, neither does it require decades. The hope that the “arc of the moral universe bends towards justice”, as the Martin Luther King Jr. quote popularized by Barack Obama puts it, remains a hope that rests on a historical determinism that does not bear out (towards anything, much less women’s sports). For example, WNBA attendance today is at the same level as the NBA in 1971-72. However, the WNBA has actually grown faster, matching the NBA’s attendance in its 26th season with this only being the WNBA’s 21st season. Still, the league’s average salary is $75,000, when the NBA’s average salary at this point, adjusted for inflation, was $500,000. Comparing any women’s pro hockey league to the equivalent of the NHL at the same point is misleading at best and damaging at worst as it suggests the current level of (in)action put into promoting women’s hockey will be eventually sufficient.
Unfortunately, I discuss men’s hockey for the majority of this post, falling into the trap of women’s hockey’s constant comparison to men’s hockey. Consider this post a vaccination, to dispel even the most well-intentioned comparison to men’s hockey from the ongoing conversation about women’s hockey and to allow us to view women’s hockey as it’s own entity.
The key point is there was nothing grassroots about men’s hockey. It wasn’t a result of players slowly, but surely, gaining popularity and sharing increasingly growing profits like women’s hockey is expected to be. Rich men from Canada’s mining and lumber industries poured their profits into bolstering hockey as their hobby rather than as a business.
For sake of comparison, let’s equate the Women’s World Championships, beginning in 1990, with the introduction of the Stanley Cup championship in 1893, as both established an elite level competition. This means our point of comparison for men’s hockey 29 years after the Cup is the 1921-22 season. The 21-22 was the fifth season of a four team NHL (Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, and Hamilton). The Stanley Cup was decided between three leagues, with the NHL champion playing the winner of a series between the champions of the Western Canada Hockey League (WCHL) (Edmonton, Regina, Calgary, Saskatchewan) and the Pacific Coast Hockey Association* (PCHA) (Seattle, Vancouver, and Victoria). Such arrangement would last up to the 26-27 season, when there was finally #OneLeague.
One of the dudes responding to Anissa Gamble, wrote “Really. Look at the numbers mens hockey average say 16000 fans per game. Women’s hockey what 500 hundred per game. If you don’t like the pay quit. And get a real job. And its not gender. Men started out with no pay. See where you are in 100yrs and then let someone know” [sic]. That men started out with “no pay” is true… for a period of 11 years when the first pro league debuted, paying between $15 and $40 a week ($400 – $1110 in today’s currency). Star Cyclone Taylor made $3000 a season ($84,638 today). The league played in cities like Calument, Michigan, Sault Ste-Marie, and Houghton, Michigan, where clearly they weren’t playing to 16,000 fans per game.
While salary figures are not readily available from this era, star players like Montreal’s Newsy Lalonde made $2,000 (about $30,000 today) for three months salary in 21-22. Like most women players today, professional hockey players did have another job. Unlike most women players today, it was not during the season. For some players in 21-22, their employers were proud of employing a professional hockey player (women’s hockey player employers should get on this approach) and were happy to give them time off (some teams, particularly Ottawa, set up agreements with employers to recruit players). For others, the economy of the early 20th century had a lot of seasonal jobs (farming, logging, construction) that shut down for the winter anyway.
In 21-22, there was no discussion of salaries being paid out of revenue. While the professionalization of sports swept across North America, there was a not a clear business model. Leagues and teams sometimes operated under the current cartel model of independent owners in collusion with each other and sometimes, like the PCHA, with the league owning all teams. One thing was clear – the leagues were not concerned, like women’s hockey is now, of finding ways to pay players more, but instead were looking for ways to keep player’s salaries down! Rich men poured money into paying elite men athletes to be able to perform at their best regardless of profit that could be made.
In 1909, cobalt magnate Ambrose O’Brien paid thousands of dollars to buy Canada’s best hockey players in an attempt to bring the Stanley Cup to his small hometown of Renfrew, Ontario, population 3,000 (they did not win). Concerned about escalating bidding wars esclating losses, the owners of the National Hockey Association (NHA) implemented a $5,000 salary cap the next season (farewell, “free market”). The players threatened to leave and start their own league, but the NHA owners signed non-competition agreements with all arenas in Canada’s major east coast cities (Cosentino, 1990, p. 166). Many players had to reluctantly return to the NHA at half their previous salaries.
Former Renfrew players, the Patrick brothers, used their father’s lumber profits to form a league in Western Canada, the PCHA, to take advantage of players’ anger with the salary cap. That’s right, the only player activism in this story was because the players were already rich! This was an expensive venture as the west coast’s climate necessitated building the first arenas with artificial ice. They built Canada’s largest arena, the 10,500 seat Denman Arena in Vancouver. They didn’t do this because Vancouver was demanding hockey (because there was no artificial ice, no one had ever played the game in the city) , but because they were confident with enough promotion and newspaper coverage, they could sell it.
Data on fan interest from this period is sparse, but enough to suggest men’s hockey was popular 29 years into its life rather than it taking time to accumulate attention. This was not because the free market slowly magnetized fans to the product, but because of the heavy investment in promoting men’s hockey. The 1921 Stanley Cup final games at the Denman Arena set attendance records for hockey, as 11,000 (500 more than capacity) people watched the games. We know by 1927, the Montreal Canadiens drew 8,400 per game. Ultimately, the WCHL folded because teams like Saskatoon, even selling out their 3,000 seat arena (in a town of only 30,000 people) could not compare to the profit owners imagined could be made in American expansion teams in cities with much larger populations and arenas. The key word is “imagined”, as most American teams lost money and when the Great Depression hit in 1929, owners could no longer afford to subsidize their teams. Even the Montreal Canadiens were losing $30,000 a year and almost folded!
I’ve been focusing on the attendance metric because this was the main way to attract fans in 21-22. Radio would arrive two years later, and television not until 1953. Your only other option for being a team fan was to read the game summaries in newspapers. Obviously, this is a huge barrier to growth. As Courtney outlined in Myth #1, today’s media power now renders direct comparisons to what happened 100 years ago meaningless. If popularity could be achieved relatively quickly nearly a hundred years ago with investment and promotion, imagine what we could do now for women’s hockey in a media environment that moves exponentially faster.
I can be a Les Canadiennes fan from Vancouver with some concerted effort (thought I only became a fan because I got hooked watching games live when I lived in Montreal). In comparison, I remember my grandfather, who grew up in Moose Jaw, talking about how he never actually saw his childhood favourite player, Toronto Maple Leaf Charlie Conacher (career 1929-41) play a game and only knew him from radio, newspapers, and perhaps most importantly, the hockey cards you could received by mailing in a Bee Hive Corn Syrup label. This story illustrates both the challenges of following a team, but also how concentrated promotional efforts could win over the imaginations of people across the country without even seeing the game!
What I hope this post illustrates is that these substantial differences indicate there is no linear path of history for sports leagues to attain popularity or sustainability. While on the surface, there appear to be similarities to present day women’s hockey in leagues coming and going and low player salaries, the contexts are very different.
The NHL’s growth was benefited by the public’s general interest in men’s professional sport in the early 20th century and by the equivalent stage to where women’s hockey is now, was very successful. The problem in 1922 was not getting an audience, but the increasing ambitions of finding even bigger audiences, which eventually led the NHL to New York (ex Hamilton Tiger), Chicago (ex Portland Rosebuds), Boston, and Detroit (ex Victoria Cougars). At the same time, team owners put in as much effort as possible in keeping salaries down, all while pretending the players were the ones asking for too much. It’s important to remember the doctrine that players should get a % of revenue was only introduced to the NHL in 2005.
Women’s hockey does not have these same benefits, but it does have a completely different media, and substantially different, social environment to establish itself. It will not just take time, but instead will take effort.
* The PCHA actually briefly sponsored a woman’s hockey league in 1921 of the Vancouver Amazons, Victoria Kewpies, and Seattle Vamps (a name so scandalous the press wouldn’t print it, calling themselves the Sweeties instead). Alas, what could have been… and also a reminder that women’s elite hockey history is as old as the game itself.
Check out Myth Busting, Part 1: “No one wants to watch women’s hockey.”
Cosentino, F. (1990). Renfrew millionaires: The valley boys of winter 1910. Renfrew, ON: General Store Publishing House