Two years ago, I remember watching in terrified silence as the seconds ticked down in a one-goal game my Canadian girls were about to lose to their American rivals. I remember screaming in joy when Marie-Philip Poulin scored the tying goal, sending the Gold Medal game to overtime, in the 2014 Sochi Olympics. And I remember jumping up and down in celebration when Poulin scored again to complete the impossible comeback win.
That game was supposed to change the face of women’s hockey. It was supposed to be proof that people can enjoy it. Hockey fans all over Canada were talking about what it would mean for the future of the sport. We wondered what would change for these girls, after such an exciting victory.
The answer, two years later? Not much.
On Saturday, the NWHL’s Boston Pride beat the Buffalo Beauts 3-1 to sweep the series and become the first ever Isobel Cup champions. American Olympian Brianna Decker was named MVP. I had no idea the playoffs had started, and I generally pride myself in knowing just about everything that goes on in the hockey world.
The next day, the Calgary Inferno faced off against the Montreal Canadiennes in Ottawa for the Clarkson Cup, the trophy annually awarded to the top team in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, or the CWHL. The game, which featured Canadian superstars Haley Wickenheiser, Marie-Philip Poulin and Caroline Ouellette, among other Olympians, was a high scoring affair that ended in Calgary’s first ever Clarkson Cup victory. Four thousand people showed up, despite there being absolutely no promotion or marketing whatsoever in the days leading up to the event.
People say that the CWHL is hockey’s best kept secret, and I think that’s pretty accurate. There’s this idea around women’s sports that people won’t watch them because they’re not as good as the men’s sports we’re so obsessed with, and this myth is perpetuated by the fact that the media often completely ignores women’s leagues. Whenever I ask people why they don’t watch women’s sports, their responses usually vary from the incredulous “I had no idea that league even existed,” to the slightly uncomfortable “Well, they’re not as good as the men.” And when I ask them how they know that women’s sports aren’t as entertaining as men’s sports when they’ve never even watched them, the answer is usually “Well, they’d get more attention if they were.”
And that is precisely the problem with the way we treat women’s sports. We expect them to be on the same level as the best men in the world, perhaps even better, and when they are not, we dismiss them. When we don’t see advertisements and promotions all over the place, when their games are not available on TV every evening, we assume that they are not worth our time. Never mind that they’re playing the sport that we love, that they are arguably more entertaining than some of the leagues we watch, that they are growing and need financial support if they want the opportunity to achieve their potential: we still won’t make the effort.
I’m going to focus on hockey here because it’s the only sport that I feel sufficiently informed on, but the salaries female athletes receive are absolutely laughable compared to those of the men, and the attention they receive from media outlets is almost as bad. The CWHL, which most Canadians are unaware even exists, not only fails to pay its players a single cent, but actually requires that their athletes sell a certain amount of tickets every year. That’s not to mention the fact that most of their players need to find jobs that let them take significant time off, or risk missing practices and games. The National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL), is the first women’s hockey league to pay its players, but the salaries are still not high enough for it to be a full time job. A reminder: a good number of these women are Olympic champions.
The reason for this lack of funding is obvious. Nobody buys tickets, streaming packages or merchandise, and broadcasting companies don’t want to spend money on something that they don’t think people will watch. Consequently, the leagues have less money to spend on marketing or player salaries, and people are less likely to be aware of them. It’s a vicious circle.
This isn’t even about the quality or entertainment value of the leagues (though as someone who has attended a number of CWHL games, I can confirm that they are highly entertaining and totally worth the money). This is about the fact that we jump at any opportunity to watch sports, whether at professional, junior, college or even high school level, but blanch at the idea of watching women play. This is about the fact that women’s teams get less marketing, less attention, less money and subsequently less opportunity to work on their skills and improve as athletes. For men, sports are a full-time job. For women, they’re a particularly expensive and time consuming hobby. If we want these athletes to achieve their full potential, we need to give them the opportunity to improve.
And this isn’t just on us, as fans. This is on leagues like the NHL and the NBA, who continue to ignore women’s sports while sponsoring multiple junior leagues. While the NBA at least has partnership with the WNBA, the same cannot be said of the NHL, which couldn’t even be bothered to send out more than one tweet about the women’s hockey game featured at the 2016 Winter Classic.
We don’t have to like these leagues as much as we like the NHL, NBA, NFL, MLB or whatever other professional sports leagues we follow. Nobody’s asking that. But they deserve at least as much attention as the minor leagues we enjoy so much, and we owe it to these athletes, and to ourselves, to at least acknowledge their existence. Because by ignoring women’s sports, we’re not just doing a disservice to some of the best athletes on the planet: we’re denying ourselves a wonderful opportunity to watch sports at a high level.
For anyone interested, here are the links to a few women’s leagues. Most of them offer streaming packages.