Two Leagues, One Movement: The Problematic Nature of Calls for a CWHL-NWHL Merger

By Erin Morris, Guest Contributor

Hockey season is coming to an end for teams across the country with league championships occurring every weekend. The professional women’s leagues in North America are no different. The Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) concluded their season on March 5 with Les Canadiennes de Montreal taking home the Clarkson Cup with a 3-1 victory over the Calgary Inferno. Two teams from the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) will compete for the Isobel Cup on March 19th. For the past two seasons, these two leagues have been operating simultaneously in the landscape of professional women’s hockey. Due to the small fan base of women’s hockey and the tendency to compare women’s sports to their male counterparts (the NHL), there are frequent calls for the two leagues to merge. These calls are justified through the rationale of organizational mimesis (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983; Slack & Hining, 1994; organizational movement to mimic a more established and legitimate organization) of the more (monetarily) successfully model of the NHL, a perception that two leagues are fighting over the same limited resources, and a perceived need for one league in order for the mainstream hockey culture (NHL & it’s fans) to perceive the league to have legitimacy. This legitimacy would be followed by stakeholder actions including fan attendance and monetary investment. However, these calls for league mergers are made without any acknowledgement of the philosophical and managerial differences between the two leagues, making a merger challenging.

CWHL

The Burlington Barracudas vs. the Ottawa Senators during the 2008-2009 CWHL season. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Canadian Women’s Hockey League was started in 2007 and just completed their tenth consecutive season. They began this league with two goals: “to create a place for the highest-level women’s hockey players to continue to compete and hone their skills, and to create a future for the sport of women’s hockey.” The first season there were seven teams: the Ottawa Capital-Canucks, Montreal Stars, Quebec Phoenix, Brampton Canadettes Thunder, Mississauga Chiefs, Burlington Barracudas, and Vaughan Flames. For two seasons (2008-2009, 2009-2010), the Clarkson Cup was contested between the CWHL and the Western Women’s Hockey League (WWHL) which consisted of five teams from Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatchewan, Strathmore, and Minnesota. In 2010, the Boston Blades, the only US based team was added to the CWHL. In 2011, the WWHL ceased to function as an active league and the CWHL expanded to include Team Alberta (which was a combination of the Edmonton, Calgary, and Strathmore teams, now the Calgary Inferno). Teams folded over the years as well. The CWHL currently consists of 5 teams: Les Canadiennes of Montreal (formerly the Stars), Toronto Furies, Brampton Thunder, Boston Blades, and Calgary Inferno.

The CWHL has always focused on providing a place for elite women’s players to continue to play after college in a competitive environment and to grow the game of women’s hockey for the last ten years. However, its business model has yet to include paying players. The league does pay for travel costs, ice time, uniforms, some equipment, and limited league/team staff salaries. There has been discussion of paying players in the future, which has gotten more attention due to the NWHL’s presence in the marketplace. However, when this time comes, Brenda Andress, the league commissioner, has stated that the league strategic plan includes paying players. However, she does not want to begin down that road until it can be done in a stable fashion with regular salary increases until players no longer have to work a second job. She would not want to pay players one year, and cut salaries the next due to league circumstances. This continues with the idea of focusing on the broad growth of the game and ensuring a stable business model that is able to continue to provide a place for women to play in the future. While the CWHL has not formed a partnership with the NHL, they have formed partnerships with several NHL teams in their market areas. Les Canadiennes de Montreal, the Toronto Furies, and the Calgary Inferno have all partnered with their local NHL counterparts. Additionally, the Ottawa Senators have partnered with the league over the past two seasons to host and promote the Clarkson Cup at their facility. Recently the league also announced a partnership with the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA).

The NWHL is relatively a new world of hockey. Utilizing the momentum of the 2014 Winter Olympics, the league was announced in spring of 2015,with their first season beginning in October 2016. The league consists of four teams: Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale, and New York Riveters. It began with the premise of becoming the first paid women’s hockey league in North America. The founder, Dani Rylan, found private investors for the league in order to pay players. The first season, the league had a minimum salary of $10,000 and a maximum salary of $25,000 (the maximum went up to $26,000 in the second season). The league also tried to provide most equipment to their players. Despite internal reporting of a successful first season that hit many of their goals, half way through the second season, the league announced league wide pay cuts of approximately 50% of player salaries. This came as a shock to the players as well as the fans. It also led to questions of the stability, longevity, and legitimacy of the league, particularly as this was not the first major hiccup in the two years of the league’s existence (including investors pulling out and leaked emails with Bauer about unpaid invoices).

NWHL.png

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Since the NWHL was created, there have been calls for the two leagues to merge together. Every time one league makes a mistake, or even does something good (joint game in the Winter Classic), there have been calls by members of the media and general public (some of whom watch/report on one or both leagues regularly, some of whom only seem to pay attention when one or both leagues hit a rough patch) for the two leagues to waste no more time and to merge immediately. Many of these calls are done in a desire for the women’s leagues to appear more like the men’s hockey leagues and/or in order to seek money from the men’s league. These two arguments seem to consistently appear throughout all the talk about the CWHL and NWHL. The initial thought process seems to be that you have to look like the NHL which is successful as the singular elite professional hockey league in North America. Meanwhile, the two elite women’s leagues compete with each other for an already small market share of the market. They should stop competing with themselves and become one league like the NHL has done. The other argument is that in order for a women’s league to be successful (be watched by men’s hockey fans, make more money, have the mainstream media pay attention, be as good as men’s hockey in every metric), they need to have the support and buy in of the NHL (like the NBA and the WNBA). Some believe that the NHL isn’t going to take sides between two bickering women’s leagues and that the NHL will support a unified form (the NHL has not said anything about when/if they have any interest in backing a women’s league – and let’s keep in mind the NHL as a league did not back the CWHL when they were the only league for eight years).

The central theme of all these arguments about the CWHL and NWHL is that they all rest in the idea of organizational mimesis (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983; Slack & Hinings, 1994) or the idea that new or growing organizations attempt to mimic other successful organizations that are similar to them. These calls for the programs to mimic the mainstream men’s programs and take all the help they can get from the men’s organizations occur despite the fact that there are differences in the men’s and women’s leagues along with the fact that the men’s side does not always have the best interests of female fans, let alone female players at heart. There are several reasons why this mimetic pressure may not be the most beneficial organizational goal for the women’s leagues at this point in history.

For starters, men’s leagues have not always been as unified as they currently are. Earlier in their histories, most of the current professional men’s leagues in North America had to compete against other leagues to become the dominant leagues we know today, sometimes adopting rules from their competitor leagues along the way. While I generally hate the comparison to men’s sports and men’s leagues, because women’s sports’ legitimacy should not be based on a comparison to the male counterparts, history can teach help us to better compare the evolution of the men’s professional leagues to the early stages of the women’s leagues we have now. The NHL competed with the World Hockey Association during the 1970’s for players and markets until the WHA folded and four teams from the WHA were merged into the NHL. After competing with the American Basketball Association for over a decade, the NBA expanded to include four former ABA teams in 1979. The NBA also integrated the 3-point field from the ABA at this time. Meanwhile in football, the NFL controls US based football, while the CFL, (with some major rule differences) controls Canadian based football.

Based on the history of men’s professional sports, the call for organizational mimesis on the basis of “that’s how legitimate men’s sports are organized” is a false equivalency. Competing leagues are a natural product as a sport grows, they can allow for healthy competition that pushes each league to strive to be their best. Seeking organizational mimesis with men’s professional sports, knowing the history of the competing leagues, would allow the CWHL and NWHL to co-exist and compete for a period of time before urging them to merge or for the weaker league to fold and have teams be subsumed by the other league. The CWHL and NWHL cannot be expected to be at the same place as these men’s leagues that have been growing and changing within their markets for 100 years. Competition can be healthy for newer leagues in an expanding and growing sport; however, there is little reason to end this healthy competition in an effort to appease the normative desire for a singular professional league.

There are benefits to a two-league system, at least for the time being. Competition allows both leagues to push each other to be better. The NWHL came into the market with a strong social media marketing game. From an outside perspective, this had the appearance of making the CWHL invest more in their marketing a social media presence in order to compete, which they did successfully. After the NWHL came into the market, with paid player contracts, the CWHL began talking more regularly about their timeline for becoming a paid league. At the same time, the CWHL has been a stable league for 10 years and has shown significant growth in the last several years with a clear strategic plan for how to remain stable and solvent even as they figure out how to pay players. This means that they NWHL is pushed to have a stable business plan and their moves are often judged in comparison to the stability of the CWHL. The more established nature of the CWHL has had 10 years to build their fan base. The NWHL has had to work to appeal to those fans, by creating fan-focused events that draw attention to their teams. More individuals coming from a diversity of backgrounds and knowledge bases can increase the innovation and creativity within the sport. By allowing more voices and more ideas, there is more space for creative ideas that may end up helping women’s hockey to be more sustainable in the future. With the small budgets, limited staff, and small markets that both leagues are operating within, innovative and creative ideas in all aspects of organization behavior from staffing, to marketing, to funding is necessary to be successful and to continue to grow the game. Having competitor leagues can help to foster creativity and push both leagues to be the best that they can be. That is not to say that there will not be a time for the leagues to merge.

The calls for the merger often comes from members of the mainstream hockey media or others involved in hockey broadly with little background in women’s hockey. They often do not have a full understanding of the context or the differences between the mission and goals of the two organizations that prevent a straightforward merger. However, there are people deeply entrenched in the world of women’s hockey, including players, administrators, and women’s hockey media who also call for a merger at times. These calls tend to be more nuanced or include recognition of the reality that it cannot happen immediately. Realistically there are several things that need to change before a merger can happen, if it does.

The first item on the list is paying players. There is a broad understanding that the goal for all professional sports leagues is to pay its players. At this point, between the two leagues, only the NWHL pays its players, meaning a merger would lead to a significant change in one of the leagues. The CWHL wants to pay its players; however, it prioritizes league stability and does not want to get into a situation of cutting salaries once they begin to pay them, as the NWHL encountered this year. They plan to start paying once they are able to do that and maintain stability. Suddenly merging and paying players could jeopardize this long-term stability model. However, merging and following the CWHL model of currently not paying players would be in contrast to the NWHL mission of being a paid women’s hockey league. At a very basic level, the merger would be challenging due to the current pay disparities.

Boston Pride2

The Boston Pride celebrate the 2015-2016 Isobel Cup. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Merging the two leagues would also cause logistical issues that impact each team and team travel. The NWHL decided to keep all four teams within a close geographic area to control travel costs. The CWHL spends an immense amount of money in order to include the Calgary Inferno in an otherwise Eastern league. The NWHL sought to avoid the expense associated with airplane travel. By merging the leagues, there would be additional travel times and costs, not only for the NWHL teams to play Calgary, but even for the NY Riveters, or the Connecticut Whale who, to play in Toronto, would need to take an eight- to nine-hour bus journey, which is two hours longer than the current furthest distance and is challenging for a weekend series when most players have full- or part-time jobs outside of hockey. The geographical expansion would increase travel expenses for both leagues. A final logistical issue is that there are currently two Boston teams, one in each league. Perhaps Boston can sustain two women’s teams, similar to how Toronto and Brampton (30mi/45km apart) each sustain a team and fan base. However, and more realistically, Boston would be downsized to one team, which would leave players currently in a league without a place to play along with an organizational decision on which team, logo, and coaching and administrative staff to keep in place after the merger.

A merger is not out of the question; however, there needs to be a realistic consideration of what that will mean in terms of negotiating the philosophical differences between the leagues, and should not be done solely on the justification of mimetic pressure to look like the NHL. The NHL itself has showed little interest in supporting either league, or the sport itself (individual teams are a different story). The best show of support was hosting an interleague game at the 2016 Winter Classic, which was riddled with issues and led me to question how much they truly supported it (a topic for an entirely different post). Why should the women’s leagues seek to model themselves after a league that shows very little support of them, and has a history of not being responsive to their own female fans? If there are to be calls for a merger, let’s talk about it realistically. How will the merger work? How will the two leagues balance out their organizational differences? How will player payment work? Whose organizational structure and mission should be prioritized? What league name gets used? I don’t have all of these answers. But as I mentioned earlier, the more ideas that are discussed, the more chances for a creative working solution emerge.

Calls for mergers need context and understanding of the foundation of both leagues. If you come from outside the women’s hockey world, I challenge you to learn about the context before calling for the leagues to simply stop fighting with each other and merge. That is not a helpful suggestion. If there are going to be calls for a merger, it’s time for those calls to include ideas of how to negotiate the league differences into a cohesive league that could function as one entity. I challenge anyone who wants to see one unified professional women’s hockey league to think about these issues. Calls for mimesis with the men’s league, are in my belief, counterproductive at the moment. For the conversation of growing women’s professional hockey into a unified league to continue in a productive way, we need to use our collective critical thinking skills and knowledge of the sport to propose meaningful solutions that can be used for successfully merging the two leagues.

References:

DiMaggio, P. J., & Powell, W. W. (1983). Iron cage revisited: Instituitonal isomorphism and collective rationalty in orgnaizational fields. American Sociological Review, 48(2), 147–160.

Slack, T., & Hinings, B. (1994). Institutional pressures and isomorphic change: An empirical test. Organization Studies, 15(6), 803–827.

Erin Morris is a Visiting Assistant Professor at SUNY Cortland. When she’s not teaching she’s immersed in hockey – personally and professionally. She researches girls and women’s participation in non-traditional sports (particularly hockey) and women’s sport development. In her free time, she plays on a local women’s hockey team. You can find her on twitter @Morrsport. She can be reached at morrisel@gmail.com.

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