What Have We Learned from the Inaugural Season of the PWHL? | Sports Destination Management

What Have We Learned from the Inaugural Season of the PWHL?

Jun 06, 2024 | By: Mary Helen Sprecher

The inaugural season of the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) has wrapped up, with Minnesota taking home the coveted Walter Cup, presented by none other than league investor and sports pioneer Billie Jean King.

Fun fact: As Minnesota posed for its trophy shot, one of the players placed her baby in the cup, to the delight of all. The photo is here.

The PWHL's first month began with New York shutting out Toronto on New Year's Day, a milestone that reached nearly three million people. There was no doubt the public was hungry for women’s hockey, and the season bore that out.

Now, the league has turned its attention to next season, with several important lessons under its belt. What are they and what can event owners learn from them? In no particular order, according to The Athletic, they include the following:

Venues Matter: “Finding the right facilities for games and training was a major part of the building process,” noted this article. “The league had certain standards of professionalism it needed to meet — but also needed availability from potential venues. In the end, some teams had it better than others.”

Ottawa played and trained at TD Place Arena and had the league’s best average attendance figures. Montreal split time between Verdun Auditorium and the 10,000-seat Place Bell, where they played in the postseason. The team also set a world record for attendance with 21,105 fans at the Bell Centre.

Compare and contrast that to two other teams: New York and Boston. Boston played 30 miles outside the city in Lowell, Massachusetts, and had the second-worst attendance of all teams.

In terms of New York, noted reporters at The Athletic, the team’s home games “were scattered over three arenas in three states this season — UBS Arena in Elmont, Long Island; Total Mortgage Arena in Bridgeport, Conn., and Prudential Center in Newark. The practice rink, the team’s fourth facility, is in Stamford, Conn.

The team struggled to draw fans, finishing with the worst attendance in the league. One game in Bridgeport had only 728 fans in attendance — the league’s only game with fewer than 1,000 fans this season. Besides attendance issues, New York staff spent a lot of time packing up the team’s equipment and moving from rink to rink this season, which never really gave anybody a sense of home.”

Merchandise and Branding Matter Too: Currently, the league has six teams, each named simply by their home base – Boston, Minnesota, Montreal, New York, Ottawa and Toronto. While we can’t expect expansion in the coming season, we can expect team names, better branding and merchandise.

Among the changes announced for 2024-2025 are redesigned jerseys, part of an expanded partnership with Bauer Hockey. The equipment company will be PWHL’s first official jersey partner, responsible for the official game and replica jerseys.

And as we all know, there are few things that can sell an event – or a concept – as well as apparel. And when locally and sustainably sourced, the feel-good factor (and the buying power) increases. The economic impact increases, and the cache of the event does as well, as this article notes.

The Athletic noted, “Besides getting the names and logos right, the league needs to be better about merchandise, from the design options, availability, size ranges, etc. The appetite for PWHL merchandise, whether it’s jerseys, T-shirts, sweaters or other gear, is massive, which is a good problem to have. But the league didn’t quite hit the mark this year and they know that, as PWHL Advisory Board member Stan Kasten, has noted.

“The one good thing is we sold everything we could make. I mean, it was just flying off the shelves when we could get it to arenas,” he said. “But we have more coming and more designs and greater inventory. It’s going to get a lot better.”

Technology Was Key: PWHL made a very shrewd marketing move by creating its own YouTube channel and broadcasting all its games there. With teams in a limited number of markets, this turned out to be an excellent way for everyone to tune in, even if they could not watch games in real time. In fact, it was a pivotal point in the success (and accessibility) of the league.

Fans Are Hungry for Women’s Hockey: There was a long wait for women’s hockey to get where it is now; in fact, it took 25 years from the time the puck dropped at the first Olympic women’s ice game until the opening of the PWHL season.

It’s not the first women’s pro hockey league. According to Wikipedia, the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) operated in the United States and Canada between March 2015 and June 2023. The league was originally named the National Women's Hockey League (NWHL). The PHF ceased operations in late June “after key elements of the league, including its intellectual properties, were purchased by the Mark Walter Group and BJK Enterprises led by Mark Walter and Billie Jean King, respectively.

Both businesses had entered a partnership with the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) in May 2022, with the intent to create a new professional women's ice hockey league in North America.” (The new PWHL was announced in August 2023.)

The inaugural season of the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) has wrapped up, with Minnesota taking home the coveted Walter Cup, presented by none other than Billie Jean King. The league has already turned its attention to next season, with several important lessons under its belt. What are they and what can event owners learn from them?Additional women’s leagues have played, including the Western Women's Hockey League (WWHL) in Canada, which ran between 2004 and 2011. (At the collegiate level, there is the annual NCAA women's ice hockey tournament, officially known as the National Collegiate Women's Ice Hockey Championship.)

And when opening night for the PWHL rolled around, there could be no doubt the audience was primed and ready; The Athletic noted: “The crowd was electric all night in Ottawa, with hundreds of fans holding up powerful and poignant homemade signs. A grandmother, mother and daughter sat together with a sign reading, “Three generations of hockey players.” A young girl wearing a hockey jersey was holding a sign that read, “Future PWHL Star.” And another fan held up a sign that simply read, “It’s about damn time.”

The Youth Market is Already There: The question of whether the new league will inspire girls to play hockey, well, that has already been answered; in fact, USA Hockey notes that over the past 15 seasons, girls’ hockey in the United States has seen a participation increase of 65 percent. In fact, 29 Americans were selected in the inaugural PWHL Draft.

It’s likely that in years to come, as the league expands, there will be plenty of players coming up through the ranks, and the PWHL is promoting those athletes. In fact, a PWHL game in Toronto featured girls’ teams playing scrimmages between periods. Tickets were not only sold out but were being scalped for three to four times their face value.

Girls are starting the sport in early elementary school and as to when they’re stopping – they’re not; in fact, an 81-year-old female athlete was recently profiled by USA Hockey (she has been playing since the age of 10 and was the first girl to play organized hockey in Duluth, Minnesota).

“When I first started … articles would be put in the Duluth newspaper including my name and then other teams realized I was a girl. So, when I was 10 or 11 years old, the other players would look to hit me, even though checking wasn’t allowed. So, I had to be alert and skate better and faster than the boys.”

Even in so-called “non-traditional markets” including Texas and Florida, the sport is growing among girls and women (up more than 70 percent, in fact), says the Christian Science Monitor. But there is still work to do:

“Because of logistical hurdles, from a shortage of rinks and ice time to a lack of college and varsity high school programs and the need for more education, growing girls hockey in nontraditional markets remains a challenge. The 3,177 female players aged 18 and younger registered by USA Hockey in Texas, Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia combined is still fewer than in Wisconsin alone.”

One of the challenges, according to the CSM article, was a lack of mentors and role models for young women; whereas plenty of publicity is given to soccer, and there are multiple leagues and high-profile professional players, ice hockey still has shortages in those areas. And while Team USA at the Olympic level has done well, the Olympics come around every four years, leaving a lot of empty time for girls who want role models.

Companies in the ice hockey space are already marketing toward girls as well; Bauer made this video about girls in the sport, ending with “We love jewelry,” and showing a girl holding up a competition medal.

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