Anyone familiar with the CWHL and NWHL can tell exactly where the NWHL got its model. NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan at one point was in the running to develop a New York based team for the Canadian franchise and clearly imprinted upon the basics of the CWHL model, later adding her own twist when it came to promotion and marketing.
As the two leagues have grown, however, they’ve learned from each other. Given the nature of their rivalry each league has the other under a microscope, watching for success or failure and in doing so have created a fragile partnership of sorts. Competition may make for strange bedfellows but it also pushes both sides to be better.
The NWHL was a liberal adopter of CWHL practices from the get-go, including community work such as player volunteering and coaching youth hockey camps, all of which served the league well in building a fanbase in franchise cities. Both leagues also have the home team sign autographs in the lobby, a practice the CWHL started some seven seasons ago and the NWHL has continued. It’s popular with both players and fans, giving them time to connect.
Where the Toronto-based league has created a place for itself in communities across Canada and the U.S., partnering with various NHL teams and outreach groups such as You Can Play, the NWHL has attempted to do the same in only a season and a half, to varying degrees of success. It has not earned an outright partnership with any one NHL team, though many, such as the Buffalo Sabres and New York Islanders, routinely helped the league with cross-promotion.
The CWHL’s longevity and community-facing programs have helped it build roots, but the NWHL’s penchant for the spectacular has served it well, particularly in regards to media coverage, much of which is based around the financial aspect.
As such, the past several seasons have shown the CWHL it can no longer delay paying its players.
While this lesson truly began before the NWHL’s launch, during the Boston Blades work-stoppage of 2014, it was hammered in by the NWHL’s recent financial troubles. Said salary cuts have revealed just how much many players depended on the money they earned through hockey in the U.S.-based league.
In fact, the CWHL plans on paying its players for the 2017-18 season. Although the plan was in place long before the NWHL launched, its date has always been somewhat nebulous and was only nailed down halfway through last season, coincidentally during the NWHL’s first season.
The CWHL has also begun to roll out a merchandise compensation program similar to that of the NWHL’s, where players receive 15 percent of the profits from any merchandise featuring their names, giving players at least a bit of pocket money.
As the NWHL has proven, there is also money to be made in being a league that pays women. Much of its publicity came not from the quality of play, but from a stance that appealed to feminists who are long past queries of whether women can excel in “masculine” careers and have moved on to the question of equal pay for equal work.
The abundance of attention showered on the NWHL also emphasized the value of employing someone full-time to marketing, communications and press relations. This season, in the NWHL, that is Rich Furlong, the league’s Creative Director. On the CWHL side, Sasky Stewart, Director of Marketing and Communications, handles much of that as well.
Stewart is a recent addition to the CWHL; she was hired prior the 2015-16 season and has since revamped the league’s approach to social media as well as its availability to the public, streaming games free on YouTube (an idea the NWHL debuted last season) and promoting the use of Instagram and more to bring players and the CWHL into fans’ homes and lives.
Both leagues are heavy users of social media, where they are able to reach many fans at little or no cost. Although the NWHL has done that from its inception, the CWHL has made impressive strides in recent years. Despite the similarities in their models, however, both leagues have different “personalities,” so to speak, applying the same information in different ways.
Furlong cited the NHL, NWSL, NFL and NBA as social media feeds he routinely pores over to create the league’s “fan-forward tone,” one that prioritizes utilizing social media as a potential revenue-gathering stream, hawking jerseys, tickets and promoting high-flying players.
Stewart, a former social media manager for the NHL, mentioned not only professional sports organizations but also nonprofits, community organizations and even academic papers as places from which she has sourced marketing and promotional ideas. The CWHL’s social media accounts are more focused on providing information, such as game updates, answering fan questions or providing links to free streams, continuing to push its product and grow its fanbase before it asks it to commit dollars to the league.
While each league has their own strengths and weaknesses, it’s clear they are seizing the opportunity to learn from their competition’s best practices. And as any business will tell you, evolution is key to continued success.