A few days ago more than 200 professional women's hockey players announced a boycott of professional hockey. Specifically, these players announced because professional hockey does not currently pay a living wage, players simply will not be playing.
The history of professional women's hockey is relatively brief. The Canadian Women's Hockey League (CWHL) began playing in 2007 but didn't start paying players (i.e. a key feature that defines a "professional" league) until the 2017-18 season. The CWHL then ceased operations in March of this year. The National Women's Hockey League (NWHL) began operating in 2015 and have paid its players in each of the four seasons it has operated.
These wages, though, are amazingly low. In 2015-16 -- the first year the NWHL operated -- the minimum wage in the league was $10,000 with the maximum salary being only $25,000. Salaries after that initial season then went down. After having a salary cap of $270,000 in its first season the cap was reduced to merely $100,000 last year. Kimberly Sass -- a goalie for the Metropolitan Riveters -- said she paid more to play hockey than she was paid by the league.
The NWHL is aware that going forward salaries will need to be changed. There is a proposal that the league share 50% of its sponsorship and media-rights revenues with the players. Such a split would be better than the split in the WNBA, where it appears players receive less than 25% of league revenue. Despite this split, though, players remain skeptical about the future of the NWHL. In fact, Anya Battaglino -- the NWHL Player Association director -- has argued that the player's boycott is simply a move to get the National Hockey League (NHL) to step forward and invest in women's professional hockey.
One might wonder, though, if such an investment by the NHL would make sense. Once again, the CWHL has failed and the NWHL has struggled to pay its players. Perhaps women's professional hockey just doesn't make financial sense.
One might make such an argument if one compared women's professional hockey to the NHL. According to Forbes, the 31 teams of the National Hockey League combined for nearly $5 billion in revenue for the 2017-18 season. So, men’s hockey is immensely successful today. And once again, women’s hockey just had an entire league fail and another league that may not operate at all unless wages rise.
That being said, it is incorrect to compare women's league today to men's leagues today. Or to put it another way, a better comparison is to compare the NWHL today to what the NHL looked like when it began more than 100 years ago. The NHL's first season was in 1917. That year, four teams – the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Arenas, Ottawa Senators, and the Montreal Wanderers – began playing. The Montreal Canadiens still exist today and the Arenas -- who eventually became the Maple Leafs -- are still playing in Toronto. But the Senators that existed in 1917 went out of business by 1934 and the Wanderers didn’t survive that first year.
A similar story can be seen in the National League (in baseball), the National Football League (NFL), and the National Basketball Association (NBA). The National League began play in 1876 with eight teams. Six of those teams were out of business by 1880. The first NFL season was in 1922. The league began with 18 teams but by 1931 only three of franchises were still in operation. And of the 17 franchise that were with the NBA in its inaugural season in 1949-50, only eight survived past 1954.
The history of men’s professional sports appears very similar to what we see in women’s sports today. Of the 47 franchises that existed the first season of the NL, NFL, NBA, and NHL, only 15 exist today. And of these 15, only seven are still in their original city. This means, the vast majority of men’s professional franchise in the major North American sports did not succeed.
Of course, some did succeed. And eventually, these franchises thrived. This didn’t happen entirely because of the efforts exerted by these men’s leagues. As Katie Lebel notes, men’s professional sports leagues have received billions of dollars in public subsidies. In addition, a recent study showed that men’s sports receive 95% of the sports media coverage. So, men's leagues have not succeeded simply because of the efforts of the men working in these leagues.
Lebel notes that studies make it clear people are interested in women's sports. But for women's professional hockey to thrive, someone will have to step forward and make a serious investment. Maybe that will be the NHL. Or maybe it will be a collection of other individuals. Regardless of who makes that investment, though, the history of sports teaches a clear lesson. The first decades of most professional sports leagues is one where success and failure often appear together. It takes time to build a significant fan base and investors have to be patient.
If they are patient, though, the rewards can be quite huge. In 1917, the top salary in the NHL was rumored to be $900; or less than $20,000 in today's dollars. Today the highest paid player in the NHL makes $19 million. This is possible because the NHL now has close to $5 billion in revenue. And that was possible because the teams of the NHL continued to invest and the fan base continued to grow.
It is not unreasonable to think a similar story can take place in women's professional hockey. In the decades to come women's professional hockey can grow tremendously. For that to happen, though, someone has to step forward and invest in its players today. The player's boycott can be seen as a call to make that investment happen. Sports history -- and basic sports economics -- suggests whoever answers that call can eventually be part of a multi-billion dollar women's professional hockey league.
David Berri Professor of Economics
Specializing in evaluations of players and coaches in sports, gender issues in sports, and competitive balance in sports