Once upon a time, there was a woman’s professional basketball league. It played basketball during the fall and winter, when people expected a league to play, and it paid its players enough that they generally did not have to go play in Europe to make reasonable salaries for professional athletes. But it did not have the marketing of the NBA behind it, and it could not, perhaps as a result of the NBA leaning on its television partners (a rumor never proven, I should add), find a televisions deal. It closed in less than three seasons — losing the competition to the NBA supported WNBA. The WNBA has survived, but it plays a much-reduced schedule in the summer, and it does not, to this day, pay its players salaries equivalent to what they can make overseas.
There is now one professional women’s hockey league in North America — the Professional Women’s Hockey League — working tightly with the existing men’s professional league. And I cannot help but think of the lost promise of the American Basketball League.
The situations are not entirely analogous, but there are some similarities. The PWHPA, an organization of players who did not think that the former league, the PHF, was professional enough, got together with some investment firm owners and bought the old league out. They burned up the contracts of the existing players, shut down existing teams and fired most their employees despite the promise of “substantially similar roles” in the process of starting from scratch. There is some truth, especially in the beginning, that the PHF was not a truly professional league. The PWHL is going to have a minimum salary, does have a limit to the number of players that can be on the minimum salary, does have a union contract, and will be playing in the winter to start and in the fall and winter in subsequent years.
The PHF’s growing pains seemed to be behind it. The unprofessional working conditions appeared to be in the past. The union contract was negotiated only by members of the old PWHPA and excluded the members of the PHF — meaning only a distinct minority of players had their voices heard in those negotiations. The contract appears to have no provisions for salary increases during that time, whether or not the new league’s revenues increase (though this is unclear). The salary structure appears to promise less payout to players than the salary cap of the old PHF, though there is room for interpretation there. But the PHF cap doubled from year-to-year last year — what promise is there that the players will benefit from such an improved financial picture in the new league? And the contract is for eight years, meaning that the players are locked into this structure for longer than their average careers at a time when you can expect the most dynamic growth and changes in the league.
The new league will have the same number of teams — six — and the same number of players as the old, but the teams will not be in the same six cities — there will not be substantial overlap. Players in the PHF who moved or bought homes are now potentially screwed, despite having signed contracts. And while the partnerships with the NHL will undoubtedly have benefits, the NHL is not interested in growing the sport. Their refusal to allow NHL players to consistently play in the Olympics to showcase the game proves that, as does their inability to come up with a World Cup like alternative. No, the NHL is interested in advancing the NHL by the narrowest of definitions only.
Women’s hockey is at a similar place as women’s basketball was in the 1990s, I think. The game itself is excellent (nothing beats hockey as a game. The combination of speed, skill and physicality cannot be beat. And yes, the women’s game is plenty physical — most of the physicalness of hockey comes from leveraging speed and position.) but is just starting as an entertainment concern in a crowded market. My fear is that by latching itself too tightly to what private equity firms and the owners of the dominate male product desire it will shunt the league down a path that doesn’t best serve it or its players. The WNBA is not the best representation of what women’s professional basketball can be in North America. It is just the best representation of what the people who run the NBA want women’s professional basketball in North America to be.
I hope we get better for women’s hockey.