Clarkson Cup tough sell for CWHL
Quality women's hockey following Team Canada’s success in Sochi inches forward on marketing side, but player salaries still distant goal.
The hockey game inside the Markham Centennial Centre was so closely fought it went to overtime and a shootout before the Toronto Furies finally won a spot in Saturday’s final of the Clarkson Cup.
That’s the Stanley Cup of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
But what had league commissioner Brenda Andress really excited about the future of the women’s game was happening just off the ice.
A table was set up inside the arena, selling an array of branded hats, jerseys and other merchandise from the CWHL and its five teams: Toronto, Brampton, Montreal, Boston and Calgary. The ticket takers, announcers and marketing staff were all paid, she said. “That’s a big difference for us.”
It’s all part of building up the professional women’s league, now in its sixth season.
The league is growing, but still can’t afford to do what it was designed to do: pay its players. Salaries — even $15,000 a year — would add up to millions more than the CWHL’s current budget of $1 million can handle. That means the vast majority of the 125 players have day jobs, so they can afford to play the game they love.
There is hope that the popularity of women’s hockey in the Olympics — some 13 million Canadians tuned in for the Canada-USA final in Sochi — will eventually translate into lasting support. But turning massive Olympic television audiences into crowds of fans who will pay $10 a ticket to watch the same women play in the CWHL is proving difficult.
“I’m not going to lie, I was expecting better crowds here,” said forward Caroline Ouellette.
She led Canada to Olympic gold in Sochi, but her Montreal Stars were knocked out of Clarkson Cup contention by Toronto Friday afternoon.
“We still have a lot of work to do in the CWHL with marketing and promotion of our game,” Ouellette added. “It’s kind of a vicious cycle. You need the fans to get the sponsors and you need the sponsors to get the fans.”
Fellow Canadian Olympian Natalie Spooner scored the shootout goal that earned the Toronto Furies, who barely qualified for the tournament, a shot at the Boston Blades for the championship at 2 p.m. Saturday.
“I don’t think anything will ever beat the Olympics and winning a gold medal because that’s a dream I’ve always had, but this is great competition, too,” she said. “This is where we play in between the Olympics. When people come out they realize it’s great hockey.”
The CWHL actually offers better women’s hockey that the most Olympic matchups, said Andress.
“Canada vs. USA is a great thing to see, but there’s nothing else in the other games,” she said, adding that league teams are so evenly matched “every single game is like watching Canada-USA.”
To extend its fan base, the CWHL streamed one game a week throughout the season and some playoff action online — picking up viewers as far away as Brazil, Australia and Indonesia.
“Now we have a ton of people complaining that the final game can’t be streamed because we have TSN carrying the game,” Andress said.
It’s a problem she’s not too upset to have.
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