PWHL’s strong first season coincides with a growing appetite for women’s sports

Less than a year after landing on Earth, Women’s Professional Hockey League It staged its inaugural season with 72 games across North America broadcast via television or live, repeatedly breaking attendance records, putting the sport in the spotlight like never before.

It couldn’t happen at a better time.

The launch of the PWHL finally brings together the best players in the world on a regular basis and beyond the annual World Championships or Olympic Games every four years. It has put the game firmly on the map at a time of growing interest in women’s sports, led by… The Caitlin Clark effect In basketball and a quarter century since then Brandi Chastain The American soccer team rose to international prominence.

Although it will take time to catch up in the crowded landscape, the PWHL is off to a glowing start after decades of frustration, marked by sporadic starts and stops, by putting it all together on the ice with an opportunity to capitalize on a growing appetite. For elite women’s sports.

“We all wanted things to happen faster, and we felt like it was very difficult and challenging at times,” Jayna Hefford, the Hall of Famer’s senior vice president of hockey operations and the PWHL’s senior vice president of hockey operations, told the Associated Press. “But now when you look at what happened, you have to wonder whether everything happened as it should have been and in time to allow us to see the success we have seen so far.”

This success is still in its infancy, although the PWHL’s first four months have raised expectations about how quickly and how much it will grow beyond the current six-team structure based in Boston, New York, Minnesota, Toronto, Montreal and Kenya. Ottawa. A total of 392,259 fans attended games during the regular season at venues that included various NHL rinks and were highlighted by Record crowd in women’s hockey Among the 21,105 people who showed up at the Canadian Bell Center to face Montreal and Toronto last month.

Television broadcasts nationally in Canada and regionally in US markets have also attracted more viewers to women’s hockey following the same path of progress that the WNBA and various incarnations of women’s professional soccer league had previously enjoyed since the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“This has been in the making for a very long time,” said Amy Shear, senior vice president of business operations for the PWHL, who has also worked in the WNBA, NBA and in the NFL. “This did not happen overnight, and it is still a movement and must continue to be a movement. There is never a time when we can take our foot off the pedal and feel satisfied or comfortable. “It’s hard work every day.”

As the puck falls In the qualifiers This week, with an innovative format that allowed league leaders Toronto to pick their opponent in the first round, there is still a lot of work to be done.

Internally, advisory board member Stan Kasten acknowledged, “We still have a long way to go to be economically successful,” and an expert in women’s sports questions the long term based on hockey’s standing behind soccer and other sports in the United States. , and so that there will be more big-name bands and stars to attract mainstream attention.

“You have kind of the barrier of overcoming sort of the marginalization of hockey in American culture, and then on top of that you add this additional layer of marginalization of women’s sports in American culture,” said Cheryl Cookey, a professor of women’s sports. Gender and Sexuality Studies at Purdue University. “Adding those together, it creates this kind of double jeopardy for women’s hockey.”

Cookie pointed to Chastain, Clark and others becoming the face of her sport to people outside the fan base as something women’s hockey needed. American Hilary Knight and Canadian Marie-Philip Poulin are two of the biggest stars right now, including Knight’s appearance on “Saturday Night Live” in 2018. But there’s also the inherent challenge of playing in helmets with cages that basketball and football don’t have. To overcome in building popular culture after the ice, stadium or field.

But the process continues, with a focus on the next generation, led by Sarah Nurse, Caroline Harvey, Leila Edwards and others, to build a loyal following across the continent.

“This is the kind of role model that shows women that they can be fierce, serious athletes, and I can’t think of anything better,” said Canadian Ambassador to the United States Kirsten Hillman. “The strength of the fan support speaks to the fact that something was missing, something was needed.”

Speaking steps away from Hillman at a PWHL viewing party at the Canadian Embassy in Washington last month, Bauer VP of Marketing Mary Kay Messier called the inaugural season a “watershed moment” for hockey overall because of the growth opportunity of getting more girls and women involved. .

“It’s a reflection of people’s passion, they’re clamoring to watch the matches and they’re coming out in droves,” Messier said. “Breaking records is no longer a milestone – it’s a track record.” “For brands that want to stay relevant, and want to develop new audiences, you have to get involved in girls’ and women’s sports because that makes a difference.”

PWHL has deals with companies that run the gamut from equipment manufacturers such as Bauer and CCM to Canadian Tire, Molson, Tim Hortons and Barbie. More agreements will be coming soon, as will the eventual expansion, though that will have to wait, as will increased player salaries and other adjustments.

“We’ve tried to be careful and conservative so that we can be successful when we finally get going, and that’s where we are right now,” said Kasten, one of the people running the PWHL show for Los Angeles Dodgers owner Mark Mark. Walter and women’s tennis icon Billie Jean King.

Kasten said the league’s “manifest destiny” is to hold competitions in Europe, and the influx of talent outside the United States and Canada is one reason to believe, Scheer says, that “there are no limits” to what the league can do.

“It’s great to have different paths,” said Swiss national team captain Lara Stalder, who praised compatriot Alina Müller for blazing the European trail in the PWHL. “Ultimately, you need good pathways and good structures, for us to have more depth, and for more and more girls to play hockey.”


AP Women’s Hockey: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-hockey

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