NWHL and CWHL Target Minnesota for Future Expansion

The CWHL announced Friday that its board has approved league expansion, per the recommendation of its task force.

From the press release,

The task force, chaired by CWHL alumna and US Olympian, Caitlin Cahow, recommended to the board that it explore expansion in markets where there is a critical mass of elite level female hockey players who are not presently playing at the professional level. Notably, the task force identified that the US Midwest was the prime market for expansion as it best met the criteria defined by the league’s research.

“Our strategic plan has always envisioned further expansion in to the US market, and we are pleased that the board has shown its support to move forward at this time,” said CWHL commissioner, Brenda Andress. “We will build from our success in the Boston area and enter in to talks with parties in Chicago and Minneapolis/St.Paul, as well as select Canadian markets. Until the CWHL, or any league, can pay players a living wage, it is incumbent on us to provide players with the opportunity to play in markets where they live, work and study.”

This, in and of itself, is not news. The CWHL has mentioned over the years that, when the time for expansion is right, they will look to the U.S. Midwest, and particularly to Minnesota, which has one of the highest registration rates in the U.S. for both girls’ and women’s hockey. But the League indicated as recently as March in an email to the author that while expansion was on the table, it would have to be “carefully considered in the context of [their] strategic goals.” ESPN W reported in September 2014 that the task force would report its findings to the CWHL in December 2014.

NWHL founder Dani Rylan announced Minnesota would likely be the NWHL’s target for expansion in a few years.

As such, the timing on this announcement is… highly coincidental.

While the CWHL has indicated it will not expand during the 2015-2016 season, they have essentially marked their territory.

Expanding before the CWHL can commit to paying its players would simply perpetuate the issues many U.S. players have with the league, many of whom work full-time jobs to afford to train, purchase sticks and skates (some equipment is provided to CWHL players) and cannot obtain a visa through the CWHL as they are not paid. Therefore, most U.S. players can only play on the Boston Blades, enlarging the roster and making moving for a job or family all the more difficult, since in doing so they will leave behind their one chance to play professional hockey.

Former CWHL Boston Blades head coach Digit Murphy took a similar view, commenting on the idea of CWHL expansion in the same September ESPN W article. Murphy said she wanted the League to pay its players before expanding to six teams.


Expansion Or A Merger?

“I think the Minnesota market is the right market,” she told ESPN W. “But you can’t just start it with angel money. You have to have a revenue stream. It’s not going to be the male model — people go to the games, wear the jerseys and watch on TV. There’s going to have to be a creative solution to creating revenue.”

The NWHL is supposed to be the flip side of the CWHL.

Clever marketing, salaries and small rosters are meant to draw talent, as well as fans to arenas. The fact that there are already an NWHL and a CWHL team located in the Boston area will show us just how viable it is to have a franchise from each of the leagues in the same area, years before any expansion takes place. Perhaps, as they are targeting fans in different ways, with the CWHL mainly targeting young girls and their families and the NWHL focusing on millennials via social media and girls through their foundation, it won’t make a difference.

But, as Teebz from Hockey Blog in Canada put it in a conversation on Twitter, it’s peculiarly reminiscent of the WHA and NHL showdown during the 1970s. Neither league may see this as a good thing for them, but it certainly benefits the fans as it will make each league work all the harder to earn the dollars available.

This is what lead to salaries being made public in professional men’s hockey, to Bobby Hull signing the largest contract in hockey history (at the time), as well as to massive expansion once the two leagues merged. With the women’s leagues this could lead to greater transparency on their parts with regards to sponsorship deals, salaries, and more.

The similarities between the NWHL/CWHL and NHL/WHA situation beg the question: is a merger in the cards for the CWHL and NWHL? If so, the CWHL would bring the history and reputation (not to mention at least a few partnerships with their local brother franchises in the Toronto Maple Leafs, Calgary Flames and Montreal Canadiens) while the NWHL brings the marketing and money to the table. We may only have to wait seven years before we find out, if history repeats itself.

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