Marketing the Beauts, Part 1: “Professional” Women’s Hockey?

As many of you know, I’m in graduate school right now working on my MS in Sports Leadership. This summer, I took Strategic Sports Marketing, and our final project involved creating a marketing plan for a sports team or organization. Since the NWHL has had my attention from day one, I chose the Buffalo Beauts, and since I am a nerd, I decided I’d share with you guys the main points of my plan.

Today’s subject: what does the “professional” in “professional women’s hockey” mean to marketing this team, anyway?

On October 11th, 2015, the hockey world will see something entirely new—a professional women’s hockey league that pays its players dropping the puck on their inaugural season. In a professional sports team’s inaugural season, marketing is everything. With the NWHL’s four chosen markets—Buffalo, New York, Boston, and Connecticut—all being major hockey hotbeds, the groundwork has already been laid for these teams to establish a foothold in their respective areas. However, for the teams to have any kind of longevity, there is plenty of work to be done.

In an interview with ESPNW, NWHL Commissioner and New York Riveters General Manager Dani Rylan said, “These are the best athletes in the world, and we need to treat them like that. To make this as professional as possible, we want to supply them with all the necessities they need to compete at that level”.

Rylan’s point, to me, is the key component to successfully marketing the NWHL—that is, to convincing people that these women are worth their time and money. It’s almost painfully simple. If a women’s professional hockey league is to succeed, they must not only treat but also market their players as elite professionals.

This is an opportunity that I feel the NWHL has to take and run with, and one that its Canadian counterpart, the CWHL, hasn’t done.

Here’s what the CWHL got wrong, and what I would like to see the NWHL get right. For the market to view these women as elite professionals who are worth watching, the league—and the individual teams—have to make it obvious that they too view these players as elite athletes. The NWHL has a responsibility to market their players as being worthy of fans’ time and money, and in marketing it is all about the image you present.

While I admire the free access to players that the CWHL gives fans, when that easy accessibility is combined with information that has been recently publicized such as players

  • having to purchase much of their own equipment
  • having to sell a certain number of tickets per season, and
  • having to pay a $350 fee to play in the CWHL’s playoffs for the Clarkson Cup

it adds up to create the perception that the CWHL doesn’t view its players as professionals in the same way that the NHL, AHL, or even junior leagues do.

Perception is everything. I cannot say that enough. In marketing, it is all about the image and the brand that you present to your fans. If the image you present is that you don’t value your players, you’re going to have a difficult time convincing fans to spend money on tickets or merchandise.

One of the most important things that the NWHL—and by extension, the Buffalo Beauts—can do in this first season is make it absolutely clear that they view their players as professionals. Paying these women is an important first step. The way that the NWHL presented their draft, and the way that they have been making a big deal over each player signing is, to me, another—they’re showcasing in as many ways as they can during the offseason that they value these players. I’m interested to see how they continue to market both teams and players in-season, but I think they’re off to a good start.

Coming up tomorrow—Marketing the Beauts, Part 2: Electric Boogaloo. (Okay, it’s actually “Who Is Our Market, & How Do We Reach Them”, but that sounded cooler.)

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5 comments

  1. if you’re really going to do a comparative analysis get your data right. 350 fee for playoffs is wrong (where did you get that info?) – players actually get most of their equipment provided – in fact some of the cwhl defectors to the nwhl are still wearing their cwhl equipment – and players are asked to contribute to selling tickets to help with team revenue – this is different for every team — but all teams need to contribute revenue to the league (what’s wrong with that?) as it contributes to the overall financial health of the league – which has been running for 8 years – and whose revenue comes from real sponsors and traceable sources unlike the nwhl.

    paying players isn’t the only measure of professionalism, btw. takes a lot of time and accumulated experience to make a professional environment. a lot of money is spent by the cwhl on each player every year. did you know that teams FLY in airplanes to games? and the blades each won 1000 dollars in prize money this year. the cwhl aims to pay players too. their growth has been real and steady. it’s part of the plan. the nwhl is paying paltry sums to most of the roster. not a living wage. many players will still have day jobs.

    re: marketing: did you catch last years cwhl all star game? 6000 people at aircanada centre, broadcast on sportsnet – a major broadcaster. how is that not marketing hutzpah? or the recent wickenheiser press conference? or the clarkson cup toyota tour? or mikkelson and spooner on the amazing race and how that translated into press for the league?

    try to contact GMs in the cwhl, and ask them how they don’t treat the players as professionals. try contacting julie chu and ask her if she’s treated like a pro. did you catch the press conference with the montreal stars and the montreal canadiens? 3 cwhl teams have marketing and promo relationships with the NHL. the nwhl doesn’t even exist YET. what are you even marketing talking about here?!!! twitter and facebook presence?

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    • Jenny, this isn’t a comparative analysis. It’s an introduction to what Hannah thinks would be a good marketing strategy for the Beauts, and so a summary of what she feels is currently lacking in existing professional women’s hockey is a necessary piece of context before tackling the meat of the subject. She said at the beginning that it was written for school, which means it should go without saying that any information that’s presented as fact has to have primary and/or professional sources. One quick Google search gives me an ESPN search that includes the same information she’s used here: http://espn.go.com/espnw/news-commentary/article/12662700/big-plans-big-questions-new-women-pro-hockey-league

      If you have sources that present alternative information about the payment and resources that the CWHL players receive, I would love to hear it, and I’m sure the ladies at this blog would as well. The women who run this blog are not at all shy about their support for female athletes and women’s sports, and treating this post like an attack on the CWHL is completely missing the point.

      The NWHL is very open about the fact that they won’t be able to offer players a living wage right now. But the fact of the matter is that they ARE paying them, which is something the CWHL “aims to” do, but has yet to in their eight years of existence. It’s true that treating players like professionals doesn’t hinge solely on paying them, but it is inarguably an important part of it. Hannah’s point here, to me, is that a league that doesn’t pay its players gives the impression that it doesn’t view them as assets worth investing in, whether that’s the truth of their feelings or not. And I agree. The growing relationship between some CWHL teams and NHL teams is fantastic, but it’s kind of embarrassing to have female Olympians getting paid nothing standing next to male fourth-line grinders making a couple mil a year. By starting out paying players what they can offer from the start, the NWHL is at least setting the groundwork for growth in the salary department.

      Also, of course they fly to games. Driving to and from Calgary would be an exhausting, time-consuming ordeal for the players and the league — and honestly, probably not much cheaper in the long run. Anyone who thinks otherwise had obviously never driven from Montreal to Calgary. (Source: me, driving from Montreal to Calgary.)

      In response to your paragraph about marketing, the all-star game, the Clarkson Cup tour, etc: honestly, I caught very little of that. I live in Washington, DC, and I love women’s hockey, but unfortunately, as it exists right now, it really just doesn’t reach down here very well. We certainly don’t get Sportsnet. I’m excited about the NWHL not only because of the new opportunities for female hockey players, but for sheer accessibility. The women playing in the CWHL are world-class athletes; no one is disputing that. Having talent and actively growing the game of women’s hockey are two entirely different things.

      The social media outreach alone of the NWHL has me excited about the league, planning my weekend NYC trips so that I can catch some Riveters games, arguing with my roommates on what team should be the house favorite based on who’s been drafted or signed. Twitter and Facebook presences are incredibly important in modern marketing, and the best and easiest way to connect with fans to build a fanbase while the league gets its feet on the ground, so I’m not sure why you seem so disdainful of the concept.

      Anyway, as it says in the post, this is an introduction to a larger marketing plan: what exists right now for the Beauts, and what Hannah thinks would be the smartest approach for them moving forward as an organization. It’s theoretical, based on her research. Obviously the Beauts haven’t had the chance to put many marketing schemes into play yet; that’s kind of the point of a theoretical marketing plan. But you’re acting like the post is simply an attack on the CWHL, which isn’t the point at all, and honestly overall pretty pointless altogether in an environment where the other people involved would rather see as many female athletes as possible succeed than pit the two leagues against each other.

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  2. Interesting ideas, and nice points — it’s a criticism I’ve frequently heard of the CWHL that they play up what great role models the players are for girls rather than what great athletes they are. I wonder if you’d take this further? For example, looking at game day, the fact that the NHL players have to be in nice suits gives the impression of professionalism but — as importantly, I suppose — eliteness and a certain distance. You think there should be a game day dress code? (I don’t think the CWHL has one). Any other little touches that would help?

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