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Growing the CWHL: It's time to share the secret

The following was written by Jeff Stevenson, the Calgary Inferno's media and marketing director. There are a lot of things that can be done to grow the women's game. The most important of all? For us - the regular hockey fan - to go watch the CWHL and talk about it. It's how the NHL became what it is today, and the CWHL deserves the same shot.

More fans in those seats will go a long way towards growing the CWHL.
More fans in those seats will go a long way towards growing the CWHL.
Ari Yanover

Since 2007 the Canadian Women's Hockey League has been the best kept secret on ice. Every four years the spotlight turns on and fans the world over take notice of women's hockey at the Olympics.

The thing is that those players on Team Canada and Team USA don't just take up hockey on Olympic years, and many of them play regularly in the CWHL.

In recent weeks there has been more attention brought to the CWHL with the focus being to find a way to pay the players. There has been talk about how the NHL should be more involved, or not involved at all. That media should provide more coverage, that games should be on TV all season long.

The truth of the matter is this, there is only one thing the CWHL needs to be able to pay the players, and that is you.

That's right: you, and your friends and anyone who will spare five minutes to talk about the game.

The NHL and some teams do provide support to the league and some teams. The Montreal Canadiens recently became the third NHL team to reach a partnership with the CWHL franchise in their city. Could more be done? Of course. Is it their duty and responsibility to financially support the league and help pay the players just because the NBA did for the WNBA? Absolutely not. I mean, it would be great if they wanted to, but at the end of the day the NHL has no obligation to do so, moral or otherwise. They built their league up over many many years before reaching the level they have today.

Don't believe me, watch the movie The Rocket. Even NHL players once upon a time had to work a day job to be able to live their dream of playing hockey at the highest level.

The CWHL can learn a lot from the NHL today and they would be foolish not to, but the real details that will help the women's game grow and succeed as a league is to learn from the NHL's past.

And when we do there is a pretty simple, clear cut strategy formed.

Step 1: Provide a product that is entertaining and that those that come watch will come back and tell their friends.

Step 2: Attract a lot of fans, not just to come to games but to talk about the games, their favourite teams, to read newspaper articles and provide a demand for the product.

Step 3: Attract regular press coverage to feed the demand.

Step 4: Attract broadcast interest to be able to provide regular season games on TV.

At its simplicity it really is that easy.

For the first eight seasons the CWHL has grown its game and anyone that was able to watch some of the games from the recent Clarkson Cup playoffs can attest the product is entertaining.

I would say Step 1 is complete but it's also a step you have to repeat year after year to have long term success.

That brings us to Step 2: attract fans. While all five cities now have a good base to build from, no city consistently pulls in the number of fans that the league needs to move on to the next step.

The CWHL has many great sponsors and supporters that they are certainly grateful for, but to attract enough big money sponsorship contracts, the league needs to show a return on a sponsors investment. Normally that is quite simple as well; they want people to see their product/brand and then buy/support their product.

At the end it's all about business, so if a company is willing to provide $100,000 of support to a league that draws 200 fans a game, imagine the financial support that would be given to a league that draws 2,000 fans to a game? Look at the increase in ticket sales (an additional $27,000 a game based off the $15 ticket price) and you can see very easily how this is an important step to paying players.

But there's more. While an increase in fans will provide an increase in ticket sales and ultimately sponsorship deals it begins to make everyone take notice. The NHL will take notice, new sponsors will take notice, advertisers will take notice, media will take notice and broadcasters will take notice.

There is no chicken or egg when it comes to growing the CWHL. Fans simply need to cross the road and support their local franchise and if there isn't a local franchise you can show your support in other ways.

At the end of the day it's all a business, including the media and broadcasters. So when you see a story published about the CWHL online, comment on it, share it or talk about it. If media outlets see that stories on certain topics are drawing attention they will cover that topic more and more because it allows their advertisers more views and makes everyone more money.

We could digress into the cycle of money and business but the bottom line is NHL support or no NHL support, the CWHL will only be successful long term if the fan base grows. So let's do our part and support it.

I urge you, if you are reading this and want to have a professional league where little girls can grow up having the same dream as their brothers: go to a game, spread the word, bring friends and talk about it whenever you can.

When the fans come, so too does the support and attention these players deserve.