Written by: Neil Acharya
Follow: @Neil_Acharya

The Professional Women’s Hockey League regular season was not regular in any way.

From the moment the new women’s hockey league was suddenly announced in August, to puck drop on January 1, there was, well, very little time for preparation.

If you are going to close The Dream Gap, you might as well go big, and that’s what was done – an attempt to make up for decades of frustration in a narrow window of time.

The 24-game regular season concluded on May 5.

So did it work? Is it fully viable? What has been learned at this point with the playoffs underway?

If anything, the league now has headway in a proof of concept. That is essential in attracting partners, one of the four pillars needed to succeed in the world of sports business.

“Sports is simple,” said Amy Scheer, PWHL SVP Business Operations. “Ticket sales, partnerships, media and merchandise. Without owning your own building, those are the four ways you make your money. All of those are huge drivers for us. One is not more important than the other. We spent equal time on all of them and we need to be great at all of them and we need to be strategically sound on all of them.

“That’s where having some time to think things through in the offseason will be nice.”

Scheer says that Canada has been the driver in terms of partnerships and audience. Air Canada and Canadian Tire are examples of two sponsors who entered at ground level. Other companies who were contemplating getting on board are now ready to go a little further.

“We do have companies that we started to talk to in November and December who were not interested who are now coming back to us now that they have seen the success,” she said.

Scotiabank singed a multi-year partnership on May 8 to become the first official bank of the PWHL. Those talks began in November.

“We both knew that we were destined to be partners but we were sure that we did due diligence, as did Scotiabank, to cross the finish line in a wonderful place.”

Michael Naraine, associate professor of Sport Management at Brock University explains that the proof of concept combined with marketable stars such as Taylor Heise, Sarah Nurse, Marie-Philip Poulin came at an opportune time.

“Women’s sports is seen as the most important growth vertical going forward in the sports business landscape,” he said. “Therefore there is an opportunity for partners to want to jump on board.”

As for the media pillar, the PWHL has scattered its Canadian broadcasting offering across CBC, TSN and Sportsnet.

Naraine envisions a time when TSN and Rogers will double down on women’s hockey. That could come as soon as 2026 when the current NHL deal expires with Rogers and a different method of live sports delivery becomes more prevalent. The NFL has already sold a package of games to a streaming service and there are reports the NBA will do the same.

“[If] the NHL rights are going to get moved over the top, that creates the necessity for more programming on TSN and Sportsnet and the PWHL is rife for that,” Naraine surmised. “The 2026 situation for the NHL here in Canada is going to free up more millions of dollars for the PWHL potentially.”

The league is not without challenges as year one skates to a close. The stability of franchises in Boston and New York in particular has been questioned, in large part due to their transience. Scheer insists that New York will be put in a position to succeed.

She also says the league has a “rough timeline” for finalizing an autumn start to the 2024-25 regular season in which 30 games per team are targeted. There will be team names for the sophomore campaign, and an awards show is planned for Minnesota this June. 

Before all of that, the Walter Cup will be decided.

As for the here and now, PWHL players have made it through a regular season with regular paychecks and the ability to play hockey full time. That is a win in itself given the trials women have faced in trying to make it work as pro hockey players.

The case of Saroya Tinker emphasizes how much has changed in a short time. A former pro hockey player who now works as a PWHL broadcaster and serves at the league’s manager, DEI initiatives and community engagement, was able to step away from playing because of the league’s viability.

Now 26, she retired ahead of this season knowing that she could make a living through the ancillary branches of the game.

“I think that gave me a huge boost of confidence,” she said. “Knowing I can end my career on the ice but forward my career.”

Individuals, teams and the organization itself are moving forward together, at warp speed, making this debut season a little less regular than anything we’ve seen before.