Four Goals and an Assist For the Future of the PWHL

In this boom era of women’s sports, the PWHL has room to learn and grow.

Four Goals and an Assist For the Future of the PWHL
Credit: PWHL

Editor's Note: The following is a guest post from LJ Bachenmeier (@leajamieb).

The first season of the PWHL is officially in the rearview. Twenty-four regular season games per team and 13 playoff games later, the new league found a lot of success in its initial year, though it did have its ups and downs. 

Fortunately for the PWHL, this league began in a major boom period for women’s sports. Female athletes and the games they play are having a moment right now, from growing investment and attention on professional leagues like the WNBA and NWSL to increased equality in the NCAA, especially with the advent of name, image, and likeness deals for college athletes. 

Women’s hockey and the PWHL have a space in this burgeoning women’s sports market, but there is work to be done for this league to reach its full potential. The success of other women’s sports and professional leagues can help offer a model for progress. Here are four goals (and an assist) for the PWHL to work towards in Year 2 and beyond.

#1. Keep breaking records

In Year 1, the PWHL was not short on attendance records. The April 20 game between PWHL Montreal and PWHL Toronto set a world record for single-game women’s hockey attendance, with a sold-out crowd of 21,105 filling up Bell Centre in Montreal. They broke their old record in the process, previously set at 19,285 by another Montreal-Toronto matchup at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. Across the border, the PWHL set the record for a professional women’s hockey game in the U.S. with the March 16 match between Boston and Ottawa at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit logging an attendance of 13,736. 

These numbers fit the trend of ballooning women’s sports attendance numbers. A UEFA Champions League semi-final soccer game between Barcelona and Wolfsburg set the world record attendance for a women’s sports event at 91,648 in April 2022, only to be beaten a little over a year later in August 2023 by 92,003 fans who turned out for a Nebraska vs. Omaha volleyball match in Nebraska’s football stadium. Those are rare and exceptional numbers, but events from the women’s FIFA World Cup to NCAA Women’s March Madness and beyond have seen rising attendance statistics. This data proves what we already knew: people want to come to women’s sports games. The PWHL is poised to join other leagues and events in continuing to set and break attendance records; they just need to allow their teams and fans to do so. Speaking of…

#2. More neutral site games

I’m glad to say this isn’t just my proposition, as league brass has discussed adding more games outside of teams’ home markets to the expanded 30-game season. However, just as important as the existence of neutral site games is the locations that they happen in. Targeting NHL arenas in cities that have supported women’s hockey in the past is a good move to pursue those attendance records. Pittsburgh, Washington D.C., and Seattle come to mind, and returning to Detroit could also be a good option. 

Additionally, I want to see some PWHL outreach to college towns, the kind of areas where they might have potential supporters but little to no presence. With several former players from Wisconsin, what if there was a PWHL game at the Kohl Center in Madison, where the American women’s hockey attendance record was set? What if they connected with 2024 NCAA National Champions Ohio State for a PWHL game in Columbus? What about staging a game in upstate New York to draw in supporters of ECAC teams in the region? Getting fans with an existing interest in women’s hockey a chance to watch the PWHL live could be a great opportunity for driving interest and growth for the league, while also possibly drawing some eyes back to the college game.

#3. Star power sells

Perhaps one of the biggest lessons to emerge from the current women’s sports landscape is the importance of hyping up your stars. Call it the Caitlin Clark effect; regardless of your opinion on the Iowa and Indiana Fever player, it’s impossible to deny that her on-court heroics have brought new eyes to women’s basketball. Women’s hockey and the PWHL certainly have their icons. An analog to Clark could be Taylor Heise, who went from University of Minnesota stalwart and Team USA young gun to first overall draft pick to Walter Cup winner and playoff MVP within a year. There are narratives to sell about established players continuing to succeed, like “Captain Canada” Marie-Philip Poulin in Montreal, or breaking out once more, like Natalie Spooner’s unbeatable scoring displays in Toronto. 

There is also something to be said about getting fans invested in players at the lower levels so they can follow them to the pros. The stacked talent of this year’s WNBA rookie class has driven sold-out ticket sales for games against Clark’s Indiana Fever, Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso’s Chicago Sky, and Cameron Brink’s L.A. Sparks. The PWHL also has a talent-laden draft this year, but I would love to see greater promotion, perhaps with the league’s help, for up-and-coming college players who could one day be on their way to the PWHL.

People who know or even have just heard of an athlete’s success in college might be more inclined to follow that player’s journey as a pro. This model of tapping into a college audience has succeeded with other upstart leagues like the Pro Volleyball Federation, and I could see the PWHL similarly benefitting. Sarah Fillier’s established success in international play and the NCAA coming into the PWHL could be a story to watch for Year 2. Likewise, players like Caroline Harvey, Laila Edwards, and Joy Dunne garnering attention in college and with their national teams now will be worth following if or when they make the jump to the pros with the PWHL.

#4. Make space for everyone to have fun

There’s one huge reason people watch the PWHL and women’s hockey that I haven’t touched on yet: it’s fun. Women’s hockey is a fast-paced, energetic, and unpredictable game to watch. To be at a live game is to join a crowd and community of people with rapt gazes and raised voices all taking in the same events. Everyone deserves a chance to be part of the fun, and to be recognized and respected. The PWHL has made some efforts like each team holding Pride nights, but I think they can do more. I’d love to see more specialty group or theme nights, especially with an expanded schedule in Year 2. 

Additionally, I want to see the league pay more attention to adult fans. Most sports fans are adults, yet the marketing of women’s sports, including the PWHL, has long banked on serving as role models for the girls who can now look up and see themselves in the players and their future in the league. There is value in this narrative, and it is important for girls to imagine a future in the PWHL and for children to have female athletes as sports heroes. However, they’re not the only ones watching these games. I think of Debbie Harrison, the 64-year-old PWHL superfan, enjoying the games she didn’t get to see when she fell in love with hockey as a kid, and other older fans like her. There is value in professional women’s hockey beyond its ability to inspire little girls, and I want to see the PWHL lean into that a little more. The WNBA could serve as a good reference for these efforts, as they have largely succeeded in appealing to different groups of fans and bringing them into the fold.

A. Deliver on an All-Star Event

As an “assist” for the last goal, one way to bring in more PWHL fun for everyone could be an All-Star event. In Year 1, the PWHL participated in the NHL’s All-Star event with a 3-on-3 faceoff featuring some of the league’s top players. I would love to see a dedicated PWHL All-Star event for Year 2, perhaps with a game and a skills competition. I could see a player draft or USA vs. Canada vs. The World format, similar to All-Star events held in the NWHL/PHF being successful and entertaining for the PWHL. While they have given no concrete answers, All-Star games and special events are potentially on the table according to league executives. Here’s hoping they make it happen and give fans of all ages a different setting to enjoy the fun of women’s hockey and the PWHL.