It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a business titan in possession of a fortune must be in want of a sports team to own.
It’s the ultimate megalomaniac hobby business — part fan wish fulfilment, part legacy project, all vanity-stroking fun. Look at Mark Cuban, and what a blast he has with the Dallas Mavericks. Remember Ted Turner at those Atlanta Braves games? Look at Joe Lacob and how he has turned the Golden State Warriors into a relentless domination machine. Look at Jim Balsillie and his relentlessly stymied efforts to buy an NHL franchise.
It’s the kind of thing that can make you more famous than any amount of mere business success. Steinbrenner. Ballard. Melnyk. Well, maybe infamous is the word. Notorious. But in any event, widely known. And hey: it’s also the last, best route into the Hall of Fame for anyone who didn’t manage to put in a stellar pro career as an athlete.
So: Jim Balsillie, Heather Reisman, Arlene Dickinson, Michael Wekerle, you reading? Heck, any eccentric rich folks out there: I’ve got two words for you. Women’s hockey.
What a time for the sport — growing in popularity in Canada and the United States, now a fan favourite at the Winter Olympics. Developing in China through a government effort to build a competitive program from scratch. Women competing with men (and holding their own) at the NHL All-Star game. It’s a dynamite spectator sport that is only getting bigger. Which is a great thing for hockey fans, for women hockey players around the world, and for millions of young girls who now play hockey across Canada and the United States.
And yet the professional leagues that have emerged so far have yet to really get established. The news recently that the Canadian Women’s Hockey League was folding — just weeks after holding its Clarkson Cup final — was devastating. The news following that the U.S.-based National Women’s Hockey League was considering adding expansion franchises in Toronto and Montreal only lightened the heaviness of the news slightly.
It was looking at those two stories that some things jumped out at me, and made clear the opportunity that exists for the right kind of rich sports fan and/or glory hound.
The CWHL — an entire six-team league operating in three countries and two continents — had total annual expenses of just $3.25 million in 2018, according to a report in the Star (and in that year, was actually in the black, with revenue of just under $3.5 million). The NWHL, we also learned, has a salary cap, per team, of $100,000 with a minimum player salary of $2,500. And that league was trumpeting a big new investment from the NHL that ESPN reported doubles the big men’s league’s sponsorship contribution from $50,000 per year to $100,000.
Now, the thing to notice is: holy cow. At first you might think some zeroes are missing from those figures. The numbers are peanuts, by professional sports standards. Like, the Toronto Maple Leafs are paying Nathan Horton $6 million this year not to play. The minimum NHL salary of $700,000 for each player is higher than the entire payroll of all the NWHL teams combined. (And that’s just hockey: former Blue Jay Troy Tulowitzki will be paid $20 million this year by the Blue Jays even though they released him to play for another team. A single year of California Angels player Mike Trout’s new contract of $35 million a year could fund the entire operation of the CWHL and all of its teams, players, and travel expenses for more than a decade.)
If you’re a billionaire — or even a multimillionaire — who fancies herself a prospective member of the pro-sports-ownership club, your decent-profile options are usually pretty forbidding. An NHL expansion franchise will set you back $600 or $700 million, just to get in the door. (If they’ll let you in the door, am I right Mr. Baslillie?) Wanna buy an NFL or MLB team? The discussion starts in the billions.
But if you are in a position to, say, lose a million dollars a year or less for a few years, you could run the most luxurious team in women’s hockey. Even with a salary cap keeping expenses low, you could splurge on perks for your team and for your fans, put cash into coaching and training facilities. You could build the Maple Leafs or the Yankees or the Golden State Warriors of women’s hockey.
And what’s more, you could do it at a time when you’d actually be accomplishing something of lasting significance. Coming in right now, a good owner could be the Conn Smythe of the game, building a cornerstone franchise that establishes the league and becomes an institution. Generations from now when women’s pro hockey is a prominent and storied sport steeped in tradition, women players from around the world, and the young hockey players and fans of all ages that look up to them, would have you to thank.
It’s enough to make a guy wish he had a few million bucks to kick around. Sadly, I don’t. But I’d be happy to spring for tickets to games if someone else does.
Edward Keenan is a columnist based in Toronto covering urban affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @thekeenanwire