We Need To Talk About Amanda: The Kessel Divide

 Author Note: All information within is true to the best of my knowledge and research. Great care has been taken to ensure the accuracy of any statements in here, especially those pertaining to current status of the CWHL, including talking to CWHL player’s regarding the situation. If any information is incorrect, please let me know and I will rectify it. 

Sticktap to NBC Olympics

 

If hockey were science, the Kessel siblings would be the perfect experiment. They certainly have the right control elements: identical genetics and family environments, and equally dominant talents.

 

Then there is the independent variable that sets the experiences of Phil and Amanda so dramatically apart: gender.

On April 10 last year, Phil Kessel and the Toronto Maple Leafs lost to the New York Rangers in Game 40 of the NHL season. He scored two goals, was the evening’s second star and for his Tuesday-night efforts took home about $50,000.(1)

 

The previous night, Amanda Kessel and Team USA defeated Canada in the gold-medal game of the 2013 IIHF Women’s World Championships. She scored one goal, was Team USA’s player of the game and for her efforts took home nothing more than a medal and pride in (and of) her country.

 

In case you don’t know much about Amanda Kessel, let me break down for you what the 22-year-old has done in the past seven years. In her three years at Shattuck St Mary’s she won two U19 National Championships and in 136 games put up 324 points, averaging 2.3 points a game.

 

In 2010, she started at the University of Minnesota and helped the team to back-to-back NCAA championships (2012 and 2013), including a 41-0 record for the 2013 championship run. In 2013, she was only the fourth female player in NCAA history to break the 100-point barrier, with 46 goals and 101 points in a mere 37 games. That’s 2.7 points per game, on her way to collecting the 2013 Patty Kazmaier Award for the top female college player in the US.

 

The truth is, if Amanda Kessel were male, she’d have left Minnesota long ago (if she’d even gone the NCAA route). An NHL team would have called her name early in the 2009 draft, making good on the scouting reports that had been touting her since her days with the Madison Capitols Bantam boys’ team.

 

Instead, when Amanda Kessel leaves Minnesota, the NHL will not have lured her away, early or otherwise. She will be the subject of no speculation on TSN or HF Boards forum. When Amanda Kessel leaves Minnesota as one of the best players to ever wear the Gopher’s uniform, she will do so with an undecided future that almost certainly promises little financial return.

 

Why Does No One Give A Damn? The Sociology of Women’s Sport

  • In 2013, the Forbes Top 100 list of Highest Paid Athletes contained just two women: #26 Maria Sharapova and #81 Li Na, both of whom earned the majority of their money from endorsement deals.
  • Only one North American professional women’s sporting team has a higher attendance average than a Big Four sports team. It is currently the 150th most popular sporting team in North America.(2)
  • The current operating budget of the CWHL is equivalent to the 2013-14 cap hit of Zenon Knopka.

So why does no one give a damn – or a dollar – for women’s sport?

 

When we as a society look at sport, we ground our assessment of sporting performance in the values and experiences of the male athlete, a standard of evaluation that typically disadvantages women. Subsequently, when we use these male standards to judge female athletes and their performances, we are setting them up to fail by requiring a style of play impossible for them to emulate.

 

This ‘required’ standard or style significantly disadvantages female athletes due to the inherent physical differences between men and women. They play this sport, but they do not play it in an identical fashion to men. Because of this, we, as a society, discredit them, their participation, and their achievements.

 

Women are expected to play sport as men play sport, and the failure to do so negates support. And so, these false narratives – the superiority of male sport and the inferiority of female sport (slower, less aggressive and therefore not as good) – continue to dictate how we value and engage with sport.

 

The actions of the male athlete are defined as the standard for ‘right’ and ‘normal’ within the sporting sphere. As a result, there is an assumption (intentional or not) of triviality in women’s sport compared to men’s sport, which dramatically colours how we engage with and value female athletes.

 

In 2009, a 20-year study of network and cable TV sports reporting by USC and Purdue sociologists found that female athletes are present in only 4% of all sporting news. This seems all the more dramatic when compared against gender participation numbers: girls constitute more than 40% of high school sporting participants (6).

 

The discrepancy between actual participation and the importance assigned to female athletes in media coverage continues to highlight the historical stereotype of male superiority in the sporting realm, diminishing the perceived quality of female athletes and asserting their lack of appeal. In her article, Messner points out that these arguments echo many of the sentiments against African-American baseball players in the early decades of the 20th century. (7)

 

A while back, someone took the effort to go through my old posts on here (there’s only a handful) and leave the following comment on an article about the Sedin twins and my aversion to the sexist nickname ‘The Sedin Sisters’:

 

“I’ll explain it very simply: On average, females aren’t as fast, strong, or athletically able as men. In hockey, if you put the best female hockey players in the world against the best male hockey players, the resulting game would not be a contest, but a drubbing. Indisputably, males are superior to females — as a whole — at hockey. Thus, calling the Sedins sisters likens them to inferior athletes. The insult is based on truth. There is nothing sexist to point the finger at here. Okay, you fucking dame?” – Angry Commenting Guy

 

This ‘comparison’ does exactly what it seems every person who wants to throw darts at women’s sport does: it measures the female athlete in relation to their male counterpart and find them lacking, by virtue of their gender, for failing to meet “a threshold for athleticism bestowed upon them at birth”.(4) In drawing such comparisons we continue to enable the viewing of female athletes as being second-class. In contrasting them with male counterparts we deny them the recognition of “being world-class in their own right”.(5)

 

Equality is a funny and difficult thing. In sport, some suggest that equality does not mean affording men and women the same chances, it means providing them a single, unified field in which to compete (in other words, what the corporate world aspires to). However, this  idea does presume that male and female athletes start from an identical position – and as such it is ignorant of each gender’s physical differences.

 

Our valuation of women’s sport is not dictated by the sport itself; it is dictated by us as a society, and to what – and how – we tend to assign value. This same foundation affects how sport is valued in different countries and cultures. Table tennis, despite being the most popular sport in China, is subject to must derision within North America. Why? Because in North America, the sporting public values aggression, physicality and strength above the dexterity and agility displayed by an elite table tennis player.

 

Like table tennis in China, the depressing reality of women’s sport is the result of social construction and how we assign value to the participation and achievement of the female versus male athlete.

 

It’s not just that almost no one cares. It’s that, for the most part, we’ve never taught them that they should.

 

“There’s a Women’s League?” The Women’s Game in 2014

The Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) is the world’s most competitive women’s hockey league. Comprised of former NCAA and CIS players – as well as the bulk of the Canadian and non-NCAA USA women’s teams (in non-centralized Olympic years) – the five teams (Brampton, Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Boston) compete in a 24-game season. In addition to playing two to three games most weekends, the teams also train on ice twice a week and hit the weight and running tracks numerous times.

 

They receive an annual salary of $0.

 

Since 2010 players have no longer had to pay for their own equipment, but the significant time they must commit to the league means many are left scraping pennies to cover the most basic living expenses as they juggle elite-level sport with gainful employment.

 

Presently, two teams have partnerships with NHL clubs (Toronto and Calgary), which provides some co-branding and $20,000–$30,000 per season to help cover club costs. Both partnerships have been in place since 2012 and represent some of the only individual team sponsorships within the CWHL. Traditionally, the league has favoured league-wide sponsorships that enable funding to be dispersed equally across all teams in the league.

 

The CWHL’s only competition is the Western Women’s Hockey League, a league of two teams: Winnipeg and Minnesota. In recent seasons, the WWHL has gone through several merger attempts with the CWHL and its previous incarnation, the NWHL. It presently exists as a series of exhibition games between its own two teams and the NCAA women’s teams.

 

Most Olympic countries have their own national women’s league in some itineration or other. However, none provide viable employment pathways, and most don’t provide a high level of competition for the most elite athletes among their ranks.

 

In the years leading up to the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, the Russian Women’s Championship expanded to 11 teams and local players could earn up to $1,500 a month during the playing season. But with the teams mostly playing on weekday mornings and before crowds numbering barely in the double digits, it’s easy to believe that with their medal-less performance and the end of Sochi, the backing dollars that have kept them afloat will disappear.

 

Where To From Sochi?

Financial equality with male hockey players is not the goal of the female hockey player. As it is, financial quality is not a reality for many female athletes, especially those in team sports. What these athletes and their supporters strive for is for the game of hockey to become a viable career choice for elite female players. If this were the case, we would never again see the game’s great talents, like Noora Raty, retiring due to a lack of financial security or sustainable income.

 

How do we make this happen?

 

After the Atlanta 1996 Summer Olympics, the NBA, lead by David Stern established the WNBA. Stern strongly believed in the link between sport and society – and the need for the former to reflect the latter. He viewed the women’s game as another driving force in a push to introduce the game of basketball as a whole to a larger audience – an audience where female fans and participants were an ever-increasing part. Although the concept of a women’s league had been bandied around by the NBA for a significant portion of the 1990s, it took the crowds and enthusiasm generated by America’s gold-medal win in Atlanta to really lift the concept off the ground.

 

As mentioned, two of the five CWHL teams currently have NHL partnerships, but there are questions as to how effectively these partnerships work and whether they extend beyond limited financial support. (It’s worth noting that the Maple Leafs contribution to the CWHL this season was 1/33rd of what they will pay Darcy Tucker over the same period).

 

The Leafs partner with the Toronto Furies for promotional purposes yet atleast one high-profile pro-Leafs blogger wasn’t even aware there was a CWHL team in Toronto. In fact, a search of the Maple Leafs website turns up only two mentions of the Furies, and one is a reference to the hiring of Tessa Bonhomme, Fury and former Canadian Olympian, as a presenter for Leafs TV. (Note: Leafs TV did include a base-bar this week during one game that promoted the date for the Furies next home game.)

 

What prevents these two NHL teams entering co-branding partnerships and promoting the players alongside their own during community activities? In Australia, such partnerships have been a long-term strategy to develop the profile of the W-League (our women’s national soccer league). It leverages already strong brand identities and increases the visibility of female athletes while giving teams more diverse participation in their community activities.

 

What stops the Boston Bruins partnering with the Blades to offer discounted or free game passes to Bruins season ticket holders or their children? What about allowing them concourse space to promote attendance at upcoming games or even just engage younger fans? (Note: I have been unable to find a record of this happening, but I cannot confirm whether the Bruins already use this tactic.)

 

There are many ifs, buts and realities here. Could a league with an escrow and revenue sharing arrangement like the NHL ever gain endorsement from enough NHL franchises to support a venture that might slightly diminish the returns promise to its constituent teams? Is it a venture best run by Hockey Canada and USA Hockey and if so, where would such a league leave the remainder of the women’s hockey world?

 

Sporting organisations are not charities. They are, for the most part, businesses – though not always dramatically successful ones. I learnt this the hard way in nearly two years working with elite women’s soccer in Australia and the USA, as we struggled week to week to find new and creative ways to put people in seats and dollars in banks.

 

In part, we, the W-League, were lucky to have organisations and governing leagues that viewed the continued existence and increasing sustainability of professional women’s sport as a necessity for the growth and evolution of the game. Calgary Flames President Ken King echoed this sentiment when his team announced its partnership with the Calgary Inferno women’s team in 2012. King suggested that a large part of the Flames’ decision to support the Inferno rested on it being right thing to do.

 

“It’s really not what’s in it for the Flames. The Flames have a lifetime obligation that we put upon ourselves to support all sports and support the community, whether it’s in sports or not. This is just a natural outgrowth of that. I think cash is important, but I think what is equally important to cash is that their pioneering efforts that have gone on for many years, I think need to be rewarded. They need some breakthroughs and, if we can play a very small part in that, we’re proud to do that.” – Calgary Flames President Ken King (8)

 

It is hard to suggest that something should be done for women’s hockey purely on the basis that it’s the right thing to do (though I wouldn’t argue with anyone who tried). However, with the increasing popularity of women’s hockey (in participation numbers and the viewership ratings demonstrated during the recent Olympic tournament in Sochi) it is hard to believe that we can’t achieve or sustain something bigger – something better – than the current situation.

 

I can’t believe that as a society of hockey fans, we can’t do a better job for the female hockey player than the one we’ve been doing.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

This is a story about Phil Kessel and Amanda Kessel, but at the same time it isn’t. It’s about gender, what the Kessel siblings represent, and how we as a society treat the female athlete. It’s the tale of two Olympic athletes who represented the USA in Sochi on equal terms – and then skated back to completely different worlds. One returns to the spoils and riches afforded by his talent and gender. The other returns to an uncertain future, and the fight for a sustainable relevance that lasts for more than two weeks each olympiad.

 

And in 2014, that’s a bullshit story to tell.

 

Notes

(1) Capgeek. http://www.capgeek.com/ – Based on $5.1 million for the season, pro-rated across 82 games with a 20% allowance for escrow.[EG1]  (www.capgeek.com)

(2) Average Attendance of Professional Sports Teams in the US and Canada – Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Average_attendances_of_professional_sports_teams_in_the_United_States_and_Canada

(3) Kate Fagan, ‘No Women, Not Even Griner, Could Play in the NBA’, espnW - http://espn.go.com/espnw/news-commentary/article/9133361/espnw-no-woman-not-brittney-griner-other-play-nba.

(4) ibid.

(5) ibid.

(6) M. A. & Cooky, C. (2010). Gender in Televised Sports: News and Highlights Shows, 1989-2009. Los Angeles: USC Center for Feminist Research – http://www.usc.edu/dept/cfr/html/home.htm

(7) ibid.

(8) Leafs, Flames give boost to women’s hockey teams - 13 November, 2012 – The Canadian Press – http://www.cbc.ca/sports/hockey/nhl/leafs-flames-give-boost-to-women-s-hockey-teams-1.1256411

  • HockeyGroupie

    Great article! I’ve been thinking about the same thing every since the Olympics. I’m so impressed with how the women are somehow able to continue playing hockey at such an elite level after college. That is incredible dedication and sacrifice! I’m so impressed with the whole team!

  • William

    Yes, great article. FWIW, I live in Boston (though I’m in Melbourne this week — hi!) and I’ve never seen the Bruins do any promotion for the Blades, though they provided a lot of publicity and support to the US women’s Olympic team before and after the Olympics.

    • http://www.stanley-cupcake.com/ Sasky Stewart

      Welcome to Melbourne!