The world of women's hockey is in good hands. There are countless passionate people doing incredible work for the game, in an effort to inspire the younger generation and create a more equitable world. Digit Murphy is one of those people!
Original story posted here.
Digit Murphy is doing several things at one time.
She coaches the Chinese women's national ice hockey team, which just finished a decent showing at the World Championship in Italy. She also coaches China's first professional team, Kunlun Red Star, which went to the finals of the Canadian Women's Hockey League in its first season. She's tasked with advancing the Chinese women's game, but she's in it for all women, in any sport. Now, she's taking a vacation with her partner, and an entire Chinese ice hockey team in tow. She's keeping a close eye on the players, who are newly at the mercy of diet and training regimens. She's buying her partner, still asleep, a coffee. She's planning to write a book. And she's on the phone, with me, explaining the business end of women's sports, and where most get it wrong.
"Men are only going to run sports the way that men know how to run them. There's a whole other growth mindset out there that women know and men don't. "
Sports franchises structured around men's leagues presume women's sports should, as a business, perform the same way, even with significantly less funding. They try to gain profits despite a lack of competition and a lack of visibility. But Murphy sees those two erstwhile cons as sources of potential revenue, and she's made a career out of proving it.
"We just can't get out of our own way: thinking that men do sports the 'right way.' "
Before coming to China, Murphy coached the Brown University women's hockey team for two decades, won two CWHL championships with The Boston Blades, started the United Women's Lacrosse League, and founded two companies with her partner, Aronda Kirby--The United Women's Sports LLC and The Play It Forward Sports Foundation--to push a model of women's sports liberated from the prescriptions of men's sports.
While the NCAA and Title IX have fostered the growth of large talent pools for women's sports in North America, ice hockey included, the buck stops there, with no real room to grow.
"Once the NCAA took over women's sports, that meant that men ran women's sports. Because right now, men have all the resources."
The result was often short-lived leagues focused on attendance for meager revenues. They produced few salary opportunities (on the field or off) and failed to incentivize women to stay professionally involved as players, coaches, or administrative staff, such as marketing or development positions.
"I willed myself to be in this space. Other women are like 'screw this.' Because it's way to hard to beat your head against a wall all your life. But it's what I do, and it's fine."
Developing a women's sports league from the ground up off ticket sales in a market already flush with men's leagues is a dubious task. Murphy sees the potential of women's ice hockey in its growth, which has a long way to go.
"You don't want it to just be an afterthought of men's sports," Murphy says. "You want it to be able to stand on its own and the way to do that is start it in the right way."
Murphy says that means starting small if you must, finding the right investors, and paying the world's top players to do more than play.
That's how Murphy and Aronda Kirby, her partner still waiting for the coffee, started the United Women's Lacrosse League in 2016. They found a top player, Liz Hogan, and a gear company with no women to market its product, STX, and made a deal. (Among high school students playing lacrosse in 2016, 135,488 were female, 180,399 male).
And that's what Murphy talked about when she sat down with Kunlun Red Star owner Billy Ngok for the first time. They wouldn't hire foreign players, they would recruit foreign "ambassadors" for the sport.
"Don't pay them to play. Pay them to help your best athletes. It makes so much sense it's stupid," says Murphy. China wanted to develop its players. And in North America, many of the world's elite were working full-time jobs and playing, for free, in the CWHL. They now enjoy the highest wages for female hockey players in the world, and the inclusion of Chinese teams in the CWHL made the first year of player wages possible.
Now, top players like U.S. forwards Kellie Stack and Zoe Hickel coach their pro-team teammates Lu Wen and Zu Rui year round. The Kunlun Red Star organization even paid Kellie Stack to travel with, and help Murphy coach, the Chinese national team at the World Championships in Italy.
"That's the model we created," says Murphy, who has already talked about the model with teams from Italy, Kazakhstan and Latvia. "You're not going to get paid to play at these numbers--yet--in a women's sport. You need a reason. And let's just say, now, the reason is [Beijing 2022]."