The National Women’s Hockey League: Impatience Is A Virtue

The National Women’s Hockey league held its launch party Monday night at Chelsea Piers in New York City. The NWHL only announced its existence last month via Yahoo’s Puck Daddy and social media sites were immediately set ablaze by a small contingent of thrilled fans. The information available was limited, but seemed reasonable, and even hopeful to many who want to see more media and fan attention dedicated to the women’s game.

The NWHL would pay its players, in direct opposition to the North American pro women’s league already in existence, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. They wouldn’t be able to pay much to start, but any payment at all was a step forward. The CWHL players earn nothing from their on-ice work, and in fact each team is required to pay $35,000 in order to participate in the CWHL’s playoffs in March.

After eight seasons in existence, it’s not unrealistic to say players had hoped to earn some financial compensation for their expertise and work game after game, year after year. CWHL players are often responsible for their own equipment (outside of pads, as the CWHL has a partial sponsorship deal with Bauer).

In contrast to the CWHL’s model, NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan told Puck Daddy author Jen Neale that not only would the women in the NWHL be paid, but there would be sponsorship deals in place for equipment.

While fans were promised more information upon the launch party, and many were hoping for information on sponsorship deals,the draft, team ownership or GM hirings, the main announcement was the naming of the league trophy.

The trophy, which will go by the moniker the Isobel Cup, harkens back to the NHL’s Stanley Cup in history and in name.

Lady Isobel Gathorne-Hardy was the daughter of Lord Stanley, for whom the famous Stanley Cup is named, and to whom the trophy — that started life as a fruit bowl — originally belonged. Gathorne-Hardy’s love of hockey (not fruit) convinced her father, then-Governor General of Canada, to donate his fruit bowl as the prize in an ice hockey tournament.

Without Isobel Stanley, at least one NHL tradition would not exist. The Library and Archives Canada site reveals that she was an avid hockey player and would wear a white dress to play shinny on the rink located next to the Government House in Ottawa with other women. In fact, the earliest known photograph of women playing hockey, taken in 1890 at Rideau Hall, is said to contain Lady Isobel playing in her iconic white dress amidst the others.

Lady Isobel Gathorne-Hardy was captured playing a game of shinny in the earliest photo known of women playing hockey. Photo from Library and Archives Canada.
Lady Isobel Gathorne-Hardy was captured playing a game of shinny in the earliest photo known of women playing hockey. Photo from Library and Archives Canada.

As interesting as the history behind the trophy is, the naming of the Isobel Cup drives further home the point that those in charge of the NWHL see their mission as one to unite the men’s and women’s leagues, much as the NBA partnered with the WNBA.

That has been made clear time and again.

The NWHL league has four teams: the Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale and New York Riveters. The Whale and the Riveters have received perhaps the most attention for their logos: the Whale, of course, hearkens back to the Hartford Whalers, and the New York Riveters logo features Rosie the Riveter.

In an April 1st interview with Penalty Box Radio out of Nashville, TN, Rylan was asked about the Riveters logo:

“Rosie the Riveter has always been this powerful figure to me so I wanted a name that would have the same initials, NYR, in case we ever partnered with the Rangers so I was going with the red, white and blue, the American, and then the NYR. When I was thinking of different names I stumbled upon that and I just couldn’t go back.”

NWHL logos: featured are the Connecticut Whale and the New York Riveters
NWHL logos: featured are the Connecticut Whale and the New York Riveters

When asked at the launch party about her end goal for the league, Rylan answered that she wanted to see a partnership develop between the NWHL and NHL, as opposed to the NWHL standing alone.

Financially, that makes sense.

The NHL has access to millions of dollars, a network of built-in fans, employees who specialize in marketing hockey to youth and adults and tried-and-true practices for selling out stadiums. They have equipment deals, which is no small thing, as a season’s worth of equipment for a professional player can run around $2,000 a year.

Additionally, NHL fans are nothing to sneer at.

NHL Fans Are The Wealthiest Of All Fans

According to the Nielsen 2013 Year In Sports Media Report, the NHL has the richest fans of all the major sports markets in the U.S. In fact, only 30% of NHL fans make less than $100,000 per year.

For comparison, only 19% of the general population makes over $100,000 annually.

According to the same report of 2014, NHL fans are 15% more likely than the average U.S. adult to own both a smartphone and a tablet, 29% more likely to have spent $5,000 or more on home improvements over the last calendar year, and 45% more likely to have taken a domestic flight 3 or more times over the same duration of time.

While those facts might seem to come out of left field they tell us an important story. NHL fans are more likely to be technically literate, and therefore likely to engage with their favorite team on social media, which of course generates ad revenue for these teams. They are more likely to see a short flight as a small inconvenience if it means getting to a game they are truly invested in, and most of all, it tells us they likely have access to disposable income. Those sorts of discretionary funds are exactly what a new league needs to tap into if they want to sell jerseys, tickets, and more.

But how to get the NHL to commit to cross-promotion? How to entice those fans to throw their support behind the newest women’s league?

In that vein Rylan revealed that she and NWHL player representative Erika Lawler had met with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman the previous week, ostensibly to broach the subject of a partnership between the two leagues in the form of sponsorship, cross-promotion or some other boost to the women’s league.

While Bettman did not apparently bite, he left the door open for future negotiations by promising support to girls’ and women’s hockey. Just what kind of support he was offering the women’s game was unclear, per the statement the NHL asked Rylan to share with launch attendees:

“The National Hockey League supports the growth of women’s hockey at all levels. We wish the NWHL well as it presents the women’s game to a larger audience, provides outstanding female athletes an additional opportunity to compete at the professional level and inspires girls and women to strive for hockey excellence.”

Whether he meant financial, emotional or mental support is nebulous at best. But the fact that he agreed to meet with Rylan and Lawler at all is a positive, even simply from a publicity point of view.

 The sponsorship possibilities as well as the sheer advertising opportunities that partnering with the NHL would afford the NWHL are tremendous, not to mention the hope to one day pay players a living wage.

However, a partnership with the NHL will be a difficult path to tread.

Bettman has no dog in this fight, and never will; his business is the success of the men’s game. Preserving the status quo is practically guaranteed not to lose the NHL business. Taking a risk on a young commissioner and league with big aspirations very well may, and that is likely not something he ever sets out to do.

If supporting the NWHL affects his company’s bottom line negatively, even over only a few years, chances are very good his answer will be a resounding ‘no.’

While the NWHL’s founders have clearly put a lot of thought into their business model by locating the teams within a small, easily-traversable region, putting a theme to each game designed to bring in crowds and adding a foundation component to their league, the NWHL is a new, untested league and business in a sport that doesn’t have the largest group of fans. We may have the wealthiest fans, but that will matter very little if the NWHL is unable to attract said fans and convince them to part with some of that disposable income.

Should Bettman Invest In The NWHL?

From a business perspective, Bettman is right to wait this out. Promising funds or marketing support to a league that could crumble like the NWHL did before it isn’t smart if it’s not going to grow his business.

One could certainly make the argument that the NWHL could be the WNBA in a few years, but that ignores a few key facts: first, the number of basketball versus hockey fans is heavily weighted towards the basketball side of things. Second, the differences in proposed schedules.

The WNBA had a difficult time attracting fans when they first began, and continue to struggle with this aspect of the business. The NBA has a pool of fans that is easily three times the size of the NHL’s going by average television viewing numbers in 2014.

Nielsen lists the NBA as attracting over 15 million viewers for the 2014 NBA finals while the NHL just scraped over the line of 5 million in the same year.

If the NWHL is starting with a third of the fans available that the WNBA was targeting — with full support from the NBA, might I add — it’s a good thing their proposed salaries are less than 15% of the highest salary a player in the WNBA can earn ($107,000 for the curious).

Last but not least, one of the main components of the WNBA model was a complementary season to the NBA’s; the women hold their games during the summers instead of winters to prevent overlap. As such the WNBA essentially generates additional revenue, not competition for dollars with the teams that sponsor them. This component simply may not be possible for the NWHL.

Hockey is not only entrenched firmly in our minds as a winter sport, thanks to the fact that the game is played on a sheet of ice, but, I will remind you, requires a sheet of ice to be played upon, which gets suspiciously sticky during the summer. As such, schedule-wise, the best these women can do is hold their games in the morning so their fans and attendees have enough time to get in the car or flip the channel to funnel their money over to the men’s league.

However fans are left to guess at figures for the NWHL, as they have thus far declined to provide financial estimates.

NWHL Launch Party Raises More Questions Than It Answers

While the NWHL’s launch party was energetic and exciting, featuring speakers such as commissioner Dani Rylan, co-founder Angela Ruggiero and with a great tie-in to girls’ hockey, it was long on style and short on substance.

There was precious little new information available, aside from the announcement of the naming of the Isobel Cup. There was no more information on Rylan’s five-year plan, sponsorships, partnerships, team owners or GM appointments, and as the draft has yet to begin there was little to distract from the fact that the league and its founders seemed to still have a lot of questions of their own unanswered.

Interestingly enough, CWHL player Hilary Knight was in attendance, leading to speculation that she will be joining as a player for the Boston Pride or one of the surrounding teams. Knight has long been a champion of women’s hockey and has dedicated much of her time and effort to growing an awareness of the sport as well as agitating for treatment of women players as professionals by her league.

Her presence did not go unnoticed by members of the media.

Whether or not Knight joins the newest league has not been confirmed, but her presence certainly speaks to a strong possibility.

But in the end this is what the league led with: a lot of optimism, enthusiasm and possibilities. But it did not leave attendees feeling like they knew what was going on with the development of the league.

In the end, while the launch party was aptly timed to keep the news cycle going, and to take advantage of the lull between the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs, it felt as though league founders simply couldn’t wait any longer to speak publicly about their impetus behind founding the NWHL.

One thing was clear: the NWHL was born out of impatience.

Impatience for women’s sports to be recognized as important, impatience for the next step, for women not only to have a place to continue to play hockey (as the CWHL allows) but to give them the ability to dedicate more of their time to it, as money affords time and opportunity. To reach their best, their peak, as Lawler stressed during her speech Monday night.

If impatience is the impetus for change then we should embrace it wholeheartedly at critical junctures such as this.

Bettman and the NHL have the luxury of long-term patience. The NWHL does not.

But the public is now impatient for information on the league’s future. We’re invested; we’re on the edge of our seats. We want more information. What’s next?