Will the historic league even make it to December?
In October 2015, the debut of the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) was met with much fanfare, and understandably so. After all, not only was it the first pro women’s hockey league in the United States, it was also the first pro women’s hockey league in North America to actually pay its players.
For the first time in history, women could make a living — however modest that might be — playing hockey.
Unfortunately, less than 14 months later, the league is dangerously close to shutting its doors.
Last week, without warning, the NWHL slashed its players salaries by as much as 65 percent. The players in the four teams across the league weren’t told until Thursday night, giving them little time to react before the puck was dropped for the games on Sunday. Though the show went on this weekend, the players and those in charge of the NWHL have a lot to grapple with over the Thanksgiving break — and there is currently no guarantee that the season will continue in December.
The reality of the situation is bleak.
For the league to continue, the players will have to take pay cuts. And for that happen, the players are requesting that the league provide proof of insurance, open up its books to a third-party auditor, reveal the identities of its investors, and detail its business and marketing plans.
The players made those requests last Friday in a public statement that was released on Twitter, and the only direct response they received before the weekend’s games was proof of insurance.
While the news of the salary cuts came as a shock to many of the players and fans, there were signs that something like this was on the horizon.
“We were all aware it was a strong possibility given the financial issues the league was going through starting last February,” Kate Cimini, a freelance women’s hockey reporter, told ThinkProgress.
There have been questions about the sustainability of the league since well before the beginning. Dani Rylan, the league’s 29-year-old commissioner and co-founder, was able to quell many of those doubts with a positive attitude and a lot of hard work — but even after a pretty successful first season, during which the league got its first corporate sponsor, Dunkin Donuts, and partnered with broadcasters such as NESN and ESPN3, warning signs remained. Rylan never disclosed the identities of the NWHL’s investors. Additionally, the league became mired in scandal earlier this year as e-mail leaks revealed the league had trouble paying its bills and a founding investor sued Rylan and the NWHL looking for his money back.
“My father is a very successful businessman. I grew up watching him and I’m now involved in his business. For a long time he’s been saying that things at the NWHL don’t make sense,” Madison Packer, a forward for the NWHL’s New York Riveters, told Cimini in an interview for Excelle Sports. “I’ve been watching the process and this summer I was hesitant to sign a contract because there were all these money issues. At one point I asked the question: is the money going to be there? And was told it was.”
Many players like Packer pushed past the doubts and stuck with the NWHL because it provided them an opportunity to get paid to do what they loved — a rarity for female athletes in general, and female hockey players in particular. Although there is one other pro women’s hockey league in North America, called the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL), that league doesn’t pay its players at all.
But even when things were good in the NWHL, the purse strings were still tight. Each team has a salary cap of $270,000, meaning each player signs contracts worth between $10,000-$26,000. Many players continued to hold down day jobs or lived very frugally. Now, the salary cap is being reduced to a per-game basis, meaning that each team has a mere $5,000 to pay all 18 of its players for each game. That’s a reduction of more than 60 percent, and it’s one that will force many players to make a choice between continuing to follow their dreams or making ends meet.
Tatiana Rafter of the Riveters wrote about the consequences of the salary cut on Stanley Cup Chowder:
Like many of my NWHL peers, when I woke today I was forced to grapple with how to keep a dream alive versus simply surviving financially. I think I can speak for every NWHL player that we obviously want the league to succeed and are willing to make the sacrifices from our side, as demonstrated through our commitment, energy and time and our willingness to play for below market pay and travel conditions. As women participating in professional sports, we fully understand the limited opportunities and reduced compensation and already went through difficult decisions to participate in this 2nd season. Now, with low salaries slashed in half, and an uncertain future, we must contend with basic needs — can we pay rent, pay for food, transportation etc….
The next 10 days will go a long way towards determining the future of women’s pro hockey. The NWHL will have to make some serious decisions about how transparent it is willing to be, and the players are going to have to decide if it’s worth it, personally and professionally, to stick with it.
Meanwhile, the league’s small but devoted fan base will have to wait and see whether there are any games to look forward to — and if so, how many.
“There’s a lot of concern on behalf of the fans, but I think the players feel that the league will continue at least for now,” Cimini said. “But their concern is that there is a lack of trust, transparency, from the top down.”
If you’re looking for a reason to be optimistic, Rylan provided it on Friday when she announced that Dunkin Donuts, the league’s only national sponsor, was providing an additional $50,000 that would go directly to the players. But ultimately, that’s just a drop in the bucket. It takes a lot of resources to run even a fledgling pro sports league.
“You know, let’s say Monday was its last game … it still managed to give a chance to a lot of women who never had the opportunity to play [professional hockey], and it helped to deepen the talent pool and, in a weird way, strengthen the CWHL,” Cimini said. “Overall it had a positive impact.”
Cimini has seen the CWHL adopt many of the NWHL’s fan-friendly marketing strategies, such as having players line up and sign autographs after games, interact with fans frequently on social media, and stream games for free on YouTube. She’s seen faces of the hundreds of young girls who come out to games and fall in love with the sport, and watched as media outlets all over the country have written about women’s hockey, often for the first time, all because of the NWHL.
Hopefully, it has a chance to continue.