A critical 3rd season for NWHL on the horizon

Last season, the NWHL made the tough decision to cut salaries in order to ensure that the league would have a future. Players in the league reacted in different ways. Some, including  Morgan Fritz-Ward, retired midseason to pursue another viable career path.

“I knew coming in that I was going to go school when we were done. But with all the pay cuts and stuff it was hard for me to justify … it’s just so expensive out here,” Fritz-Ward told FangRag Sports in December.

Others, such as Molly Engstrom, decided to play overseas. “It was not by any means an easy decision to make. At the same time, I found myself in a difficult situation to move forward,” Engstrom told The Ice Garden last season after the cuts.

Still others, such as Anya Battaglino, tried to see what could be improved from within. “I am honored to have the support of the NWHLPA as I step into [the director role]. … We are so excited as a unit to continue to forge a strong relationship with Commissioner [Dani] Rylan and the league office,” said Battaglino after taking the vacant role of NWHLPA director.

In the first offseason since the news, there have been more retirements, more relocations and of course the centralization of the USA Hockey team. As of now, it looks like the NWHL is rolling with the punches and intends to carry on. However, for the sake of the players, the fans and the league itself, the NWHL will need to address certain things to ensure that the third season isn’t the last.

Player benefits

Despite the reasons why, the NWHL must reconcile the fact that they billed themselves as the first North American league to pay players, then drastically cut salaries. If the #BeBoldForChange movement taught us anything, it’s that players understand the uphill climb of marketing women’s sports in our society. However, that should not change the standard for treating elite athletes. There are certain things in sports, such as health insurance and facilities,  that cannot be bargain shopped.  To do so places the athletes in danger and — among other things — jeopardizes the longevity of their career, thus limiting their maximum output in a professional league.

When these sacrifices to quality are present, access to alternative salaries and benefits is extremely important. Moving forward, the NWHL must set a reasonable expectation for players’ time if true salaries are not part of the immediate growth plan. Additionally, the league must ensure that players fully understand the health benefits offered by the league. At a time shortly after the cuts were announced, there was ambiguity as to whether health insurance was covered. Clearing up the communication of pay and benefits to all players is something that, hopefully, the league has improved since last season.

League Analytics

In addition to rebuilding trust and constant communication with players, the league needs to find ways to not only survive but to thrive financially. Sponsors and partners want to see growth numbers. As of now, the NWHL does not make attendance numbers public. Additionally, there is no real way of gauging interest in the league from the potential player pool. The NWHL drafts players, as opposed to having them register. The NWHL has held free- agent camps leading up to each season, but the rosters from those camps have been inconsistently shared.

With the CWHL expanding to China and offering a hefty payday (for some), and other leagues overseas offering room and board, transportation and other benefits, women’s hockey players have a variety of options, depending on what type of atmosphere they desire. It will only benefit the NWHL to have analytics on the interest in the league as compared to the number of spots.

Similarly, attendance numbers are an important data point. Consumers are an important demographic for any business. However, the NWHL does not make attendance numbers public in any way. Game recaps for most professional leagues often include the attendance number in the final box score. To what extent the numbers are used internally is unknown. However, keeping attendance numbers close to the chest, even if they are not initially eye-popping, is a missed opportunity.

It is worth mentioning that the league announced attendance bonuses for players in the middle of the second season. “Players will receive 100 percent of ticket revenue after 500 tickets are sold,” wrote Kate Cimini for FanRag Sport in December. “Adult tickets are approximately $20 dollars per game at each arena. Said revenue will be evenly split between the home and road teams participating in the game.”

That move sparked a set of Riveters fans to purchase tickets for all remaining New York’a games — home and away — last season. However, with no public attendance numbers, participating fans have no way of knowing if they were able to help ensure players received attendance bonuses last season.

Another big sponsorship

For the first two seasons, Dunkin’ Donuts has been a faithful partner.  The American coffee chain supports youth clinics, Dunkin’ gift cards and the NWHL All-Star Game for the league. When salaries were cut, the company offered an additional $50,000 to be made available to the players immediately.

However, Dunkin Donuts has been the only major sponsor since the inception of the league. The league has announced a new deal with Twitter that will feature 19 NWHL games live- streamed globally. Two preseason matches featuring Team Russia, the 2018 All-Star Game and another 16 regular season games are part of the deal. This is a good step for exposure, but it is unknown what the deal will mean for league revenue.

Nevertheless, thinking uniquely about running the league is a step in the right direction. As commissioner, Rylan has kept quiet about business operations. That is to be expected, but cannot come at the cost of accessibility to fans and potential sponsors. For the NWHL to be viable, players and fans must want to be part of the process. More support and open communication is necessary, and Rylan herself has acknowledged this.

“There is no question that we have had some stumbles along the way, and as commissioner, I take responsibility for those,” Rylan commented in an open letter in December. “I admit to becoming hardened at times by the frustrating moments. … We are a women’s league and we are a start-up, but we [are] not fragile. We are resilient and will continue to break barriers.”

There is a market for women’s hockey. The USA National Team has proven that during the 2014 Olympics and again for the 2017 IIHF World Championships in terms of ratings and attendance numbers. Now, Rylan and the NWHL must create their own ripple. The fight for women’s hockey is ongoing, and the league will need its players — including those returning from the Olympics — to buy in.

Benefits packages, accessible analytics and creative partnerships will help the NWHL steady the course and become a viable option for players, fans and sponsors alike.

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