As the month of November has faded into December, the difficult economic reality of players in the National Women’s Hockey League suffering from a 50% decrease in their salaries becomes a very sad reality. After such an exciting inaugural season in 2015-16, one that saw tremendous media coverage, along with league founder Dani Rylan being recognized by The Hockey News on its list of the 100 Most Influential People in Hockey, such momentum has not carried over into a second season built on optimism.
While the players have embodied the true essence of professionalism, continuing to play, the reality that the league has fallen into a sophomore slump has not escaped their thoughts. Although the players would have been within their rights to walk out on the league and engage in a wildcat strike, no labor disruption has occurred, which is a sign of good faith that must be reciprocated.
This needs to be a moment of truth for the NWHL, working together with the players to find new ways to increase revenue and allow for sustainability. Undoubtedly, transparency from the league is essential, revealing its investor(s) would definitely add credibility at such a critical juncture in league history.
Running a deficit for the remainder of the season puts players in a difficult position and there is certainly a moral obligation on the part of the league to help find new ways to generate income. Considering that these athletes entered into a covenant whereby their salaries would result in focusing on the obligation of playing hockey, to burden them with new ways to find funds in the middle of the season is not an easy situation.
Decades past has seen many ambitious sports leagues (Continental Basketball Assoicaiton, North American Soccer League, World Football League, World Team Tennis) have experienced mid-season struggles and teams that eventually crumbled financially. The fact that some of those leagues were owned by one individual and/or holding company only added to its woes.
Perhaps the reason that the NWHL’s struggle is so much more painful is because it affects women’s sports, which sees its athletes, coaches and administrators work tirelessly in the fight for equality and recognition. Despite its 20th anniversary, the WNBA still fights for relevancy in the sometimes all-too crowded world of sport.
Since the decadence of exorbitant salaries has defined the world of professional men’s sports, how often have players and coaches been given hundreds of thousands of dollars (in some cases, millions) in buy-outs, receiving compensation to stay home? Yet, these highly talented female athletes, with world-class hockey skills, are forced to face an uncertain existence in the game.
In theory, the NWHL could perhaps survive as an unpaid league in the future (which is a modern sporting tragedy that affects so many female sports the world over), but it would be a tremendous step backwards for women’s hockey in the United States. A potential effect would be a reduction in the quality of talent, seeing many big name players bringing their world-class skills to Europe.
Although mid-season efforts to attempt individual sponsorships would likely be futile, there must be planning now, to ensure that a new focus is in place for the (hopeful) third season, likely replenishing barren bank accounts and eradicating any deficits that may have been accumulated. Considering that a third season would also result in an exodus of talent because of ambitions to win gold with the US national team at the 2018 Winter Games, it is essential that the players must have a stake in shaping the league’s future, which also affects their own athletic futures.
Obviously, acquiring new corporate sponsorships would be a top priority. Undoubtedly, finding new ways to maximize its existing sponsorship with Dunkin Donuts would be just as important. Taking into account that Canadian donut king Tim Horton’s has issued wildly popular NHL cards for the last two seasons, it is an option that would likely provide positive returns for the NWHL. If Dunkin Donuts worked with Topps, Panini and/or Upper Deck on a series of NWHL trading cards, it has great potential to sell out. The last few seasons has seen Allen and Ginter along with Goodwin Champions issue more cards with female athletes. Based on the existing secondary market (and the online auction syndrome among so many collectors), a series of NWHL trading cards would certainly add a new element of collectibility, while providing the fans with an even stronger connection to the game.
From the outset, players should be allowed to engage in any individual sponsorship, akin to their female counterparts in golf (WTA) and tennis (LPGA). The competitors in these respective sports tend to have corporate logos on their hats (visors) and sleeves. Taking into account that the NWHL boasts significant star power with players that have starred in the Winter Games, there is no question that corporate product endorsements would be within reach. Allowing such players to seek their own personal endorsements and don a sponsor’s logo on the front of their jersey or on the sleeve would certainly present a significant step forward in the league’s viability while empowering the athletes to become part of the process.
For players that are not able to obtain corporate endorsements, crowd funding and GoFundMe pages would appear to be the first effort in keeping their hockey dreams alive, although innovation would be essential. Considering that so many individuals have saturated the online world with their requests for financial assistance, regardless of how honorable a request may be, there must be a benefit for the donor.
The Women of the NWHL need to emulate the efforts of athletes who have brought awareness to their funding needs on a web site such as Pursu.It, where an incentive is provided to the gracious giver, based on the amount of the donation. Examples of incentives that players could provide to supporters include: a) following on social media or thanking them on social media, b) autographed 8 x10 photos, c) a private hockey lesson with a minor team, and/or d) game-worn jerseys or a signed practice jersey and T-shirt.
Another option that would definitely generate a lot of media attention would include the all-too stereotypical athletic calendar. While sports purists may see the concept of a calendar as demeaning or embarrassing, bringing with it a sense of desperation, it may certainly present the quickest option to generate revenue for the league.
Although the concept of calendars featuring athletes in swimsuits or a complete state of undress began with the Australian Mathilda’s soccer team in 2000 (which resulted in world-wide press), women’s hockey has not been immune to it. A team based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming released their own calendar in 2010. Athletic calendars have also involved a donation to charity for every calendar sold. This was a key focus for Vancouver’s Ice-O-Topes women’s hockey team, who raised money with their popular calendars for Brittania After-School Hockey (BASH).
Despite its gimmicky status, a calendar is still a useful marketing tool for teams, especially in Europe with sports such as basketball, rugby and soccer, among others. Should such a concept be considered for the NWHL, it would require innovation. Not only would a charitable aspect be worthwhile, but an extra incentive of having an athlete sign the cover of the calendar may help transform it into a possible collector’s item. If 12 players appear in the calendar, each one could sign 1000, or maybe 2000, copies, which would likely take comprise 1-2 days of work. A total print run of 12,000 copies (all signed) offered online, for $15 each, would result in $180,000.
The greatest irony is that the net worth of many sporting enterprises, with holdings in men’s professional sports, is actually comparable to the gross domestic product of some developing nations, one would think that such enterprises could easily allocate an annual amount of $100,000, which could result in a tax benefit and an opportunity to strengthen loyalty with fans in their respective communities.
One great example of a philanthropic individual in sport is the late Lamar Hunt, a co-founder of the AFL and longtime proprietor of the Kansas City Chiefs and minority owner with the NBA’s Chicago Bulls. While his contributions to football are countless, his greater sports legacy involves financing ventures in soccer and tennis. While there was no financial incentive, it was done for the love of sport, understanding that it was the right thing to do. Such an individual would have to be willing to make an investment in the NWHL not based on return, but an investment in empowering players and raising the sport’s self-esteem. Of course, this would have to be recognized with a trophy named in their honor and a rink named after them as well.
Should such a sympathetic approach not yield a desired result, the league will need to consider making its franchises available for purchase, or at least a minority share of the franchises, injecting much needed cash, while perhaps welcoming owners with new ideas, augmenting conversation. The league could also emulate the ways of the Boston Celtics, whose shares were available on the stock market, or the Green Bay Packers, who sell shares in its ownership to the public. If 5,000 shares were offered at $50 each, that would result in $250,000. In addition, a certificate of stock ownership (with a hologram of authenticity) hand-signed by Dani Rylan or one of the league’s star players would definitely become a coveted collector’s item. If players were allowed to buy shares in the league, akin to employee stock options in the corporate world, it would certainly present a new and exciting concept to women’s professional sport.
Regardless of what the league decides to do, it is critical that the status quo is abandoned and that new ways are found to promote the sport and build on what was a very strong first season, while putting people in the seats. For the league to ensure that future relations with players are not strained, this needs to consider this a wake-up call. Taking into account the pompous predictions by some north of the border that the NWHL shall eventually merge with a Canadian league, this should be even more motivation to avoid such a fate, falling into the “I told you so” trap. Although the reasons a merger between the two leagues would be better served in another piece, the reality is that the NWHL needs to survive. Abandon the PR-type dialogue, augment conversation and show a genuine sincerity and authenticity. Based on what the last two weeks has meant to the players, potentially altering their view of the league and the game, it is of the utmost importance to empower the players and make them feel like they are more than just employees, but as partners.