NWHL Q&A With Zoe Hayden And Hannah Bevis: Part I

A couple weeks ago, as you might have seen, the NWHL cut their players’ salary in half without any input from the players. I had a few questions about that and the league as a whole, so I went to two of the leading authorities. Zoe Hayden is the editor of VictoryPress.org (@zoeclaire_) and Hannah Bevis is the editor of TheIceGarden.com on the SB Nation network (@Hannah_Bevis1).

With the NWHL cutting salaries in half, clearly they had some projections that were not met. Do we know what those were and why that might be?

Zoe:

To be clear about your first question, I believe New York Riveters forward Madison Packer said that it was “more like 60%” and we don’t have exact figured on the amount of salary that players will be receiving if they sign the proposed changes to their contracts.

With regard to projections, NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan was not specific in her statements, but she did say that lower attendance had been a factor.  Three NWHL teams changed their home rinks after year one which may have in part contributed to this.

I am actually working on a longer article about this so I don’t want to get too in-depth, but it’s been known since its inception that the NWHL was getting startup funds from private investors.  Translating that into sustainable income has seemed to be a problem, which is why the players are calling for an independent financial review, something that I think is a more than reasonable request.  I think that when you start talking about falling short of projections, it also becomes a question of how well expenses were planned for ahead of time relative to those projections.  

You also have to start to wonder where those projections were coming from; for example, how conservative were they when planning for Year Two with regards to growth, especially considering rink changes and an expanded schedule?  Ice time is expensive and fan retention with regard to ticket sales seemed an obvious hurdle with three teams moving to new facilities.  I don’t think this should have been such a bombshell.  It’s halfway through the season.  The logistics need to be closely looked at if this was a surprise.  And a vague answer about “projections” leaves a lot to the imagination.

In addition, we know that the league has had issues with some of its investors, namely Michael Moran and George Spiers (I can provide  source links if you need).  If the league’s Year Two revenue model included a significant amount of private investing as opposed to incoming revenue from ticket sales, merchandise, and sponsorship agreements, that’s a huge concern.

Hannah: This is a question that Dani was asked during the conference call that was held the day the news broke that the players salaries would be cut. Here are some of her responses: 

“We fell short on some projections and we had to pivot and make a business decision at the end of the day. The decision was we want to exist and we want to save the season and we have to make the appropriate decision to do so. As we said at the beginning of the call, we truly believe the world of women’s hockey is a better place with the NWHL in it and we want to continue to be here for years to come.”

and

“We fell short on some projections and had to pivot accordingly. It was a typical business decision, and I use the word typical lightly.”

So the short answer is we don’t really know. Attendance is one thing, but if you look at how much attendance and team revenue factors into the CWHL’s 2015-16 business model (really the only thing we have for comparison, and granted, they ARE different business models). Event revenue makes up 9.4% of the CW’s total income, so even if attendance was a huge factor for the NW, I don’t think we can say it was the only one.

Either way, Rylan’s not commenting on what projections specifically they fell short on. But this is her response on whether the league saw this coming or if it happened suddenly: 

“It didn’t happen rather quickly, but the decision was made with the present and the future in mind. It was not something that I expected a couple of months ago.”

Which likely means that between the time when the season started and now, SOMETHING changed.

Is there some responsibility on the individual teams here? Did they not market themselves in their markets well enough or provide enough? Out here in Chicago we really have no feel.

Zoe: Well, the thing about the NWHL is that there really isn’t franchising the way that you have it in the NHL.  The league really bears the brunt of responsibility for marketing all of the teams.  There are no owners; I think they have PR and operations people assigned to each team but the NWHL is the banner under which all of the teams operate and the staff is dedicated to promoting all four franchises as unique and important.  And unlike the NHL, too, the survival of the whole depends heavily on the parts; there isn’t going to be a major investor swooping in looking for a new hobby like we see when an NHL franchise is faltering.

I think each team and its players makes a major effort to do outreach in the local communities, especially to young fans and local youth hockey players.  They also have other jobs.  Women’s hockey players have pretty much always had to be something other than hockey players; that kind of presents a paradox to marketing a team because you’re really selling the players as people and as “role models.”  You’re also selling a very different kind of experience than major men’s professional sports sell; it’s really community-based and it really focuses on the quality of the sport itself.  It gets very literal and very meta.  You have to have full confidence in the game itself.  The on-ice product has to be good (which it is, in my opinion) but the culture has to be good as well.  I think this salary thing with the league presents a huge problem to the individual culture of each franchise on the ground because they need the league and the league needs them.

The NWHL is pushing hard to sell more tickets; they’ve upped their social media presence and email blasts in the last few weeks, though I’m not sure what, if anything, they’ve done to get new sets of eyes on their product.  I think their current strategy indicates that they think they can sell more tickets and get more people out to games who are already on board with their game.  I’m not sure about that; a lot of their hardcore fans aren’t local to where the teams play because they’re already invested in women’s hockey from a college or international perspective and they’re following their favorite players.  Which is another problem; streaming is free, so faraway fans are a less reliable revenue source.

I think it becomes complicated because women’s hockey needs to follow an established business model but sports business models were not designed for a game like women’s hockey.  There are so many diehards, the product is great, and the players are amazing, but it simply doesn’t monetize the same way as the NHL does.  I almost think that you have to market it like a niche product, a cult classic, maybe?  You have to combine those types of marketing with what you typically see from a minor sports league.  I think women’s hockey’s main asset is its intimacy/authenticity, which ironically has been hard to nail down from a branding perspective.  I think if you approach it differently, you’ll attract more people to it–maybe people who haven’t even watched sports before because they are sick of capitalism or sick of masculinity or because sports have negative associations in their pasts.

So: ultimately it’s the league’s responsibility to deal with this, not individual teams, and I think fixing their revenue problem involves deep attention to transparency and authenticity and carrying that over to branding, as well as finding ways to attract new fans (locally and otherwise) and get revenue from people who aren’t local.

Hannah: If you’re still talking about attendance…maybe. But Dani mentioned that most of the workers in the league office (and that includes most of those who work at a team level, too) are volunteers. So every team doesn’t have a full-time marketing person who can focus entirely on tickets or the promotional side of things. 

There were a lot of promotions last year- the Beauts did a teddy bear toss, there are usually partnerships with local businesses for puck drop or certain games, but they’re not very well marketed. The NW relies a lot on social media for its marketing. As someone who doesn’t live in an NW market, I can’t really speak for how their on-the-ground marketing strategies work. 

Also, we’re not really sure how sponsorship work on an individual team-by-team basis. I think that’s something where potential sponsors would affiliate themselves with the league, not a specific team.

When the problems of the NWHL are usually discussed, it seems the default answer for a lot is to just say, “They need to just merge with the CWHL.” Obviously, that’s making it far more elementary than that process would be. But asking for two women’s leagues to survive in a culture where even the WNBA loses  a ton of money is a reach, to be sure. What’s the path here?

Zoe: I think people who throw out the league merger idea as an “easy solution” are simply unaware of the tensions that led to the en masse exit of American players from the CWHL to the NWHL.  The Boston Blades were the only American team in the CWHL and they briefly went on strike in 2014 because they felt that their needs were not being met and they did not want to sign multi-year commitments to the CWHL.  The CWHL was doing a poor job of marketing a star-studded team featuring many Olympians that would eventually go on to be a dominant championship squad.  The American players felt slighted and isolated, especially financially, since there weren’t a lot of American dollars coming into the CWHL.  There was not a great deal of integration there—the league’s sponsors were pretty much all Canadian and the league wasn’t doing a lot to generate interest or press in an American city.  Even with the best team in the league, perhaps in the world at the time.

I’m not necessarily saying the NWHL is a better league for players (the current salary issues speak for themselves), but there was a really massive void in American women’s hockey development that could only be filled by an American league.  The CWHL provides a de facto system for Hockey Canada to play their best players in and keep them fresh between Olympics and World Championships and it’s very difficult for American players to get the same post-collegiate experience because they can’t just move to Canada; they have to work and support themselves since hockey doesn’t provide a living wage.  The Blades were a one-stop shop and they were absolutely stacked to the point that it was a little bit absurd; and there were plenty of great players one or two years away from graduation in the NCAA who were going to struggle to crack that lineup.  Plus plenty of great players who had ended their college careers years ago thinking they’d never play the sport at a high level again because they weren’t part of USA Hockey’s system.  

I do not know if the NWHL’s launch was intended to address that, but it came at a really crucial time for the American development of the sport, and I think that the two countries are two very different markets that require different strategies and financial decision-making.  The CWHL has done an amazing job in Canada, and a lot of their marketing and appeal has to do with the fact that love of hockey is a matter of national and cultural identity.  Their grassroots strategy is at a distinct advantage in that regard.

I definitely want the leagues to cooperate and be on friendly terms, but clearly that is not always the case.  There is some bad blood that goes back decades between American and Canadian women’s hockey; as in, it precedes either of these professional leagues.  There are also complications that arise from trying to run an international league, as we know, such as visa issues, increased travel costs, etc.  It would also complicate finances and insurance coverage, I imagine.

I think it makes logistical sense for there to be two smaller leagues in the USA and Canada for awhile.  Ideally we would like to see one league, if only so the game schedules aren’t competing with each other.  I do think an American league presence is important to the sport’s continuing success and development Stateside, though.  I think something that gets lost in these conversations is the bigger picture of women’s hockey (i.e. not just professional, but collegiate and international).  In all of these settings, the needs of American and Canadian players are different.  There isn’t a massive amount of money hanging around to make those problems less complicated.

Hannah: You definitely hit pretty much every main point with expansion. People tend to think the common denominator is “women’s hockey,” so why wouldn’t they merge? But factors like location and target audience, in addition to sponsorship deals, are why a merger might be more trouble than it’s worth.

It looks appealing now, when the NWHL is in financial trouble, for the solution to be “oh, well the the CWHL could help them out!” But someone made a good point (and I can’t remember who, and it’s going to drive me nuts) that the CWHL has been focused on raising the funds to 1) be a sustainable league and 2) pay players on its five teams for 10 years now. If you merge, and now suddenly the CWHL and NWHL are one league with seven or eight teams…that throws your financial plan out of whack, and now you’re back at square one, where the combined league can’t be financially viable to pay anyone. 

Zoe’s right, that the NWHL really opened people’s eyes to the fact that there’s still so much American talent in the US hockey pipeline that usually has to hang up their skates or go abroad after college. Both leagues are based on location, and with just the CWHL, we usually saw the best players in Canada and the US national team/Boston based Americans, and that was about it.

Financially, it would be nice if a league like the NHL or a large sponsor was able to fund both leagues, but it’s not going to happen. They’re terrific pipelines for the national team players and for those players who want to keep playing post-college. But this isn’t the WNBA, which was partnered with the NBA from the get-go. The NHL as a league has said it won’t support either league- it only wants one, which is why I think we hear a lot about merging, because then the NHL can swoop in (but tbh, they’re not going to benefit from it, so that’s a stretch even if there was one league). For now, two regional leagues is ok. The path for now would be to make both  of them financially viable. The CW is there, but it took 10 years. If the NW can figure out their finances, maybe the two leagues can coexist peacefully. The two different markets in the US and Canada love their leagues, even if it is a niche sport. Maybe the first step is a one-game championship between the Isobel Cup winner and the Clarkson Cup winner. 

You beat me to it, as I was wondering if some sort of Summit Series between the two champions, be it three-game or five or seven, wouldn’t help drum up some interest. it would also play off the Canada-USA rivalry which still drives the women’s game at the highest level, no?

Zoe: I think that would be incredible.  The Les Canadiennes/Boston Pride game last New Year’s was another great idea which really didn’t turn out the way anyone ideally would have wanted, I don’t think.  Which was a combination of the NHL failing to promote it despite the enormous stage and potential and the horrific injury to Denna Laing.

I think that maybe people considered that outdoor game to be a dry run for both NHL support and league collaboration and I think the NHL did a lackluster job (though of course, no one involved from either league would ever say that, and the players loved the opportunity and the experience).  I’m not sure how long it might take for the NHL to try again, but I think an indoor game, televised on Sportsnet and NHLN, at an NHL arena would be a good place to do this.  Sometime after the Stanley Cup, or in a break between two NHL playoff series, would be ideal.  The CWHL has already done games at Scotiabank Place, Bell Centre, and Air Canada Centre, so they have the connections to make that work.  The Clarkson Cup at Scotiabank this year was a quality production, and it was very well-attended (Hannah and I were both there; there were long lines at Tim Hortons!).

Hannah: I personally would love a winner-take all series, but it would probably have to be a 1-game series, or a best of three that were three days in a row (logistics, jobs, money, etc). Barring a small miracle, it would be Boston (Team USA) against Calgary (Team Canada) or Montreal (Poulin & Co), which would definitely open itself up to some good storylines.

We’ll have Part II this afternoon.

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