PWHPA ENDS MERGER NEGOTIATIONS WITH PHF – WHAT’S NEXT FOR WOMEN’S PRO HOCKEY?

The popularity and skill level of women’s hockey have undeniably been on the rise in recent years. Specifically, the most recent Olympic gold medal matchup between the U.S. and Canada has cast a major spotlight on the sport. The 2022 women’s gold medal game in Beijing averaged 3.54 million viewers in the U.S., making it the second-most watched hockey telecast in America since the beginning of the 2019-20 NHL season (trailing only Game 5 of the 2021 Stanley Cup). These viewership figures are especially impressive considering that puck drop was 11:15 EST.[1]

The Olympics provide best-on-best competition every four years, and showcase the entirety of the sport’s elite talents, not simply the North American ones. The challenge that remains, however, is in establishing a singular, unified professional league that not only attracts the world’s best players, but treats and compensates them as such. In addition to the obvious desire for increased salaries, players are desperately seeking health insurance and similar benefits. They also demand improvements in facilities, resources, the general infrastructure, and overall professionalism with regards to league operation.

For the time being, the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) has elected to operate independently of the only current professional women’s hockey league in North America, the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF).

Background and Context

The PWHPA was established in 2019. The Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) had just dissolved, and players in the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) were dissatisfied with how their league was being operated.

The NWHL, which has since rebranded as the Premier Hockey Federation, was the first professional women’s league to pay its players, offering a minimum salary of $10,000 per player and a team salary cap of $270,000. Players also earned 15% of profits from their personal jersey sales.[2] Then-Commissioner Dani Rylan did not reveal the identities of the league’s initial investors or how much money they had invested. During the 2016-17 season, NWHL players were informed that they would be receiving a 50% pay cut, decreasing the minimum player salary to $5,000.[3] Later that season, the league instituted a policy in which players from the home team split all ticket revenue realized beyond the first 500 tickets sold.[4] Teams were initially owned and operated by the league, but private ownership has since become a point of emphasis.

In 2019, the NWHL announced the agreement to a 50% split with the players of all revenue generated through sponsorship and media deals. This was accompanied by the news that the league was unable to secure additional investors, and that salary increases or providing medical insurance would not be feasible. Despite its best efforts, the NWHL could not provide what the players sought and deserved – a living wage and health coverage. In steps the PWHPA.

First, on May 2, 2019, more than 200 players, including the sport’s brightest stars (Hilary Knight, Kendall Coyne-Schofield, Marie-Philip Poulin, etc.) released a joint statement saying, in part, “we will not play in ANY professional leagues in North America this season until we get the resources that professional hockey demands and deserves.” Shortly thereafter, on May 20, the players officially formed the PWHPA.

The first pillar of the PWHPA’s mission statement reads: “to promote, advance, and support a single, viable professional women’s ice hockey league in North America that showcases the greatest product of women’s professional ice hockey in the world.”[5] One major obstacle to the creation and sustainability of such a league is obviously the lack of outside support, namely on the NHL’s part. The NHL has the power, influence, and most importantly, financial foundation to spur considerable support for a professional women’s hockey league among fans and sponsors/investors alike. However, the NHL has remained steadfast that “building, owning, or operating a professional women’s league under the league’s umbrella isn’t part of their business plan.” The PWHPA recognizes 10 NHL teams as partners, but many teams have been reluctant to partner with women’s leagues or teams “without the blessing of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.”[6]

Providing financial assistance is still very much an option, but the NHL has made it known that it will not offer a significant monetary investment unless the PWHPA and PHF (formerly NWHL) join forces. Last month, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly discussed the matter, saying “we’re very supportive of the women’s game, we’re very supportive of it being played at an elite level, the highest level. But we also understand that to some extent that women’s hockey at its elite level is somewhat fractured, continues to be somewhat fractured and that’s a situation that I’m sure will remedy itself with time. But our position is let it remedy itself and then we can evaluate what that means and how we move forward.”[7]

Nevertheless, the NHL reportedly asked the PWHPA and the PHF to meet, with the goal of unifying the two leagues. The NHL was likely encouraged by the recent growth that each league had shown. In January, the PHF announced a $25 million commitment by its board of governors, $7.5 million of which will be directed towards the upcoming 2022-23 season. Notably, the PHF’s salary cap will increase by 150 percent – from $300,000 to $750,000. Perhaps most significantly, players will receive full healthcare benefits. The PHF will supposedly add two more teams, bringing the total to eight (a team in Montreal has been announced, but the second expansion location has not). The players will also receive 10 percent equity in their teams.[8]  

Similarly, the PWHPA had just recently proposed a league of its own. In the three years since its formation, the PWHPA has attracted a number of high-profile corporate and media broadcasting partnerships. This has allowed the organization to conduct the “Dream Gap Tour,” in which PWHPA member players practice and compete in tour-style weekend events in five hub cities across North America (think: Premier Lacrosse League).[9] Of course, the driving motivation of the PWHPA is to create a full-fledged pro league, not just these tour-style events. The PWHPA has been very clear that their goal is to generate a new league with a “sustainable economic model,” one that the organization would prefer to be backed by the NHL.

In accordance with the NHL’s wishes, the PHF and PWHPA sat down at the negotiating table in hopes of reaching an agreement.

Negotiations, Or Lack Thereof

The PHF and PWHPA have the same overarching goals – to grow the game of women’s hockey, and to create a professional league that will stand the test of time, while offering top-notch resources and compensation to its players. Where the two organizations diverge, however, is in their means of executing and achieving these goals. 

For example, one major point of contention is the presence of a salary cap floor and/or minimum salaries. Although the PHF made significant moves to increase their salary cap and offer additional benefits to players, there has been no minimum salary or salary cap floor established, yet. In fact, under the latest initiative, “there will be no limits placed on a player’s salary as long as the team’s overall payroll remains under the cap” according to ESPN.[10] A cap floor and/or a minimum salary limit have been key sticking points for the PWHPA, all along.

Ownership and the sources of funding in the PHF are additional concerns for the PWHPA. John Boynton is a team owner in the PHF. BTM Partners, the group that Boynton is a part of, owns both the Boston Pride and the Metropolitan Riveters (and formerly the Toronto Six, before a recent sale to an all-BIPOC ownership group including Hockey Hall of Famer Angela James and ex-NHL player Anthony Stewart). Ownership of multiple teams certainly raises a conflict of interests concern.

The even more alarming issue is that Boynton is also the chairman and a founding shareholder of Yandex – “a Russian technology company that was recently described by Wired as ‘Russia’s Google, Uber, Spotify, and Amazon combined.”’[11] Amidst the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the NHL has ended its relationship with Yandex, and all Russian business partners. This is especially noteworthy considering that the NHL and Yandex had just recently agreed to a multi-year extension.

Naturally, the PWHPA is hesitant to associate themselves with a group, and its figurehead, that the NHL itself has terminated its relationship with. Moreover, the PWHPA worries that affiliation with Yandex may drive away “blue-chip firms” whose sponsorships will be critical to the successful funding of the PWHPA’s idealized league.

More generally, the PWHPA has a vision for a league that attracts the world’s top talents. Both North American and European pro leagues have struggled to lure all the world’s top players to one location. Understandably, North Americans prefer to play in North America, and Europeans prefer to play in Europe, for the most part. The PWHPA is adamant about establishing a league that accomplishes this goal of talent centralization. A source close to the situation that I spoke with remarked that the Premier Hockey Federation, on the other hand, “has never been perceived as the premier league.” If this perception is one held by members of the PWHPA, as a whole, this is likely another deterrent in any merger negotiations.

The PWHPA has also prioritized “resources, infrastructure, and pay that allows players to truly be professional athletes year-round, versus requiring athletes to work extra job to make a living and practice late at night to accommodate players’ 9-5 jobs.” Although Riveters GM Anya Packer stated that some of her players did not have to work another job in order to supplement their hockey-related income, the PHF was reportedly unable to meet the “clearly articulated vision and plan” of the league that the PWHPA envisions.

Additional concerns surrounding the state of the PHF and its operations include whether the $25 million commitment made by the board of governors will result in actual investment, and whether the PHF would cease to exist if PWHPA members did not agree to join the league.

These concerns fall under the umbrellas of professionalism and transparency. Though the PHF has undoubtedly made strides in these areas, recent incidents made the PWHPA weary of partnering with the PHF.

This year’s MVP of the PHF’s Isobel Cup final, Taylor Wenczkowski, was rewarded with $1,000 in DICK’S Sporting Goods (not coincidentally, the sponsor of the Isobel Cup) gift cards. She did not receive a cash bonus, and any other possible performance bonuses were not publicized.

Last year, the PHF (then-NWHL) operated in a bubble in Lake Placid due to COVID-19, yet many players still contracted the virus, and Commissioner Ty Tumminia deemed it a “success.” The executive director of the PHF player’s association was fired on January 28 of this year, after being hired on January 3, and has not yet been replaced. Commissioner Tumminia will reportedly also be stepping down from her position at season’s end. All of these uncertainties, and frankly, instances exhibiting a lack of professionalism, led the PWHPA to the decision to end merger talks between the two entities for the time being.

Ultimately, the PWHPA’s board voted unanimously to end any further collaboration negotiations with the PHF. Reports cite funding and “the lack of a convincing business proposal” or a “tangible plan” as the main reasoning for the talks falling through.[12]

Two Leagues – What Does This Mean Going Forward?

The PWHPA is determined to push ahead with a league of their own. According to SportsNet’s Jeff Marek, the new PWHPA league will consist of six teams in both the U.S. and Canada; rosters of 23 skaters per team will play a 32-game schedule in the 2022-23 season. Most notably, the minimum player salary will be $35,000, with an average salary of $55,000 plus benefits. The league will also likely be rebranded and given a new name.

My source close to the situation still wonders where exactly this money will be coming from, and how much coaches will be paid. Another massive issue that they raised was that of a potential new TV deal. They elaborated that women’s hockey does not, to this point, survive off of gate revenue alone. Of course, a critical piece to “growing the game” is accessible exposure, particularly by way of television broadcasts. An official statement on the new league has not even been made yet, so perhaps news of a TV deal will accompany this eventual announcement.

This source also wonders about the four-month (January-April) nature of the schedule. They point out that a 32-game regular season (and practices) makes for a very intense, condensed schedule. For reference, the PHF played a 20-game regular season schedule this year between early November and late March. A minimum of $35,000 is certainly handsome pay for four months of work, but this figure, annually, still teeters on the “edge of self-supporting,” this source says. Furthermore, what will happen to non-Olympians or players who do not compete internationally, and have secondary jobs? Will employers allow them to take four months off from work to compete in this league? Or will the structure of this league allow them to truly train like the elite, professional athletes, that they are, year-round? Such is the case in men’s minor league hockey, the source contends. Those leagues are on stable ground, however. My source fears the very real risk that the women face – the possibility that the league may collapse altogether.

As for the PHF, the future remains uncertain. If the $25 million investment comes to fruition, the league would assuredly have much stronger financial footing than ever before. However, as my source indicated, the league’s initial announcement to expand from six to eight teams has not been followed by much detail. They have doubts as to whether the expansion will happen at all. There are clearly core elements of the way that the PHF operates that do not align with the PWHPA’s vision. Perhaps these will work themselves out in time, but the two sides remain quite far apart at the moment.

My source mentioned that if the PWHPA league is successful in prying PHF players away, the quality of play in the PHF could take a considerable hit. This source notes that this would be advantageous for “bubble” or fringe players competing for a roster spot, but detrimental to the game as a whole. They also discussed the sure-to-be interesting battle for top college prospects between the two leagues.

The source believes that the ultimate answer to growing professional women’s hockey is to eventually come together as one league, or a clear major league/minor league system, although they are skeptical that the necessary infrastructure is in place for such a system. “The pro game needs to attract the best players. It currently does not. It attracts the best players who are also willing to put up with a ton of BS.”

Although they welcome the involvement of players in league decision-making to some degree, my source believes that there “needs to be less player involvement and more emphasis on creating a product that serves the needs of fans and owners.” While creating the league that the members of the PWHPA envision is certainly an admirable goal, there is a stark business reality that must be acknowledged. Professional women’s leagues have struggled, largely in part due to a lack of commitment – both financially (from investors, the NHL, etc.) and in the form of long-term fan engagement.

The PWHPA has maintained the position that they are not necessarily fighting for only one league to exist. As my source noted, the presence of two leagues provides significantly more opportunities and options for players to continue playing. Conversely, one league considerably restricts these opportunities for players coming out of college, or those looking to stay in the game. PWHPA lead consultant Jayna Hefford said, “that is the last thing we are trying to do. We just want one league that actually supports women in a way that they can be full-time hockey players.”

This is the essence of this issue. The talent pool for a best-on-best professional league is well-established, and as strong as ever. The resources, infrastructure, pay, and overall professionalism of women’s hockey leagues, to this point, have simply not met this elite, all-world threshold – one that other professional sports and their athletes rightfully enjoy. The best players in the world do not deserve the burden of taking up second and third jobs to make a reasonable living wage. By the same token, the money required to pay these livable salaries does not grow on trees, and the previous models have been unsuccessful in acquiring the necessary sponsorships, partnerships, and investments.

Riding the momentum of the Olympics, the PWHPA players hold much of the leverage in this situation going forward. The PWHPA is made up of the very best players in the game, and they are committed to creating a league that progresses the sport; they will not settle for what they perceive to be a step backwards solely to solicit the guidance and financial assistance of the NHL. To the NHL’s credit, they did initiate the negotiations. Now, they must hope that the issues at hand will “remedy themselves.” Perhaps the PWHPA’s vision will do just that, but this hands-off approach is precisely how we got here in the first place.


References

[1] https://theathletic.com/3168575/2022/03/09/why-now-is-the-time-for-a-professional-womens-hockey-league-with-nhl-support/

[2] https://todaysslapshot.com/nwhl/nwhl-release-player-finances-raises-questions/

[3] http://www.thefourthperiod.com/columnists/pagnotta/dp161118.html

[4] http://www.excellesports.com/news/nwhl-players-receive-attendance-bonuses/

[5] https://pwhpa.com/

[6] https://theathletic.com/3168575/2022/03/09/why-now-is-the-time-for-a-professional-womens-hockey-league-with-nhl-support/

[7] https://www.sportsnet.ca/hockey/article/nhl-support-womens-league-pwhpa-nwhl-work-together/

[8] https://www.si.com/nhl/2022/03/17/nhl-reportedly-asks-pwhpa-and-phf-to-meet-for-unification-talks-pro-womens-hockey

[9] https://www.sportsnet.ca/article/nhl-asks-pwhpa-and-phf-to-meet-in-pursuit-of-forming-a-unified-womens-league/

[10] https://www.espn.com/nhl/story/_/id/33091153/premier-hockey-federation-increase-salary-cap-add-franchises-boost-women-hockey

[11] https://theathletic.com/3243425/2022/04/11/pwhpa-moves-forward-without-phf/

[12] https://theathletic.com/3243425/2022/04/11/pwhpa-moves-forward-without-phf/

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3L at University at Buffalo School of Law; BSELS Co-Vice President

MBA in Marketing;

In pursuit of a career at the intersection of sports law and sports business, specifically in professional hockey.

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