The inaugural season of the National Women’s Hockey League was touted by the press as a rousing success. It provided an outlet for North America’s talented female hockey players to continue on with the game post-grad and in between Olympic years, and the salaries, although low, made professional athletes of the women who participated. Buoyed by flattering coverage, paid attendance hovered around 1,000 people per game, according to the league—respectable crowds for the small rinks where the four teams play.
Internally, it felt like a culmination of so many shared dreams come true. Commissioner Dani Rylan had aspired to play for the Lightning as a hockey-crazed kid in Tampa but hung up her skates after playing at Northeastern. Now at age 29, she’s the youngest female C-suiter in American professional sports and just as much a fan of the game as her relative peers on the ice. To those involved, it seemed like they were all in it together.
“It’s a family atmosphere, it’s like being part of a family business,” New York Riveters defender Kaleigh Fratkin said last fall. “The commissioner, I could call her up.”
It was enough to make the people in charge feel comfortable, if not cocky. The first season had been 18 games long and that was scheduled to expand to 21 this year. But the second season hasn’t been quite as smooth, and if the league is going to survive, it will have to learn to reconcile its feel-good story with the cost of doing business.
The NWHL doesn’t have a collective bargaining agreement, but they do have a players association, with representatives from each team who convey information from the league office down to their teammates. Although the NWHLPA has little negotiating leverage without a CBA, they did originally have a director, a lawyer who was supposed to speak for the players before any major decisions were made. But within the first few weeks of this season, the NWHLPA director stepped away, and the position was left vacant.
At first, most of the women were unconcerned. The player reps were still having regular phone calls with Rylan that still felt like two-sided conversations, according to Anya Battaglino of the Connecticut Whale. “Maybe it was just blind, unknowing that we needed that representation. Or just kind of rolling with the punches,” she said.
Then, in late November, the NWHL made headlines—which it now seems to do all too infrequently, and for the wrong reasons—for cutting players’ salaries with no notice. Salaries had never been lavish, or even especially livable: Amanda Kessel, probably the league’s biggest star, had been making $26,000, the top end of a range with a $10,000 league minimum. Early reports were that the cuts would be 50 percent across the board, but a single corporate donation softened the blow to a reported 38 percent.
Before the cuts, the salary cap for each team had been $270,000 and Fratkin’s $19,500 salary was about 7.5 percent of that. But the reduced paychecks are part of an overall restructuring of how players are paid. Rather than being salaried, the women are now contract workers who earn a certain amount for each game. Each team has $5,000 per game that is allocated in the same percentages as the old salary cap. Fratkin, then, makes about 7.5 percent of $5,000, or, $375.72 a game before taxes.
There are also a series of bonuses designed to incentivize the women to drum up fan interest in their games. They earn a collective commission on ticket sales over 500 each game, with the money going directly to the players. It helps, but Fratkin says it can feel a little patronizing. Her parents, who also cover her car insurance, buy tickets to all of her games even if they can’t attend, to show support and help her stay afloat financially. Players also make commission on apparel. Fifteen percent of the proceeds from sales of their t-shirts and jerseys is added to their paychecks.
The players were blindsided by the cuts. Chad Wiseman, the Riveters coach and GM, broke the news at one of their regular pre-practice meetings.
“He was teary-eyed. Girls were crying in the locker room,” Fratkin said. One of her teammates quit immediately—she moved back to Iowa and now attends nursing school—and since then several players around the league have left for more stable careers.
Of those who stuck it out, most of the women in the league work day jobs: teachers, athletic directors, marketing managers. It’s a matter of financial necessity, and it’s testament to their commitment to the game. Riveters captain Ashley “Stretch” Johnston commutes 150 miles each way from her job as a robotics engineer for a firm outside Albany to practice and play with the Riveters at the New Jersey Devils’ practice rink in Newark, NJ. The robotics firm pays Johnston $94,000 a year. After the salary cuts, she makes $260 a game from the NWHL.
Of course, the Riveters play just one game a week in addition to two practices compared to the 50 hours a week she puts in at the robotics firm (not to mention the hours commuting between the two). But outside the Olympics, this is the highest level of women’s hockey in the world, and it’s what Johnston wants to be doing. I asked her if she would give up engineering in favor of hockey if the pay was equal.
“I’d quit if the hockey paid $40,000 a year,” she said.
Day jobs aren’t an option for many international players, however. Playing for in Connecticut last year, Fratkin—a Canadian national—had taught private lessons, coached the Boys & Girls Clubs hockey, and worked at the Greenwich Skating Club for extra money. But her P1 visa, specific to professional athletes, only lets her work cash jobs or jobs related to hockey. In the Jersey suburbs where she lives now, it’s been hard to find side gigs worth the gas money.
Anya Battaglino believes there’s a huge difference between a paycheck and a paycheck large enough to live on.
“When we get to that turning point,” Battaglino said, “I think that that will be the difference maker between labeled as a girl that plays sports and a being a professional athlete.”
The money means legitimacy and respect. It’s the tangible proof that the players have value beyond the satisfaction of sustaining a women’s league. It’s also what separates them from the men of the NHL, alongside whom they played as kids, and whom they watched surpass them in fame and fortune.
“There’s players in the [NHL] whose signing bonus covers the entire salary cap for the Connecticut Whale,” Battaglino lamented. “I mean, their signing bonus! Not even their salary. Just what they signed for would cover our salary. And it’s like, ugh, how did genetics miss me on this one? I’ll tell people I played at B.U. and they’ll be like ‘Oh, do you know Charlie Coyle?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, but I played there too!’ Nobody says, ‘Hey Charlie, do you know Anya Battaglino?’”
The salary cuts shocked the players into recognition that they needed representation to negotiate with league management. Without a unified voice or organized leverage, the women were left to their own scattershot devices. Some made public demands for greater transparency of the league’s finances.
Those demands never panned out, because the players had no leverage. Players still don’t know the identity of all the investors, and Rylan wouldn’t specify to Deadspin what exactly the league miscalculated in terms of revenue, just that “it was harder to close deals than we had anticipated and harder to sell tickets.”
In early February, Battaglino was named the director of the NWHLPA.
“I was naturally stepping up to do things and communicate things upwards to Dani and found a good, working relationship there,” Battaglino said of her new role.
The announcement accompanied news of another amateurish overhaul at the league level: The season will be shortened to accommodate the 2017 IIHF Women’s World Championship. The original schedule had a gap of several weeks to allow national team members to play for their countries, but players preferred to wrap the NWHL season entirely before turning their attention internationally. So now, March 10 will be the final regular-season game and the playoffs will go down a week later. Rather than the expanded 21-game season the league had planned for its second year, the Riveters and the Whale will play 18 games while the Boston Pride and the Buffalo Beauts will finish with just 17 games.
Still, and even despite the lost revenue of canceled games, the players were ultimately okay with the decision. Battaglino says that although she wasn’t the PA director yet, the conversation surrounding the schedule change felt markedly different than when salaries were slashed. This was, at the very least, a compromise.
“The way that we structured that call, we brought all the players association reps on and we gave our pros and cons list before the decision was made. It wasn’t a call to tell us the news, it was a call to ask us how we felt.”
There are other reasons to be optimistic. For its second All-Star Weekend, the NWHL went outside their usual markets to Pittsburgh, where they found a supportive NHL team and enthusiastic crowds. Hyped by the Penguins’ marketing outreach and hosted in their practice facility, the All-Star Game sold out the 1,000 seat venue and the skills contest sold 783 tickets. “The attendance was crazy, the atmosphere, the overall experience was really cool,” said Fratkin, a two-time All-Star.
Rylan hopes to translate the success of the All-Star weekend into the league’s third year. They’re planning to play a number of “satellite” games in neutral locations like Pittsburgh and D.C. to play in front of new audiences, and they’re working to establish a firmer connection to the NHL.
Rylan said her ideal relationship between the two leagues “has us looking like a sister program to the NHL organization in our markets. And that means co-producing events, player appearances, social media campaigns, really the whole gamut to drive attention not only to our events, but to the NHL events as well. And really showing their commitment to the women’s program from the grassroots level on up.”
She won’t say yet what the pay structure will look like for the NWHL in its third season, which will be played without the members of the U.S. national team in deference to next winter’s Olympics. And as committed as players like Fratkin are to the idea of a women’s hockey league, those sorts of details are crucial to pushing it past the point of community passion project. Fratkin said hasn’t decided yet if she’ll re-up her visa for next year or if it’s time to move on and get a “real job.”
There are also other women’s leagues. Fratkin played for a year in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, which doesn’t pay but did cover 20 percent of the cost of her master’s degree, and after the NWHL’s salary cuts the Connecticut Whale’s captain, Molly Engstrom, left for a Swedish league that offers various expense reimbursements in lieu of a paycheck.
It’s the Catch-22 of women’s sports: How serious will the game ever get if it can’t retain a 24-year-old two-time All Star? And how can it afford to do so when no one takes it all that seriously?
“What the quality of hockey will be next year, I don’t really know,” Fratkin said. “You might get players that have full-time jobs and hockey is just kind of a secondary thing to them, where they can’t commit to it full time. So they just show up practice twice a week and they show up to games. You might lose some of those players that are here treating hockey like a full-time job where they’re putting in all these extra hours training and skating every single day.
“But in terms of the league surviving, I don’t think that’s going to be an issue at all.”