In their National Women’s Hockey League debut last season, the Minnesota Whitecaps sold out every home game and won the NWHL championship. Though the Whitecaps have been around for 15 years, their success as professionals may be short-lived.
The five-team NWHL, founded in 2015 and run by Dani Rylan, a 32-year-old ex-collegiate player with scant management or organizational experience, has been on shaky financial ground since its inception. Its Canadian counterpart, the CWHL, folded abruptly last spring.
The NWHL’s primary revenue source is investor dollars, followed by ticket sales. Last season, its top earner, the Whitecaps, sold out 10 home games at the 1,200-seat TRIA Rink with tickets priced between $18 and $20, grossing nearly $240,000. The league collects all revenues from the teams and pays all expenses, from game day to travel, along with salaries.
The Whitecaps—a nonprofit whose founder, general manager, and current co-coach, Jack Brodt, has never taken a salary—fill out the roster. Last year, Brodt divvied up $100,000 among the roster’s 25 players, with salaries ranging from $2,000 to $7,000.
Those meager payments have triggered a labor crisis, with the game’s top players from the CWHL and NWHL declaring they will not play until they receive better pay and health benefits. The NWHL has responded by raising the team salary cap to $150,000, agreeing to a 50-50 split on revenue from league-level sponsorship and media deals, and doubling per diems to $20.
That has not satisfied members of the newly formed Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association. It means the Whitecaps will be without their top three players from last season, former Olympians Hannah Brandt, Kendall Coyne Schofield, and Lee Stecklein.
At a team meeting on May 31, the rest of the Whitecaps voted to play in the NWHL’s 2019–20 season, which opens this month, rather than join the PWHPA boycott. “Our fan base, which we built over 15 years, created a profit for the league,” Brodt says. “We’re praying our fans will continue to follow us.”
Several sports economists believe the league needs a backer such as the NHL, similar to the NBA in its support of the WNBA, the gold standard among women’s professional sports leagues. “It may be the best option for a women’s hockey league to get started with the help of the NHL, which can absorb initial losses and keep the weaker links going,” says Joel Maxcy, professor of sport management at Drexel University.
The NHL has pledged $100,000 for the upcoming season. But officials have said as recently as May that the league does not want to subsidize a women’s professional league.