NWHL threatened by alleged investor through leaked document

Here we go again. Someone outside the NWHL is providing a glimpse into the business practices and operations of the league by way of ‘leaked’ documents and information from anonymous sources.

Back in March, the league was exposed through released internal documents as having not paid a bill to Bauer. The NWHL quickly had to go into damage control mode to explain what happened and how the issue was cleared up.

In February, then league COO George Speirs was dismissed for allegedly “spreading internal and external rumors in an attempt to discredit his bosses.”

In January, a report emerged Commissioner Dani Rylan held a secret meeting with Connecticut Whale players regarding their coach. This led to the resignation of the general manager, and later the coach resigned as well. 

All of this is starting to feel like an episode of Gossip Girl.

The individual(s) behind the leaks are capitalizing on the opportunity to create a quick news story by providing compelling documents that show the NWHL in a bad light. There is a story there, and none of the blame should be put on the writers for reporting what was given to them.

However the person or persons releasing the information is banking on is the lack of critical analysis of what was brought forth. They expect for the reporter to ask for league comment – of which they will or won’t provide depending on the subject – and leave the story to fester until the next one comes up.

On Thursday night, the cycle started again when Meg Linehan of Excelle Sports released a scathing expose on the NWHL. Linehan, unlike many other bloggers who have rushed to post the documents provided to them through sources, did an extensive amount of legwork to vet her story other than just ask for comment.

The piece included quotes from an anonymous player who, to put it kindly, felt Commissioner Dani Rylan was incapable of doing her job ethically. The player could not provide any examples to what exactly Rylan had done that was so egregious aside from vague “misappropriated league funds, and threatened and lied to players.” The question of “how” was not answered.

The main focus of the article is on Mike Moran, who is described by Linehan as, “… a founding investor of the National Women’s Hockey League” and later as, “… directly involved in marketing the league … He also was directly involved in marketing the league, having sent emails to photographers asking about photo rights after the first game was played. His name was also listed as ‘Chief Marketing Officer’ in an email from Dani Rylan to U.S. National Team players …”

To Kate Cimini of Today’s Slapshot, the league refuted his involvement saying, “Mike Moran was a volunteer in the early stages of the NWHL’s existence and at no point was a formal investor.”

Linehan posted a letter from Moran’s attorney provided to her by a source:

A couple thoughts on this letter and other information included in the article:

• We attempted to make contact with Moran through his attorney, and have not received a response. One point of clarification we asked for was what exactly did Moran expect his money to be used for. Is it an actual loan with interest and a repayment schedule? Was he acting as a vendor or a consultant expecting payment for goods and services? Or was this a donation?

• The attorney notes Moran contributed money directly to the NWHL Foundation – a tax exempt branch of the league. If he made a sizable donation to the Foundation, he is then granted a sizable tax credit. Additionally, the attorney points out the money was contributed to start the league. In the IRS’s eyes, donations are made without expectation of goods or services in return. We don’t know if he claimed this deduction on his taxes; however, if he did, a lawsuit or collection of payment is going to cause tax implications.

• If Moran was truly an investor, expecting a return on a first year startup is laughable. It took 15 years for the WNBA to turn a profit and that was with the NBA’s backing. 

• Per Linehan, Moran states, “The last time I spoke to Dani was October. She called me on March 15, which I did not answer.” He didn’t reveal if he ever called her back. The letter from his attorney is dated March 24. If he were in a desperate state to get his money, wouldn’t he have at least returned the phone call?

• The attorney threatens legal action. In each of the “anonymous” source document releases, legal action is being threatened, but never followed through on. Court documents in civil cases such as these are of public record and can be accessed by any person. We’ve looked. At the time of publication, there is nothing filed against the NWHL, the NWHL Foundation, or Dani Rylan.

• The most telling piece of this entire letter is this: “We trust you are aware that cases such as this filed in the federal court are regularly reviewed by the media. Our hope in making this settlement compromise to avoid negative publicity that could jeopardize the future of the league and chill interest from other investors.” Where have we heard that kind of rhetoric before? Oh right, on every dramatic television show and movie ever.

• Finally, this “leaked” letter didn’t come from the NWHL. Why would they? It’s highly unlikely they enjoy the extensive negative coverage they’ve received. Linehan identifies the sender only as “a source.” What is coincidental is that Linehan, herself independent photographer with the NWHL, mentions Moran reaching out to photogs directly in the first week of the league. The attorney could not leak this letter without his client’s consent to do so, otherwise violating attorney-client privilege. Draw whatever conclusions you want there.

We offered the NWHL the opportunity to comment on the letter, and received the following:

“We are continuing to focus our energy on what we can control, and we can’t control outside threats. There’s an unbelievably bright future for the NWHL. Fear based tactics have no place in the women’s sports industry and will not stop our exponential growth.”

In our message to Moran’s attorney, we offered his client the opportunity to speak on the record regarding his allegations against the league. Also, we asked for some sort of proof that the league was in violation of any business or contractual agreements alleged in the letter. Again, we have not received a response.

The thing is, no one is going to. No one is going to come to a platform like this and lay out their role in the dirty laundry they want to pile up on the NWHL. Why would they? If they were to ever actually go to court, this would lock them into a story. Just as Moran’s attorney implied, the media is aware of what happens and could form a negative opinion.

The NWHL is not an angel in all of this, though.

While the methods of those attempting to point the finger are suspicious, we have to admit it has a ‘where there’s smoke, there’s fire’ feeling.

We know Joel Leonoff is an investor. Former COO George Speirs claimed to be an investor. Now Moran is alleging to be an investor of sorts. 

At first we understood the league’s decision not to showcase their funding structure because of their status as a private company in their first year. However, the more questions we have to answer from these leaked documents is causing us to ask where the money is coming from, and is that funding sustainable? Sponsorship dollars carry a league only so far.

What the NWHL has to flush out is how they handle big money donors. Of what we can glean from the sundry of articles linked above, those that have given large donations (or investments) are then allowed positions of leadership within the league. That is troubling; especially when the two parties do not end on amicable terms. 

Jon Stewart said it best on his final Daily Show and it feels applicable here, “If you smell something, say something.” Keep that in mind the next time – and there will be a next time – more documents are leaked.

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