Six questions surrounding NWHL after salary cut announcement

It has been a rough 24 hours for women’s professional hockey.

Late Thursday night, David Pagnotta of The Fourth Period broke the news that the National Women’s Hockey League – the first paid professional women’s league – would be cutting players salaries in half.

NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan held a conference call with reporters on Friday to discuss the announcement. We wrote a quick recap of what was covered; however, there is so much more to unpack.

Here are six questions surrounding the NWHL as we try to make sense of what happened.

1. How did this catch everyone off-guard a month and a half into the new season?

According to Rylan the league ‘fell short on some projections’ and ‘had to pivot and make a business decision.’ The decision appeared to come down to folding the league entirely or cut the salaries of the players in order to stay viable; the NWHL chose the latter.

General managers were informed first of the change, followed by player representatives from each team, and finally the group as a whole.

One of the most surprising things to come out of the call was finding out that the NWHL Players Association (NWHLPA) was not consulted at all during the process. Erika Lawler served as NWHLPA head in the league’s inaugural season. Lawler confirmed to Puck Daddy she is no longer serving in the role this year due to time constraints.

Keep in mind, the NWHLPA is nothing like the NHLPA.

The NHLPA has money, lawyers and a seat at the table with the league when it comes to collectively bargaining for their players. The NWHLPA is that in name only. There is no collective bargaining agreement in the NWHL to govern decisions such as this. That’s how the league was able to implement the salary cut without informing the players of their intent or need to make drastic changes.

According to Rylan, players will be given addendum to their current contracts detailing the change in salary. It’s up to the player to decide if she wants to sign it or not. It was not clear at the time what would happen should the player not sign the agreement.

2. Why does this feel oddly familiar?

Jump in the Delorean back to the beginning of the 2014-15 CWHL season.

The Boston Blades were forced to forfeit two games because they would not sign an addendum to their current contract with the CWHL. The addendum increased the player’s contract length and limited the player’s ability to get out of her CWHL agreement despite not being paid a salary for her play.

Other disagreements with the CWHL and the emergence of the NWHL provided a catalyst for players – most notably, those on the US women’s national team – to jump ship from one league to another. It turned into a tense tug-o-war between the two leagues over the rights to the players.

History has a strange way of repeating itself.

One has to wonder if the NWHL’s actions this season and the CWHL’s plan to start paying players will result in another post-season migration.

3. Did anyone else in the league office, coaches, and/or general managers take a paycut aside from the players?

Short answer, no, and if we’re honest, it’s one of the more frustrating aspects of this decision.

“We run an incredibly lean team,” said Rylan. “The player salaries are a significant part of our operating expenses as you can tell by the salary cap times four. It’s the biggest expense that we have.

“Outside of that we have asked our general managers and team staff to double down on their duties to make sure that we can hit our revenue goals; to ensure that attendance is driving…that it might be an opportunity to have the players see a benefit at the end of the season if we reach those goals.”

Three out of four teams have coaches that serve as general managers. In an interview with Puck Daddy in June, Rylan explained the decision for dual roles and expanded personal responsibility for each team:

“There will be a shift of responsibility from the league to team management,” said Rylan. “This will allow us time to think long term and work on the bigger picture at headquarters, and implement league wide initiatives to evolve as fast as the game.

“One of the biggest public misconceptions was that our GM’s and their job responsibilities mirrored their NHL counterparts. Personally, I think each was essentially a CEO of their respective team last season. Going forward, we’d like to see each team acting as a fairly independent operation under the league’s umbrella. This is the first step of establishing up a successful franchise, with individual team ownership in mind in the near future.”

Someone didn’t live up to their end of the bargain, specifically in regards to driving attendance for their team.

The NWHL has seen lower attendance figures this year. Rylan was asked if that played into her decision, “That’s part of it. Having the opportunity to make this decision right now will allow us to transition our focus to attendance, to generating that ticket revenue. Yes, making a decision now has provided that runway for us to maximize on ticket sales.”

(Just spitballing here: wouldn’t it make more sense to cut the salaries of the GMs, and even Rylan’s, before the players and tie recouping that money to revenue generated by the team and the league?)

4. Why don’t the NWHL and CWHL just merge?

It seems like a simple solution, but it’s really not. Rylan said as much, “We do have different [business] models, and obviously a midseason merger is not something we would discuss. I am in communication with the CWHL on a very amicable basis, and there is no new news there.”

The CWHL has been around for 10 years without paying players a salary. They survived a mass exodus of mostly American players when the NWHL started. Slowly but steadily, the CWHL has grown their operation to a point where they on stable footing to start paying players in the 2017-18 season.

This is all under the assumption the CWHL would have five teams as they do now.

To merge with the NWHL completely throws off the CWHL’s financial plan. They’d be adding three teams (assuming one of the Boston teams fold), all in the United States, and if the expectation is to pay players next season, that’s way more salaries they have to pay out.

The CWHL has said for years they have a strategic plan that’s been laid out years in advance. This wasn’t something they could have predicted. Can they plan for it down the line? Yes, but not this season and likely not next season as well.

5. Why doesn’t the NHL help out?

Continuing with the theme of business sense, it doesn’t make business sense for the NHL to get involved.

Morally, yes, it would go a long way for the NHL to make a commitment like the NBA to did to start the WNBA; it’s a subject we covered at length when the NWHL started. Being realistic though, it’s not how the NHL operates.

If we’ve learned anything from all the lockouts under Gary Bettman’s watch it’s that the NHL is here to maximize the money it makes for the owners. Some of the Canadian NHL teams have made individual contributions to their sister CWHL club, but that comes at the team’s discretion.

The NHL would be playing with house money if they paid into the women’s league(s), leading to less revenue sharing among the teams. Considering there is an expansion franchise coming into the mix next year, it’s a non-starter.

Also, the NHL has made it clear they don’t want to play favorites among the women’s leagues. Their hope is that the two sides can work together on their own.

6. Now what?

We wait.

The first step will be seeing who does and doesn’t sign the contract addendum.

‘Out of respect for the players and the league process’ Rylan would not confirm if the salaries were being reduced by 50 percent as initially reported by Pagnotta. Salary cuts are even across the board regardless of how much or how little a player makes currently.

As has become the procedure, we look to the USWNT players as a barometer to how confident (or frustrated) they are in the league’s viability and suitability to meet their needs. More often than not, it is those players who bring new fans to the game and drive those attendance figures the league is primarily focused on.

Another area to watch is sponsorship.

Dunkin’ Donuts has pitched in an extra $50,000 contribution to go directly to the players. The league signed a deal with the streaming service Cheddar earlier in the week. Outside of those two entities, we’re not entirely sure who is sponsoring the league in an official capacity. We reached out to the NWHL for a list of sponsors and are waiting on a response.

It remains to be seen if the announcement by the league scares away potential sponsors and investors, or drives them to invest as a way to further women’s sports, especially in such a divisive time in the United States.