Business people, a group of which your trusty correspondent is most definitely not a part, go by a general rule that nine of every 10 start-ups fail. So if you apply that axiom to the National Women’s Hockey League, it has always had a far greater chance of failure than success. Whether the upstart league continues beyond this season, or even makes it through this season, is anybody’s guess, but the news coming out of the league today was not encouraging.
NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan confirmed on a conference call Friday afternoon that the players have been informed that they will be taking a pay cut effective immediately. Rylan would not discuss the extent of the cuts, but it’s believed to be 50 percent across the board. Each of the four teams in the league has a salary cap of $270,000 with a base salary of $10,000 per player. THN’s Matt Larkin reported last season that the highest-paid player in the league was Kelli Stack of the Connecticut Whale, at $25,000 a season.
On the call, Rylan expressed optimism for the future of the league and said the cuts were made to ensure its long-term viability. But when asked about the league’s future prospects, she was not about to create any false hope. “It would be foolish of me to guarantee anything,” Rylan said.
In light of recent developments, yes it would. Almost as foolish as starting a league and promising to pay players without having the requisite capital to make it happen, some would argue. But credit Rylan and the NWHL for giving it their best. If this concept is indeed doomed to fail, it was a noble one. In a perfect world, the best women hockey players in the world would be paid and have the freedom to devote all their time to improving as players and competing.
But the money is just not there in the women’s game. There’s a good chance it never will be. And that’s nobody’s fault. After all, you can’t force people to watch or make a financial or emotional investment in a product if that’s not what they want to do. If it were about being fair, as many people would watch the Paralympics as the Olympics. Rylan is right that the hockey world is a better place with the NWHL in it, but not if players are going to be told mid-season that their paychecks have been cut in half.
So why do men make untold millions of dollars playing the game, while women make so little? Consider that the $25,000, what Stack was making represents 4.3 percent of what the lowest-paid player in the NHL makes and that has just been cut in half. What it comes down to, though, is that NHL players create wealth and women players do not. So they have to rely on the goodwill of others to support their efforts. Dunkin’ Donuts, the league’s only sponsor, kicked in another $50,000 when it learned of the league’s hardships. And Canadian businessman Joel Leonoff, whose daughter Jaimie played in the league last season for the league minimum and is out for all of this year with a torn labrum, has been the league’s only other known backer, but has apparently grown weary of cutting checks to cover losses.
Where does this leave the women’s game? In something of a mess, quite frankly. With the five-team Canadian Hockey League also in business – albeit having its players play for free – both leagues are lesser and more diluted of talent. It would seem a merge of the two leagues is in order for the good of the game. Rylan said that while she has had communications with the CWHL, there are no plans to combine the leagues. And why would the CWHL do that anyway? It made the business decision a long time ago that paying players was not feasible and that philosophy is at cross purposes with the NWHL’s philosophy.
What some people involved in the women’s game have predicted will happen is that the NWHL will be forced to fold, with the CWHL picking up the Buffalo Beauts and combining the CWHL’s Boston Blades and the NWHL’s Boston Pride into one team and closing up both the NWHL’s Connecticut Whale and New York Riveters. And, most importantly, none of the players would be paid.
Is that fair to women who work every bit as hard as men to be the best players they can be? No, not really. But it appears that sponsors and the paying public have spoken. And they’ve spoken loudly. And if it’s ultimately not going to work, perhaps its best that it happens sooner or later so women’s hockey can concentrate on growing the international game. The Women’s World Championship and Olympics are where the women’s game gets the most attention, but that will wane too if the two competitors in the gold medal game basically continue to be pre-determined before the competition even begins. Perhaps it's time women's hockey stops being something that it's not and concentrate more on what it is - a league where the players will not be paid, but continue to be provided with an outlet for the highest level of competition outside of the World Championship and Olympics.