The IX: Hockey Friday with Erica L. Ayala, April 24, 2020
You sure you want the WNBA model? — Interview with Digit Murphy — Must-click WoHo Links
(Hi! Howard Megdal here. The IX helps build the necessary infrastructure for women’s sports media. In this moment, freelance budgets are being cut, reporters are losing their jobs. Women’s sports always bears the brunt of that first.
We’re here for you. And we are so thankful you, our subscribers, have been here for us. Let’s keep growing together! Tell a friend. Forward this offer along. Become a founding member, and supercharge our move toward longer-term goals to expand our coverage. And thank you for making sure that whatever happens next, women’s sports coverage always has a home.)
So you want the WNBA model?
Okay, folks! Here is a mega rant coming your way.
I am growing frustrated with the “WNBA model” being used to make a case for the WNHL to be the one and only path for women’s pro hockey. I get the appeal, but for anyone who knows the WNBA (or women’s basketball history for that matter), this oversimplification of the state of the WNBA is infuriating!
Yes, the late David Stern used his money and influence to start the WNBA. Yes, the NBA has bankrolled the WNBA. But there is a lot that the NBA still refuses to do for the WNBA.
Let’s talk about economics specifically. Sue Bird spoke eloquently about the challenges the WNBA faces, even after 23 years. What I found particularly illuminating is the limitations of existing NBA to prospective WNBA sponsors.
On The Shop, an HBO Series, Bird explained because of the “what’s mine is yours” business approach to the WNBA, the NBA actually negatively impacted WNBA business.
She gives the example of shoe company A signing a deal with the NBA that includes exclusive rights to the WNBA market. Shoe company A is technically funding the WNBA, but has no real incentive to market the WNBA, since their contract is with the NBA. Enter shoe company B, with a full-on WNBA marketing strategy. The WNBPA might really like shoe company B’s vision and want to sign, but the NBA already signed exclusive WNBA rights to shoe company A.
The NBA, in my opinion, perpetuates this notion that the WNBA isn’t making money because it’s not marketing itself well enough. Ha! Well, if the NBA is signing exclusive rights, then who is to blame for the WNBA not bringing in its portion of the bill? The NBA is responsible!
When the NBA leverages its relationships, it helps. When the NBA tosses the WNBA in as a sweetener for its own deals, it hurts. It’s as simple as that.
So, why does this matter?
I would argue that Gary Bettman has less interest and less respect for women’s professional hockey than Stern, who clearly made the WNBA a priority, at the time he got the WNBA going. If the PWHPA is willing to let the NHL do all the work and have total control over things like shoe— make that, skate contracts, I fear that women’s hockey will lose an opportunity to move the sport forward within the context of what is acceptable in 2020 and beyond.
The PWHPA wants a viable business model, but the borderline desperation to have the NHL front the bill is akin to an adult child refusing to get a job and being content, despite their education level or marketable past experience, to have their family foot all their bills.
Have I needed help from my mom or even my younger sisters from time to time? Yes! Hello, I’m a new freelance women’s sports journalist. This was hard before coronavirus. So, I get needing help. The NHL funds the NWHL.
However, I am very skeptical of placing the fate of women’s hockey in the hands of a commissioner that hasn’t proven to be all that invested in women’s hockey. The league is sitting on the trademark to the WNHL and has dating back as far as 1998.
If we argue (as I would) we are now seeing the most successful era of the WNBA, here are some things worth noting:
New CBA has a potential 50-50 revenue split kicking in in 2021 (it was supposed to be contingent on 2020 revenue, so who knows what that means post-COVID)
Seven of the 12 current WNBA teams are independently owned
Six total WNBA teams (all in NBA markets) have folded in 23 seasons
There have been 10 WNBA expansion teams, only 2 of those have folded
Four of the original 8 teams remain (Aces descended from Utah Starzz)
Six WNBA teams made money last season, according to reporting by our Basketball Wednesday writer Howard Megdal
In short, the WNBA began to thrive when owners saw value in the product, independent of the NBA. The NWHL has already begun to tap into the franchise business model. Commissioner Dani Rylan has openly discussed this and I’ve heard from sources that other deals were in the works prior to the #ForTheGame movement.
I get that the NWHL still might not be what the PWHPA players want. I think there are a handful of reasons that is likely the case. I also think the NWHLPA, in particular, has worked to rectify major concerns of seasons past.
That said, this is not the NWHL of 2016-17. And, if the biggest knock on the NWHL is a lack of belief in the business model — the business model that most closely resembles the best WNBA era to-date — I’m not buying it!
This week in Women’s Hockey
A reminder that clicking links curated by The IX catches the eye of outlets. If we want more WoHo coverage, we have to support WoHo writers.
Read more about NWHL expansion by the great Marisa Ingemi.
“I’m still deciding where I want to go and play next year, so that’s still up in the air,” said BU player Sammy Davis.
Hailey Salvian describes how the NWHL and PWHPA recruiting outgoing college seniors.
Sarah Nurse joins the Soul on Ice Podcast.
Pandemic strikes at a pivotal time for women’s professional hockey.
Best Players to never win the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award.
Former Tampa Bay Lightning youth coach files a sexual-assault lawsuit.
VIDEO: Digit Murphy discusses NWHL Toronto team on Sportsnet.
VIDEO: Natalie Spooner, Meaghan Mikkelson react to the NWHL’s expansion.
Tweet of the Week
Shannon does it all, and does it all well!
Five at The IX: Digit Murphy on NWHL Toronto
I spoke to Digit on Tuesday ahead of the NWHL Toronto announcement. Here are the highlights!
You and I have talked a lot about the landscape of women’s hockey in the last several months. I’m curious what made this opportunity the right one?
For me, it was the team that I’m with right now. The team being Johanna Boynton and Ty Tumminia. I mean, they really were the engine behind getting me here and talking about what they wanted, what their vision. It was about women, it was empowerment, and it was about sustainability. They just spoke my language, so it was pretty easy once I learned about what they were doing that I could be a part of it with the right people because I’ve always been on this path.
There are differing opinions about what’s best or who is best for women’s hockey right now. Did any of what’s happening in women’s hockey seep into your mind? What led you to decide to go about this track with the National Women’s Hockey League?
It pretty much was the way that the model is starting to shift toward the franchise model because then you have ownership that’s invested in the locations. They’re invested in the community, they’re putting their resources into that. So that was a really big part of my decision. That’s why the (ownership) team is important, they’re in it for the long haul. You know, as with investors in anything, you have to try to figure out what their motivation is. I think that’s been a few of the problems that women’s sports have gone through all along. That breaks down trust and all the things that are bad for teams are bad for business. If it’s not open, honest, and for the right reasons … these are some of the problems that have plagued women’s sports. When I looked at this ownership group, it could have invested their money in oil, or gas, green energy, or feeding the homeless. But they decided that they had an interest in growing this because they saw an opportunity to lead women, and to empower women, and to build that model.
And unfortunately, you just don’t snap your fingers and it happens. You really need to have the players, the managers, the leaders the fans all work together to build it up because you got to get fans to come watch you. You got to get fans to engage and buy the merchandise, it’s a whole circle. You’ve got to have the little girls look up to you, you have to have players reaching back into the community and giving back.
The CWHL closed its doors. I mean, that was a real sad day in my life because I felt like that was 12 years of blood, sweat, and tears up in smoke; 100 opportunities gone. So now it’ll be the only franchise in Canada in a league, that is exciting for me.
You mentioned you’ve got five players and that you put it put the brakes on signing more for the time being. Are you feeling a little pressure of timewise to get this thing going?
In the province of Ontario, we have 41,000 women registered in that area. They’re the largest hockey women’s market in the world. So there’s an appetite for women leaders and role models in hockey, and there are people that want us to be part of that. And like we always do, even with players, you go with the energy … and the people that want you, that are going to embrace you, that are going to grow with you.
There are rink partners out there that I think we’re going to be able to tap into, community partners, and girls programs. I keep getting the question about the NHL and PWHPA and I’m like, ‘Look, there’s enough hockey in Toronto for both to exist.”
It’s not an “either-or”, it’s an “and”. I’m not worried at all because I think there’s going to be a time, and especially now with COVID, people are looking for good stories, good news and they’re gonna be ready. Once this all lifts, they’ll be ready to come watch.
What will it look like for players? Can you give them the lay of the land when it comes to logistics?
The people that are running the team do this for a living. Ty does it with baseball and Joanna is an entrepreneur and they live in the space of business strategy. So yes, it’s a legal entity in Canada. We’ll probably have most of our players be Canadian, so I don’t think we’re gonna have to deal with visa issues. You know as far as contracts like everything’s very professional. Everything I have now is all up and everything is done, I don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I have all the contracts, it’s just very well put together, we have a partnership with Spark equipment, we’re already ordering pants and jerseys. So, you know, it’s very professionally run now I’m not, it’s not me and Aronda (Kirby) in our basement you know folding t-shirts. We’ve got budgets and it’s really taken a step up. It’s nice and, you know, there’s no way I would have went backwards, right?
Someone said to me, “I saw you’re going up to Toronto and different country,” and I let him finish and then I said, “You do know I went to China, took two teams across the world, and figured it out.”
How are you reaching out to current players or players who’ve expressed interest in the past, or are you reaching out to prospective players?
I don’t want to populate the team because it’s not my, it’s my team, but I’m not coaching them. So the fact that I’m not even announced yet is putting the cart before the horse. I’ve been on the phone all last week, talking to people, I’ve got a list that I probably could almost field the full team with right now that I think would be good enough to play in the league.
But, are there better players out there? Yep. Are there Olympians out there? Yeah. There’s a lot of unknowns … if you have a good, solid base, you look at Shiann (Darkangelo) you look at (Elaine) Chuli, you look at (Emma) Greco … there’s such a glut of talent in that area that lives there. You’re going to get a certain level of talent that’s going to be competitive in the league. Now, I just have to hold back a little bit the reins to let the coach do their magic too.
Author’s note: The NWHL Toronto team will have the same $150,000 team salary cap as all other teams in the league.