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Looking back, moving forward: a conversation with Ty Tumminia

The former PHF commissioner sat down with TIG to discuss her two-season tenure.

Michelle Jay/NWHL

Before taking in her final game as commissioner of the Premier Hockey Federation, Ty Tumminia sat down with The Ice Garden on the evening of the Isobel Cup Final to consider what has been by all accounts an eventful tenure at the helm of the seven-year-old league.

COVID-19, a single-site season, a new team in the Toronto Six, a re-branding, and branching out toward new territory not just in Tampa for the playoffs, but into overall expansion for the league — all of it is pretty much part and parcel of Tumminia’s philosophy of growth when it comes to every league she’s been in charge of. Now, in handing over the reins to someone new, she reflects with us about the brief, but wild ride. [Author’s Note: This interview was transcribed via Otter and edited for content and clarity.]

So I guess where we can start is just your overall thoughts on your tenure here, the PHF and what you’ve been able to accomplish?

Yeah. I’m actually really proud. Probably more so than in my baseball career of 16 years. I have a lot of pride in what we’ve been able to do. It’s not [just] me, it’s just the Federation staff collectively, to try to get in here and do some things really quickly to make change, to kind of just elevate the league. I would say I felt a lot of passion for the staff that we’ve been able to join in a time and have that culture in a time where most of it was being built over Zoom and Hives, hiring people over Zoom. I’ve never met them in person.

But then some of the tasks and accomplishments, and the goals that we set between the Board of Governors and Commissioner’s office, were quite lofty. And I think there’s a lot of pride in that too. But it’s really a result of teamwork. It’s not just myself coming in here and trying to do that. It’s a lot of people trying to work and in sports, you’re burning the midnight oil, and it’s a 24/7 job. So, I have a lot of pride over the tenure that I’ve had here, these two seasons.

You mentioned that the bulk of your tenure has pretty much been during COVID. So I’m sure that presented some really unique challenges. Can you kind of take me through that?

Yeah, never in my life, in my entire career... you take these roles on, and it’s a very, very large leadership challenge in itself… to put it up against a pandemic, where we’re also trying to learn about what a pandemic is, and what that does to the structure of our internal communication and external communication and our hockey operations, was just another level in itself. That was a whole different set of challenges. I value the insight and I rely on Cleveland Clinic for their medical advice and guidance.

But also, we were already trying to do a lot with the little resources of women’s sport. So I would actually say that in the woman’s landscape, it’s even more challenging because we don’t have the resources that that the men’s sport has in order to kind of contain what we’re trying to do. But we learned as we went along, and that really was a testament to team leadership. There was a lot of learning there as well, and having to rely on team leadership for a lot of the operations of that and governance of that was important and I think we’ve worked that out for season 7.

Yeah, definitely. And part of that obviously was how you got started, coming in as leadership for the Six and seeing the creation of that team and their success has been pretty astronomical since the inception. Can you talk a little bit about you know, how you feel seeing them be so successful in their first two seasons?

Yeah, so I often reflect right? I came from a sport where I was overseeing six minor league teams and I came here… right off the bat, [it] was the first time ever having a sole dedication to a team and being able to root for a team for the first time in my career. Being able to come into a new sport and understanding the operation at least for the first four or five months – its not dissimilar to what we do in other sports, but it’s a different game, right? So being able to kind of get the lay of the land and terminology and education around it and see that build, which is what I really like to do. I really like to come in, build, grow… and then let somebody else take it to the next level. I think that was important, actually, for me to be able to have that insight at a team level before I took the commissioner role.

Coming from a lengthy career in baseball, what did you take from your time in that sport to apply to pretty much a new sport in hockey?

Yeah, I mean, here I make sure I have Chapstick instead of sunscreen on me at all times. [laughs]

But the biggest part for me is a sports-entertainment infusion. I think that’s quite new here in hockey. Hockey is overall a little bit more of a conservative sport. What [drew] me to minor league baseball all those years was being able to have some fun with the sport and entertainment value. Life is so serious and we take our business seriously, but we take the entertainment dollar… we have fun with that.

I think you’ve seen the events that we’ve been able to put on or that we have control over whether it’s the All-Star Game or the playoffs – the giveaways are important. Entertainment value is important. You can see that we did kind of infuse a little bit of that minor league entertainment, whether it was in Lake Placid and having Seventh Inning Stretch or free hot dogs, we just kind of tried to make people laugh.

I think that’s the key, is that the competitiveness that you get to see with our elite athletes and that, like, rooting for that team, that hometown team or that local team that you have, but also being able to have some fun along with it is really kind of our mission that when I first started here, it was like, “Guys, let’s try to have some fun as well as maintain the integrity of the hockey.” And so that’s been a highlight as well coming in here.

I mean, it seems like the players have really responded to that, too.

It’s all about the players and the fans in my mind, so the fans are responding and then the players respond with their social content around that. You have Madison Packer being the first one being dressed up like Elvis during the Isobel Cup last year. And then just giving you the behind the scenes look of how they travel and what that looks like. And that’s the power of the athlete and bringing the fan into their world, and being able to create a community around that. And that’s why this Federation has been able to grow the market share like we have, it’s why our viewership is the highest in women’s hockey. It’s why our social metrics are the highest. People want to follow the fun and our players are definitely on board with that.

When we were doing the pre playoff media call, Shannon Turner actually had a really awesome quote about leaving the game better than how you came into it. So I guess maybe if you could expand on how important that’s been not just for the on-ice product, but for partnerships sponsorships kind of the overall image of the league?

Doyle [Turner] is great. I mean, that’s a true captain right there. That’s a testament to what they [the Connecticut Whale] have been able to do all year. Her coming back is a main reason for that. It’s important to get the business model correct, and the process in place. In my role, which is not technically all that much fun, I’m tasked with growing revenue, right? And Lisa Haley’s done a tremendous job with hockey ops, but my sole job is to make money and trying to add credibility to the league. Because we needed that in order to add our influence with major partners.

The media was the number one goal of mine coming into this, making history tonight with ESPN. NBCSN took us to the prom, I always say, and I’m very grateful for them. But that’s the metrics, that’s the analytics that I need in order to get the sponsors to come in and say there’s value here. It’s more than, “it’s just the right thing to do.” It’s a business. And so, very quickly, I think we’ve been able to educate players, fans, and business partners, and I think the future is quite bright.

I think when we look at women’s hockey in general, I’ve always seen this as a 3-5 year forecast. It’s not going to happen overnight. You can try to go as fast as we can. But like any other business in any other sport, you have that 3-5 year outlook. And so the challenge often becomes stay the course. Because everybody gets very excited about it. But I think you’ll see in this next season and the year beyond, you’ll see some really good movement and momentum going forward.

You mentioned the partnerships and business model. Everybody always has a different idea and a different opinion on what that looks like – whether the NHL gets involved, whether the PWHPA comes back into the fold, obviously, with the meetings that happened [prior to playoffs]. What is that looking like, in your opinion, and what do you really think we can kind of expect? Do you think really one league is the only feasible way, or can we really see it grow beyond one league, two leagues, or more?

It kind of goes back to that 3-5 year forecast, right? And the NHL has been wonderful, like just the fact that they were wanting to get involved and they have been very, very helpful for both of us… The cross-form marketing and aid that they gave us, it’s just been tremendous. So I value that relationship. I think it’s important. It’s important to our “grow the game” numbers, but I think it’s very important to the NHL “grow the game” numbers. I think they’re smart. They know that this is a demographic, as they move forward in their growth forecast model, that is important to be included.

I think when you start talking about two leagues – now, this is just my personal opinion. I constantly look at the economics of things, right? So I look at the model and I say right now it doesn’t stand where you can have the feasibility and sustainability of having two leagues. I would probably say no. Would that be impossible in the next couple of years? No, I think eventually as you grow market share, as you grow the sport, and you pull more from the international market as well, if you have one league and you have a feeder system like what’s done now, like you have Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball, NHL and AHL… Yeah, same with NHL AHL, do I think it’s the time for that now? No, the sport is in its infancy. And so I think one league is where you see the benefit, and that will propel the growth.

Absolutely. And what do you kind of hoping the relationship with each of those entities would look like going forward? I mean, obviously, you know, we can probably have a whole different conversation about the discourse at a different time, but you know, just as far as the PHF is concerned, what are you kind of hoping for each of those?

I would like to say that it’s always been very fluid. The conversations… we have the same goals, just a little bit… slight differences in how to achieve those. But the door’s always been open here. I have always said from Day One my hope was to kind of get everybody on the same path going forward because I do think that’s what’s best for the sport right now, especially if you’re trying to grow it. Not so much for the players today, but for the players that are up tomorrow. I think it’s very important to show them that there isn’t discourse, and that we’re role models in women’s hockey, that we can work together and and move to accomplish the same goal. So whether or not that gets there I’m always the eternal optimist, hoping everything could work itself out.

How does the media also play a role in that? I think we kind of all want the same things. We just have different ideas of how to get there. Obviously, there have been some other discussions and you know, some also bumps in the road with regard to where certain media entities fit in, whether it’s mainstream or grassroots.

I think all media plays an important part in the growth model. I really do, if it’s not for you, paying attention and doing all that work that you do, that, by the way, thank you – because if you’re not paying attention to us, what happens to our brand KPIs? What happens to the growth of this game? I will always be the first person to say that the media is quite important to growing this game. In fact, you media should take a bow as we grow, because you’re part of that. If you’re not paying attention if you’re not writing about us, no one knows about us.

So to answer your question, I think you’re part of the fabric of the growth of this sport, a very important one. And I do think along the way, there is education from both sides of the table with that. There’s a business that we’re trying to do here and even though we’re going eight years into it, some of the lack of resources exposes some of our holes along the way. But I think we both are quite passionate about the same thing, which is to grow the sport and get these athletes the attention they deserve.

And also to do it in a way that I guess can set a precedent for the future, too. I’ve said this multiple times, I think the PHF is in a really great position, not just to be an incredible league with incredible athletes, but also to kind of change up a little bit of the landscape of professional sports in general. You know, I think that we’ve seen a lot of leagues make the same judgment calls with regard to what companies they partner with, what media outlets they center and highlight, and I think the PHF has a chance to really break that mold and focus on a more diverse landscape.

Absolutely. I mean, I will say we’ve always been, before I got here, inclusive, and it will always be that way. I felt very passionate in the last two seasons to make sure that everyone felt included, personally and professionally. And I do know that I’m safe to say that I’m leaving it in a space where others will feel the same way. I think it’s a very special community, unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of in sports. And it will always be a place where everyone feels safe and included. And I hope you feel that too. Like when you’re here in our rinks or you’re covering us and yeah, we all feel very passionate about that.

Obviously sustainability is always going to be a huge topic. We’ve talked kind of throughout this about it, but what does that really look like to you when it comes to this league and how close do you really feel like it is getting there?

Yeah, I always will say that I don’t think any sport will ever get to the point where it feels comfortable enough to say like, “Okay, great. We’ve made it! We can just kind of coast now.” I think that’s just the cycle of the business model where it’s just as competitive on the ice as it is off the ice. You always want more and more revenue, more partnerships, more dollars coming from the Board of Governors. I think we’re headed in the right direction. If we look at season six, we were 300% year over year over any of the years prior. We’re right around 275, 285 YOY from last year. So those are the kind of numbers that I live in. When we talk about sustainability, I think the infusion of some new owners that are coming in are key and important. I think you’ll start to see some other groups come in here as well, and I think that adds diversity to the board, which is needed. Then partners of course, that will come in after. So I think that the projections are looking quite good for what we’re doing here.

You’ve talked about growing the sport, getting things done quickly, setting up a path and then letting somebody else take over, and that’s obviously been part of your legacy. Where do you really feel like the PHF is going to go the next five years and beyond?

That’s a good question. I see it expanding. I see it growing. I see the rosters becoming really dynamic. I see the teams and the market shares of those local outlets growing, and by growing. I see their local sponsors and partnerships growing. And I just think the overall brand of the Federation becomes stronger over time. Then the general fan base, I think, is already trending growth. I think you’ll feel you’ll see that it will really make the Federation keep going forward and concrete in its model.

So I mean, I personally would love to see a division of whether it’s North-South-East-West, you know, a true Cup competition. Maybe the schedule will look a little bit different, who knows, but I think the future is quite bright for the Federation.

And finally, what’s next for you? Have you thought about that?

I have been thinking about that. I do think I need to take some time to figure it out. I want to make sure that my “Why” is fulfilled in my next job. I really appreciate my phone ringing currently. I do know I’m a human being, that will stop eventually, but I don’t want to rush into my next. I really want to take some time to make sure it works for me professionally and personally. We’ll see what happens.