A conversation with PHF commissioner Ty Tumminia

Tumminia breaks down the rebrand and more

So I guess the secret is out. I’m writing for The Ice Garden now, and my first official assignment: interview Ty Tumminia, the commissioner of the Premier Hockey Federation — formerly the National Women’s Hockey League.

No pressure! It’s not every day you take a call from the commissioner of a professional sports league/federation. I take that responsibility seriously, but I’m also very appreciative to be tasked with the job.

I spoke with Tumminia for about 15 minutes. I asked both my own questions some of those I saw posed by others on social media immediately following the name/logo change from the NWHL to the PHF. I did ask why the ‘one-offs’ in place of a traditional (or virtual) press conference as far as media availability goes when announcing something as big as a rebrand, and Tumminia hinted that a press conference, or town hall, will take place with media members as we near the start of Season 7.

Note: Before we dive in, I’m so thankful to Michelle for the opportunity and all of the TIG staff for welcoming me on board. I’m just happy to be a part of a great team and can’t wait to get the PHF season started.

NWHL rebrands to PHF

The Ice Garden: Why did you make the change now? This was obviously something you teased a few months back, why make the change at this particular time?

Ty Tumminia: Thanks for recognizing that we did tease that, you’re the first one I’ve spoken with over the past two days that has said that to me. We’re in our seventh year, right? We believe strongly that this is the right message to send and the right thing to do. We have a strong footing, we’ve become a premier league — a federation. After Season 6, we had a meeting with our Board of Governors and everything just looks different now. The league looks different, it has more committed and deeply invested partners than ever before.

Our ownership and leadership at the club level have never been stronger. We doubled that salary cap and we continue to have discussions about expansion on the horizon. Our internal structure has really evolved over the past ten months, our sponsorship revenue is at an all-time high, the exposure on national television; there’s a lot of momentum carrying into Season 7. We felt this was the right time.

Once we had this discussion internally with the BoG and some of our key sponsors, it was really embraced. It’s a new era of the league and we should look that way on the outside. After we conferred with a couple of stakeholders there was really no reason to wait. We’re going to still honor the historical aspect of the NWHL. We did that with the logo, we know how passionate our fanbase is, and yourself, along with the media members who have historically covered us.

We know this is a big deal, but it’s that passion and foundation that we still carry with us at the PHF. That investment from our fans, ownership, and media remains the lifeblood of our sport. To grow this, to become larger, we really felt that we needed to rebrand ourselves and redefine who we are.

TIG: I have to imagine you saw some of the initial reactions over the past 40ish hours. I spent a good portion of yesterday jotting down things I saw some people had questions about. So I guess what I’m trying to ask is, what is your reaction to those initial reactions? Did you check in on things when you weren’t fulfilling media requests?

TT: Sure, and I think we expected a wide range of responses. When we were planning this for the past few months we went into it knowing that would happen. What we hope comes from this is that we can facilitate important conversations about how we view professional women’s sports, in a gender-neutral way. Any form of change is tough. I understand that. We’re comfortable with our decision, and we believe it was the right thing to do. Our players are defined by their talent and skill, and not by gender identity.

TIG: Did you meet with a consulting firm and/or focus groups leading up to the name/logo change?

TT: Right around March or April we started to talk internally, externally, with stakeholders, and various focus groups along the way. Some were within the sport, some were not. But yeah we had a lot of those conversations leading up to this decision.

TIG: Were there ever any potential sponsors that said, ‘Hey we’d like to potentially do business with you, but not with or under that brand. If you decide to change it, give us a call.’?

TT: No. We’ve conferred with our stakeholders, before we did this, and on some future announcements that will come out as well. This was not a quick decision, it’s definitely been in the works for a while. Most of our partners asked us how they can help us amplify the message.

TIG: One thing I saw that caught my eye — what’s the future of the Isobel Cup? You mentioned keeping links to the past, I assume it stays, but if I’m not mistaken there is a huge NWHL logo on the bottom of it.

TT: Our Cup will be called the Isobel Cup and it will be rebranded PHF, but it will remain the Isobel Cup.

TIG: Season 7 is about two months away from the first puck drop in a regular-season game…

TT: Don’t remind me, I got a lot of stuff to do!

TIG: One thing regarding Season 7 that I’d like to ask you about is the fans. They are a big part of the experience at an NWHL / PHF game, specifically fan interactions with players post and sometimes pre-game. The world is a much different place than it was the last time these players saw fans in the stands. I know a lot of fans would like to be back at the rinks, but have questions. What can you tell us on what the policy will be for the season?

TT: We’ve had extensive conversations with our medical provider and our plan will be coming out later this week. There have been a lot of conversations about this and it all has to be in coordination with where each team plays, right? Their rinks have their own Covid policies, but the Federation will be coming out with a Covid Plan shortly.

TIG: I can’t believe I’m talking to the commissioner of a pro league and I’m going to ask this, but…Madison Packer tweeted something about replacing championship hats with crowns. Knowing her as I do, I don’t know whether to take this seriously or not, because I can’t see if she has her trademark grin on when she posted it. Is this true or not?

TT: She’s a lot of fun, a charismatic personality, and a player; and I love watching her on the ice. I love her creativity (laughs). I don’t know what to say, I haven’t seen that idea, but she’s creative.

TIG: Why Federation? We see a lot of leagues overseas - the SDHL, SWHL, EWHL, etc? Was the appeal in something different and fresh, something that stands alone?

TT: That’s a good question and I’d agree with you that yeah, we always want to do or be something different. You want to be unique within the sport. There were many factors that went into the rebrand and one was that ‘Federation’ just sounded bigger than one country. We’re already a league with several international players. We want to attract the best talent that we can from around the globe and we think Federation has international recognizability and appeal; on the business end as well. We’re trying to grow in a direction where it’s an international presence, with international athletes.

The economics of the business side of this, which is what I’m tasked with growing and creating a successful business model - we also wanted to appeal to the business community from the international market where the word Federation isn’t so foreign as maybe it is domestically.

In some of my conversations that I’m having with international companies, presenting the possibility for a title sponsor, setting the league up for that type of success with a title sponsor. Most league names aren’t creative. At all. So how can we be a little unique and creative?

I’ve spoken with Janine Weber (the first player to ever sign a contract in the NWHL) from the Connecticut Whale, who’s Austrian, she was helpful and agreed that Federation made sense, that it was a more global word.

TIG: Just to piggyback off of that, in the past if I brought up the NWHL it sparked a conversation, or interest, or, ‘Hey I didn’t even know it existed.’ Now it seems that it’s back to square one with that and it becomes a whole different conversation. Was this at all a part of the discussion leading up to this?

TT: Sure, and that’s similar to our team names/brands too right? So someone says I play for the Minnesota Whitecaps, and the response can still be who is that? Maybe they add a sentence like we’re still North American premier women’s hockey. From a marketing standpoint too, the fact that that question gets asked is a beautiful thing. You want to have that ability to draw interest or awareness.

TIG: You’ve said you dropped the gender aspect of the name, but also you just referred to it as ‘premier women’s hockey’ — do you think that could end up being confusing for some people?

TT: No, because if you look at when major companies do a rebrand were will be some subtext for at least a little while. It’s not dissimilar to Weight Watchers when they changed to WW, they still had that subtext underneath.

TIG: Unfortunately, this is the last one I have for you today, as I know you’re on a tight schedule, but would have loved to chat more with you about all of this. Where are things at with the naming of a new Director of the Player’s Association? We’re less than two months before the season starts, a lot of players have signed already, some haven’t been announced yet. Where do things stand on that topic?

TT: For education purposes: in our bylaws, it says that the league doesn’t have any jurisdiction over the Player’s Association. So once each team has a minimum of 20 players on their roster, Minnesota and Toronto currently have not met that threshold, but once they have 20 then each team will designate two-player reps for the PA. They’ll then get together, with the former Director likely, and they will come up with a new candidate on who they’d like to fill that role. Then all of the players vote on that. I am removed from that process completely. In our bylaws, it states that the last business day before the start of the season is the deadline to name their new PA Director.