The offseason leading into the 2019-20 season has been a tumultuous one. The sport has seen major changes and so, too, has the NWHL, with a new streaming partner, a major rink move, and an increased eye on sponsor money.
On Oct. 5, the puck drops on the NWHL’s fifth season. Ahead of that, the league founder and Commissioner Dani Rylan spoke to The Ice Garden on the upcoming season, sponsors, and the future.
The Ice Garden: So I wanted to start with the upcoming season. Yesterday, the league announced the Twitch news, which is huge, especially the fact that the league is being paid a rights fee for Twitch to broadcast all the games. Can you talk a little bit about what it means for the growth of the league to have such a first happening?
Dani Rylan: We’re so excited to be partnered with Twitch. I think that one of the most exciting parts of the deal is that it’s our first time getting actual capital in for our media rights, which we will obviously be sharing with the players to help increase player salaries. Outside of that, we’re excited by the opportunity to engage with fans and to grow our audience, introduce pro women’s hockey to an incredible new fan base.
TIG: Twitch has a lot of really cool fan interaction tools. You can vote during during streams, you can use emotes. Is the league planning on using anything in specific or just trying to use all of them?
Rylan: I don’t think we fully understand the capability yet, but we want to maximize everything that we can offer: the polling, the voting, the emotes. We want to engage our broadcasters with our fans who were tuning in to watch the game, the players with the fans, fans with each other, and really grow the more community so we couldn’t be more excited by that.
TIG: How did you all come about on moving the streams to Twitch? The site is pretty well known for video games and maybe not necessarily for sports, or even for women’s hockey. So how did you come about that decision to move to a site that has kind of a brand new audience and a new demographic?
Rylan: We connected with Twitch a couple of months ago and they’re incredibly dedicated to growing their traditional sports vertical. As you probably know, they also have the G League and Thursday Night Football. So for us to fit into that growth commitment of theirs was perfect timing. It’s really a true partnership, so for them to be investing in professional women’s hockey as part of their overall growth in traditional sports is meaningful to us.
TIG: Along those same lines of rebuilding or changing audiences a little bit, the Riveters are making a pretty substantial rink move this season. I think it may be the largest rink move we’ve seen the league make, especially for such an established fanbase as the Riveters have. What about that community that you’re moving to excites the league in terms of growth potential?
Rylan: I think the Riveters have always been a very strong brand in the TriState Area. The Metropolitan area, if you will, has always been a really strong market. Our ticket sales are starting to move with the season ticket there. We expect our fan base to embrace the Riveters like they always have in Monmouth Junction.
TIG: What does it mean to you to have so many of big name players returning for their fifth season.?You’ve got Jillian Dempsey, Corinne Buie, Kaleigh Fratkin, Madison Packer, just to name a few. What does those commitments mean to you?
Rylan: Those are four unbelievable, four-year veterans that you just named. We are so excited to have them back in the league. They’ve helped us build our communities, our fan bases. I know I’m a fan of all theirs and I can speak to all the fans are going to show up wearing their shirseys is that they’re excited to have them back as well. To see their professional hockey careers blossom in the NWHL — two of the players are all-time leading scorers in Packer and Dempsey — has been really great to watch, and so for them to have another opportunity to to do that and set league record is pretty remarkable.
TIG: What are you most excited for for this season?
Rylan: I’m excited for more hockey with the increased schedule of 24 games for each team. The idea of being able to watch the game more not only in person but on Twitch is what excites me the most. Then also the revenue sharing that we have rolled out with our players, who will be receiving 50 percent of all sponsorship and media dollars that come in at a league level. That motivates the league to close more deals, knowing that the players are benefiting just as much as we are to grow the game together.
TIG: Transitioning a little bit bigger picture... when the CWHL closed, I looked at the reasoning behind it. I talked to some of the key players over there and a large chunk of that boiled down to sponsorship money and sponsorship money not returning. How much does the NWHL face that sort of risk and what are you guys doing to kind of mitigate that?
Rylan: Sponsorship and media dollars is definitely where the sports business scale is going. So that’s where a lot of our focus goes, on those two revenue streams. We’ve had quite a bit of success this offseason with Twitch and Chipwich and also returning partners. We’re definitely focused on growing not only our national sponsors but also our local sponsors.
TIG: Any update on Dunkin’ returning?
Rylan: We’re currently in negotiations with the brand and fully expect that Dunkin’ will remain a key sponsor of the NWHL for the coming season. Dunkin’ is committed to women's hockey and was the first ever corporate sponsor of our league. We always appreciate that.
TIG: How have relations been with the PWHPA lately, especially since Jayna Hefford stepped in, who I’m sure you have a relationship with already?
Rylan: They know we are willing and eager to have a conversation with them but unfortunately they have refused to communicate with us at all. We will keep trying. We hope that maybe with Jayna and her role that will help bridge the gap for us.
TIG: We’re going into the fifth season here. What do you think of where the league is now heading into five seasons from where you expected it to be five years ago when you launched?
Rylan: It’s been really remarkable to see our league grow since we launched five years ago. I think it’s one of those things to take a step back and realize how much we’ve accomplished. Season five is a huge milestone year for us.
Since then we’ve done quite a few deals on the sponsorship side and distribution, paid women over $3 million to play hockey professionally. We’ve expanded, we’ve tested new markets for additional expansion opportunities, and we’ve really grown girl’s hockey in the past year with the Junior NWHL. We’ve seen that come to life at the grassroots level all across the United States.
I think where we are today is remarkable. We’re incredibly proud and wouldn’t have been able to get here without our incredible staff, our volunteers, our investors, our partners, and our players who believe in us.
TIG: Where do you hope the league and women’s hockey is in five years from now?
Rylan: Five years from now, we’ll have one more Olympic cycle under our belt so we’ll be on the biggest stage for women’s hockey. I see us as an international league spanning both the U.S. and Canada with a great broadcast deal, the best players in the world, and a fan base that is continuing to grow exponentially. So I think the options are endless. The future of women’s hockey is incredibly bright.