Takeaways from the NWHL Season in Review
Yesterday, the NWHL released its 2018-19 season in review, which included average team-specific attendance numbers, total dollars to-date spent on players salaries, and much more. Here are my takeaways.
For the first time, the NWHL released overall attendance and team-specific average attendance numbers. The league has never released attendance numbers before (I’ve asked).
The Minnesota Whitecaps led the league with 1,200 fans per game in their inaugural season. The Buffalo Beauts also averaged more than 1,000 fans per game this season. The Riveters had one announced sellout this season and came in third in average attendance. The Pride weren’t far behind and averaged just over 700 fans per game. The Whale came in last in the league with just above 423 fans per game.
Over 46 games played this season, the league averaged 954 fans per game across all five markets. It’s hard to place these numbers into proper context, since we cannot compare the average attendance to past seasons. However, it is worth noting the average capacity at across the five NWHL arena is 1,280. Twice this season, the league hit crowds above that average.
The Riveters home opener (kind of) at the Prudential Center drew a crowd of over 2,000 fans. Another 6,200 fans watched the 2019 NWHL All-Stars compete at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, TN in February.
If the NWHL continues to draw crowds at NHL arenas, they could make a case to increase seating capacity at the home areas for each franchise. At the least, continued growth in attendance could lead to more All-Star Games, neutral sites games, or perhaps playoffs at larger arenas.
The release also stated to-date, over $2.5 million dollars in salary has been paid out to players. “With the support of the league’s resourceful and impassioned investors who believe in our vision and athletes, and thanks to the increasing number of fans, sponsors, and the business successes over the last two years, that number will climb in the coming years,” said commissioner Dani Rylan.
This is an interesting piece of information. The league has been silent about players salaries since slashing them in the second season. However, some quick calculations suggests $2.5 million paid in salaries over four seasons is an average salary of roughly $6,234 – $6,925 per player, per season.
In the first two seasons, NWHL teams could dress 17 of their 22 rostered players. However, it is also believed that only players who dressed on the 17-player roster were paid. Therefore, anywhere from 17-22 players per team (68-88 players overall) at any given time in the season were compensated in the first two seasons. In season three, a maximum of 25 player per team (100 players total) were compensated. This season, a maximum of 125 players at any given time were compensated. Overall, anywhere from 361 to 401 compensated roster spots were available during the four NWHL seasons.
$2.5 million/Total player slots per season (361-401) = Pay per player/season
Of course, this does not accurately account for teams that did not fill their roster in any given season. It also is not an accurate guesstimate of how many players suited up and were compensated per year. Thus, these numbers are most accurately described as the average pay per roster spot, per season. Individual players could fall above or below $6,200-$6,900 per season, depending on their contract.
For example, Kendall Coyne Schofield alluded to making $7,000 in a November interview with the New York Times, hardly enough for the 2018 Olympic gold medalists to seriously consider moving to Minnesota. The fact that the league relies on players either from one of the five existing markets, or those who are willing and able to commute, is a huge downside to the existing structure of women’s hockey, according to Coyne Schofield.
“I hope [women’s hockey] gets to a situation where we aren’t playing in a place that’s conveniently located based off of where we can afford to live,” the 2019 Isobel Cup champion told me in an interview in February.
Coyne Schofield, like many currently players, is supportive of one league and growing impatient with the barriers preventing a single North American professional league.
“It’s been very evident what we want, but it’s also been very evident that the leagues aren’t willing to cooperate cohesively. So if it’s going to come down to the players, then that’s what needs to happen because right now the growth of the game is being restricted … I hope we get to a point where we’re playing for a team that drafted us or a team that is structurally putting together a roster based on talent and not based on convenience of location.”
The impatience of the #OneLeague crowd is tends to direct its frustration towards the NWHL and Dani Rylan in particular. Although former players like Cassie Campbell-Pascallhave suggested the CWHL is willing to cease operations to make way for one league, it is worth nothing that has not happened. CWHL commissioner Jayna Hefford is the more outspoken of the two women’s hockey executives and continues to report conversations are happening, but the nature of those conversations will remain private, for now.
The greatest success of the league is its ability to make the product accessible Internationally via streaming and social media engagement. This year, over one millions viewers tuned in for the NWHL Skills Competition and All-Star Game combined. The league averaged 70,000 viewers per week, a new high according to the league.
Social media engagement also went up in the fourth season. All signs point to the league having a captive audience. The question now is, can the league parlay online engagement into increased ticket sales and revenue?
Apparel sales went up 36% for the league with players receiving 15% of their jersey and shirsey sales. It would be great to see the quality of NWHL merchandise improve. Higher quality and better customer service would no doubt lead to a spike in merch sales.
An increase in viewership is another goal of the league. “The investment in making every NWHL game available to the public from day one was an important strategic decision for us, and it has undoubtedly paid off,” stated Rylan.
“We’re proud of the work of our production teams and the broadcasters. A crucial next step for us would be creating broadcast partnerships, nationally and regionally. These players deserve the biggest stage, and I’m confident the NWHL would deliver loyal and large audiences for networks.”
Overall, the league reporting numbers is a step in the right direction. There are still a number of things that need attention, as is always the case. If Rylan and the NWHL continue this type of open dialogue with the public and continue to keep the lines of communications open with players and staff, the league will continue to see growth.
While some might want one league sooner rather than later, it is important that both the CWHL and the NWHL continue to establish benchmarks for women’s hockey. Reporting attendance numbers is part of showing the success over time.
If one league is going to happen, someone has to fund it. Women’s hockey is now past the “start-up” phase. Players continue to show there is a wealth of talent located in or willing to come to North America. Women’s hockey fans are showing up and selling out small NHL practice facilities. The ball is now in the court of the front offices to sell the idea of women’s hockey to investors and/or buyers that can take the game to the next level.
And, for the sake of those like Coyne Schofield and others who want a livable wage, they better hope women’s hockey executives negotiate for top dollar. Women’s hockey is more than a feel-good pet project. Women’s hockey is a growing product with infinite potential.
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