The National Women’s Hockey League starts its sixth season on Saturday, Jan. 23—following the lead of other American sports leagues and switching to a bubble model. The league will attempt to squeeze in a shortened, two-week 2021 season at the storied Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, N.Y.- site of Team USA’s 1980 Olympic triumph- after COVID-19 disrupted the end of last year’s campaign. The NWHL normally plays a five-month season that starts in October and crowns a champion by March.
And despite clearing several hurdles just to play this season, including signing new sponsors, the league’s biggest triumph—a broadcast deal with NBC Sports—faces no hope for renewal next season after the network announced plans to shut down NBCSN at the end of this year.
The 170-person bubble—which includes the 21 players participating on each of the six teams, plus coaches, team personnel, officials and NWHL staff—will cost between $2 and $3 million, an amount more than projected revenue. But with new corporate and sponsor support and new playoff broadcast slots on NBC Sports, the hope is that a successful season will bring both exposure and opportunity as the NWHL continues to inch closer to profitability.
“Not having a season was not an option in our eyes, as long as we could do it safely,” said new NWHL commissioner Tyler Tumminia. Tumminia most recently served as Chairman of the Toronto Six, the NWHL expansion team added in April after the collapse of the then-rival Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
“This is an important time for women’s hockey,” she added. “The popularity of the game at all levels is rising. The NWHL felt it was important to produce a season and take some more positive steps. We’ve already seen exceptionally strong engagement on social media and from the media — more than the NWHL has experienced before.”
Between the six teams, almost $1 million of this year’s expected costs are from player salaries, which average just over $7000 per player. Each team’s salary cap for the condensed season remains at $150,000. Even the handful of NWHL player who have opted out due to COVID-19 will be paid for a full season.
Helping offset some of those costs are new sponsors. Credit card company Discover will become a major partner alongside nationwide coffee chain Dunkin’, which has been a sponsor since the NWHL’s inception in 2015. The partnership, which will start with the season on Saturday, includes on-ice branding. Though the league declined to disclose financials of the deal and Discover didn’t respond to a request for comment, a source unauthorized to speak publicly said Discover is the largest sponsor in NWHL history.
Since Tumminia’s takeover in October and the announcement of the bubble season, the league has also struck deals with sports performance wear brand Zenkai Sports and recovery footwear company OOFOS, adding new sponsorship categories to open up additional revenue streams. The additions join Hyperice, BladeTech and NYU Langone Health.
Those new partners will receive exposure on Twitch throughout the round-robin style regular season, during which each team will play 15 games. The NWHL is entering the second season in a three-year deal with the streaming platform—the first NWHL broadcast deal to include a rights fee—that generated more than eight million views last season. The league also has a landmark linear television partner lined up for Lake Placid, a key selling point.
This year’s Isobel Cup playoff round’s single-elimination semifinals and Feb. 5’s championship game will make history as the first-ever women’s professional hockey games broadcast live on a major U.S. television network thanks to a new deal between the NWHL and NBC Sports announced in late December.
“NBC Sports got it right away when we first met with them,” Tumminia said. “They have the NHL and now they are the first major national network in the U.S. to show women’s pro hockey. They have been incredible partners. It’s beyond just being on NBCSN. They have offered up several of their platforms for us. Between Twitch and NBCSN, we’re proud that every game is available for fans to watch anywhere in the world.”
The NWHL declined to disclose if a rights fee was included in the NBCSN agreement.
A more substantial network TV deal in the future could be a major turning point for the league, though they’ll likely have to attract another network’s attention for next season, set to start in the fall, after NBC’s announcement about NBCSN’s future—a decision that does not impact the league’s 2021 season agreement with the network.
The playoffs could serve as a testing ground for any network, as NBC takes the pulse of a possible TV audience. A television deal would bring in more money, which would appeal to the leagues’ investors—the 20+ of whom own four of the NWHL’s franchises. Boston and Toronto already boast the type of private owners the league is looking for to purchase its remaining four teams and help with the financial lift.