When the first puck drops and the 2021-22 season begins on Saturday, professional women’s hockey in the U.S. will look quite different from years past, both externally and internally.
With all six franchises now under the control of independent owners, a new television deal with ESPN and a new identity, the rebranded league, now the Premier Hockey Federation, hopes its seventh season will be its strongest yet.
The league, formerly known as the National Women’s Hockey League, began repositioning itself last fall with new governance and a new commissioner in Tyler Tumminia. Goal one was to disentangle the league from team ownership. Founded as a single-entity operation in 2015, the league has never before had each of its six franchises in the hands of private owners. In October 2020, ownership and operations of the remaining franchises under league control were taken over by W Hockey Partners with the intention to sell.
The approach worked, with the New Jersey-based Metropolitan Riveters selling to John Boynton of BTM Partners this spring. BTM Partners also owns the Boston Pride and 2020 expansion club, the Toronto Six, which debuted last season following the collapse of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. Entrepreneur Tobin Kelly, founder of equipment and apparel company Arc Hockey, led the ownership group that acquired the Connecticut Whale. And NLTT Ventures, which includes two members of the league’s board of governors, purchased the Buffalo Beauts and Minnesota Whitecaps shortly thereafter, completing the PHF’s quest to divest itself of team ownership and operation responsibilities.
While BTM Partners and NLTT Ventures both now temporarily own multiple franchises, distinct ownership is still the end goal. The model is reminiscent of Major League Soccer’s early days, when investors like AEG and Lamar Hunt owned multiple MLS teams, bowing out or stepping back when new owners were found.
“For myself and the people who have been around [the sport] for a long time, including my dad, it’s awesome to see how the women’s game keeps continuing to evolve, because that’s what it’s going to take,” Minnesota Whitecaps defender Winny Brodt-Brown said during a media session prior to the start of the season.
Brodt-Brown is a former U.S. national team member and daughter of Jack Brodt, who founded the Whitecaps in 2004 as part of the Western Women’s Hockey League. The WWHL ceased operations in 2011, one of several women’s pro leagues unable to find a permanent foothold.
The path to independent ownership has been long and winding for the league—which looked on the verge of collapse not long ago. Dissatisfaction with the existing North American professional leagues (which featured low pay and lacked basic benefits, like health insurance) came to a head after the dissolution of the CWHL and led to a 2019-20 season strike by more than 200 of the sport’s top players. The league, struggling to onboard additional supporters, agreed to a 50% revenue split with players on sponsor and media deals, but it wasn’t enough to win back those who left to form what became the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA).
Early private owners and partners also deserted the endeavor. The Beauts, for example, were owned by Pegula Sports & Entertainment, which also owns the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, among other properties, for a two-year span from 2017 through 2019, when the Pegulas relinquished control of the club. The Riveters and Whitecaps also had affiliation agreements with NHL clubs in their respective markets at different points as well, but nothing amounted to permanent ownership or partnership. (The Boston Pride became affiliated with the NHL’s Bruins after coming under private ownership.)
New partners will be crucial to the league’s long-term financial success and profitability goals, and recent months have brought incremental progress. Credit card company Discover became the largest sponsor in league history when it signed on earlier this year, joining coffee chain Dunkin’ as the league’s biggest corporate backers. The PHF hopes to add to that roster in 2022, looking to its new broadcast deal with Disney’s ESPN, which also reacquired the NHL’s television rights in an arrangement that started this season, as a selling point to potential partners and citing increased inbound interest from new sponsors already as a result.
Twitch and NBC Sports have partnered with the league in the past, but with ESPN+ on board as the league’s exclusive domestic broadcaster for the 2021-22 season, all 60 regular-season games and the postseason will have a digital home on the same platform for the first time. The PHF has said the exposure it expects to come from its ESPN agreement made the league’s total rebrand—which included dropping the word “women’s” in the league name—even more important to do before the season began.
The PHF also announced plans to double the salary cap of every franchise from $150,000 to $300,000 starting this season. Expansion conversations have continued, with plans for a second Canadian franchise in Montreal that will begin play in the 2022-23 season if all goes according to plan. Expansion arrangements within the league have been postponed in the past, but the league appears cautiously optimistic about its future.
“Building new partnerships and partnership collaboration is a priority,” a PHF spokesperson said in an email. “We’re encouraged by our growth through six seasons and look forward to fans returning to our games to help drive ticket revenue and partner activations.”