In the back-and-forth battles over women’s pro hockey, corporate sponsorships have been fundamental. When the Canadian Women’s Hockey League shut down two years ago, its board of directors cited the difficulties in securing sponsors as a factor. So when the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association rose from the CWHL’s ashes as a competitor to the National Women’s Hockey League, it seemed like the limited resources that had so far been available to the sport would continue to be spread thin.
It would have been easy for potential sponsors to wait it out and see how the landscape would evolve on its own. Instead, women’s hockey — especially the NWHL — has seen a boom in sponsors, even while a pandemic has cut playing time short. As the NWHL has kicked off its two-week bubble tournament in Lake Placid, New York, representatives say the league has never been in a better place.
The NWHL doesn’t make sponsorship revenue figures public, but this season has seen more than a dozen new sponsors since a year ago, based on news release announcements.1
“We can put our product in a place of visibility,” said Anya Packer, the NWHL Players’ Association director. “Equal visibility becomes equity and interest, and a company will come and they’ll have these conversations with us, where a dashboard [on the hockey boards] might cost a million dollars in [the NHL], it’s not in our league. There’s still visibility and a lower barrier of entry.”
Packer said she takes part in every sponsorship call as a representative of the players, and she equally shares the responsibilities with interim NWHL Commissioner Tyler Tumminia. The league splits sponsor revenue 50-50 with players after it recovers its operating expenses.
That rare setup — in which players have an equal say in the league’s partnerships — can in itself be attractive to new sponsors, who know that their spending will have a direct impact on the sport and its athletes.
“We have these conversations about pay equity when we put a proposal together, we’ll put in the percentage that [a sponsor] is yielding a player salary increase right in there,” Packer said. “We see companies go, ‘Wow, that’s how much we’re effecting change?’”
Packer estimated sponsorship gains from the bubbles could see player revenue numbers bumping up by 40 to 50 percent. Some of those sponsors have national reach like Discover, new to the league this year and reportedly the largest sponsor in league history, and Dunkin, returning for its sixth season, along with team-based sponsors in local markets, such as Oyster Bay Brewing Co.’s partnership with the Connecticut Whale.
“We’re seeing more sponsors come in with tangible dollars when they know they can invest in a product,” Packer said. “It’s considerable.”
And the NWHL isn’t alone in its sponsorship success. The PWHPA, which operates in several hub cities across North America, primarily in Canada, made headlines in 2020 when Secret pledged $1 million to the association. But with few events during the pandemic — although an All-Star team did play in a tournament against U.S. Premier Hockey League teams in Tampa Bay, Florida, this month — the league hasn’t been able to show off that sponsorship yet.
In the NWHL, the league owns the Minnesota Whitecaps, the Metropolitan Riveters (based in New Jersey), the Connecticut Whale and the Buffalo Beauts. The other two teams — the Boston Pride and the Toronto Six — are independently owned and have corporate sponsorship staffs to pursue partnerships.
In Boston, Miles Arnone took over as primary owner before the 2019-20 season, and the team saw season ticket sales double within a year, according to team President Hayley Moore. The Pride added Harpoon Brewery as its beer sponsor and Legal Sea Foods as a restaurant advertiser. In Toronto, the expansion Six has seen similar advances. Canadian Tire jumped in to sponsor the lone NWHL club in Canada this month, and the team has also attracted Cleveland Clinic Canada.
That independent ownership model is expected to take over the rest of the league, particularly as it hopes to continue expanding.
“Naturally there’s some kind of uptick in sponsorship to continue to keep [player salary] percentage, which I think is a good reason why we share that number so they know like in a year over a year we’re going to grow and scale,” Packer said. “If we continue to grow across the border, we start looking at an NHL structure like where they have a U.S. quick-service restaurant and a Canadian quick-service restaurant. If we grow into the Midwest, we look at Midwest properties.”
While the hope is that increased sponsorships will translate into higher player salaries, that hasn’t happened yet. NWHL salaries don’t pay anyone a full-time living — averaging from $5,000 to $26,000 this year before bonuses, the NWHLPA said — and the league tries to mend that gap with external revenue. Players get 15 percent of all jersey sales featuring their name on the back. As of the start of 2020, players had received an additional $2.5 million in jersey sale revenue, according to the NWHLPA.
Base salary numbers are the same for the Lake Placid bubble, with the same team salary cap of last season at $150,000. Added merchandise sales contributing to player salaries won’t affect or hurt the cap number, either. The cap is also flexible enough to expand in an emergency given the nature of a bubble season.
Packer added that players are getting a 20 percent bonus stipend for participating in the bubble, though any players who opted out — 3 percent of the league — were paid their salaries in full. She also expects the salary structure of the league to “completely restructure” in its seventh season.
Part of that could be thanks to the Discover deal; without disclosing details, a league source said it will be in the same range as the PWHPA’s Secret deal. Another league executive said the partnership will have a focus on wage equality for female athletes and that 50 percent of revenue going to the players was a big motivator.
The NWHL’s exposure on NBC Sports Network for its playoff games and Isobel Cup final has also created a new platform that women’s professional hockey hasn’t had before. On an NBC schedule without NHL games for competition, the NWHL will be in the hockey spotlight. As Packer said about dashboards as an easier entry, that’s more eyeballs on sponsored products without the NHL cost.
There were plenty of opportunities to shut the door on investing in the NWHL during trying times for it — as is true for sports in general. But given the success in 2020 of women’s basketball and soccer, hockey is the logical next place with sponsorship experience for brands to join in on the women’s sports bandwagon.
The NWHL, and Packer as the head the players association, will certainly welcome it, and that just means more financial incentive for the players as well.
“There’s a lot of power when we talk to these sponsors to reinvest their cash and infuse it within women’s sports, too,” Packer said.