Single Entity Structure, NHL Support Positions PWHL for Success
Single Entity Structure, NHL Support Positions PWHL for Success
The Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) is starting a new league –the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL)– in January of 2024. The ‘original six’ franchises will call New York, Boston, Minnesota, Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa home.
Professional women’s hockey has historically struggled in North America. But prior efforts never had all the top players participating, as this league will have.
They also didn’t the financial backing of the PWHL, or ongoing support and promotion from the National Hockey League. Los Angeles Dodgers owner Mark Walter is funding the PWHL.
“Every time we are connected or associated with the NHL, that’s a big feather in our cap,” Stan Kasten (president and CEO, Los Angeles Dodgers) said. “Our association with the NHL is going to be a good way to get the word out about what a good product this is.”
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Founded in 2015, the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) became the first professional women’s hockey league in North America to pay its players. The league operated under several different commissioner administrations over eight seasons.
In 2019, several of the PHF’s Olympic-level players left the the league in search of improved salaries, benefits, and working conditions; and ultimately decided to form their own league (the PWHPA).
The PHF and PWHPA competed with one another for the last four years. The PHF had a traditional city-based franchise model, while the PWHPA took a barnstorming approach to scheduling.
One year ago, Dodgers LPs Billie Jean King and Ilana Kloss came to Walter explaining their relationship with the PWHPA and the opportunity that existed to back a collective of the top female hockey players in the world as they worked to establish their new league. Walter, a long-time advocate of women’s sports, chose to invest “millions” of dollars to help ensure it would be a success.
Of course, Walter also owns the Los Angeles Sparks and is a prominent backer of the Billie Jean King Cup.
Last November, he tasked Kasten with taking over the operation. The first order of business was to draft a CBA from a blank sheet of paper. The process took six months.
“We wanted to start with a collective bargaining agreement so that the rights and privileges these players have always deserved, and were now getting, would be formalized on their behalf,” Kasten said.
The average player salary will be $55,000 per season.
Having a mutually agreed upon CBA also ensures the league maintain the stability and predictability it needs for long-term success.
Along the way it became evident that the PWHPA’s league would be strongest if the top PHF players participated too. So in June, Walter bought out the competing entity making its players free agents and eligible to participate in alongside the PWHPA members.
“We had to do [professional women’s hockey] only on a basis where it would succeed. Not in the short-term. Not in the long-term. But permanently,” Kasten said.
The Dodgers executive believes emerging sports properties must focus on three elements to win over a fan base.
“One is your product, the team on the ice has to be good,” Kasten said.
That is where consolidating all the best players comes in. The fan experience also needs to be enjoyable, and the league must immerse itself in the local community.
While pro women’s hockey has historically been an uphill battle in the U.S from a business perspective, Walter and Co. believe they have the resources and expertise needed to generate a different outcome.
“This [newly rebranded] league will have professional structure in leadership, and it will have adequate financing,” Kasten said. “We’re prepared to invest a great sum of money understanding it will [require] that investment in the startup.”
The PWHL will also benefit from the promotional support it receives from the NHL and its teams.
While the NHL has always been supportive of women’s hockey, it had no interest in choosing sides between competing factions. Now that the parties are unified, the league can take a more active role. And Kasten said it will.
The PWHL will maintain an unconventional, albeit increasingly popular, single entity ownership structure.
That “is another reason we’re going to succeed,” Kasten said.
The structure ensures every team maintains the same agenda and has comparable resources at its disposal.
“Having competitive games every night is the way to make this league as popular as it can be as quickly as possible,” Kasten said.
Teams will act as individual departments within the overarching corporation and report to a board of directors, not to a commissioner.
There are no imminent plans to sell franchises, though Kasten would not rule out the possibility at some point down the line.
“First we want to build our league and then we’ll see,” he said.
Expansion, however, is in the plans.
“We expect to grow and expand our footprint domestically, and eventually expand it internationally [beyond Canada],” Kasten said.
The PWHL business model relies heavily on sponsorship sales in the short-term.
“There are a lot of companies concerned with appealing to the women’s audience and there is real disposable income there that has been untapped or has not been aimed at,” Kasten said. “There are also more and more companies looking for a women’s element to their advertising strategy and we’re here to help them fill that void.”
Ticket sales, merchandise sales, and media rights are also expected to contribute to the top line; albeit to a lesser degree.
The league is prioritizing reach over revenue.
“We’re not worried about short-term [dollars]. We’re worried about getting the product right, and that includes getting the mix of platforms right,” Kasten said.
Expect the league to pursue exposure on linear television.
Walter recognizes the PWHL is unlikely to turn a profit for some time. And he is okay with that.
“They’re not losses to us,” Kasten said. “They are investments in what we are building, and longer-term, we think the investment will pay off. It may take a while. It may take a long while. But we’re in it for the long while.”
The group sees the NWSL and WNBA as examples of what the PWHL can develop into. Though, Kasten believes its upside may be even greater.
“No [women’s] league has started out with this kind of support, this kind of backing [and a] single entity [structure] with all the world’s best players. Those are a lot of elements to make this succeed,” Kasten said.