Women’s Hockey Gets $25 Million Boost Amid Expansion Plans

·5 min read

The Premier Hockey Federation, formerly known as the NWHL, announced a $25 million investment in its players and the league over the next three years from its Board of Governors, the largest one-time independent investment in the history of professional women’s hockey. Team owners will fund the investment, each committing to invest an agreed-upon sum to their respective clubs as opposed to creating a collective pool of funds.

The new funds will support increased player salaries and full healthcare benefits, as well as future expansion, infrastructure and facility upgrades. More than $7.5 million will be invested into the league next season, when the salary cap will more than double to a record $750,000 for each of its six teams.

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It marks the second straight year the salary cap has at least doubled and a $600,000 jump from the $150,000 threshold that bound the league’s teams as recently as the 2020-21 season. The funds will also support an expanded 28-game schedule.

“Over the last 18 months, we've brought in record levels of sponsorship dollars, we've had record levels of engagement with fans, we've done TV and broadcast deals unlike anything we've ever had before, and based on all that momentum, the other owners and I really feel it was the right time for us to make this commitment [and] double down on the opportunity,” John Boynton, chairman of the league’s Board of Governors and owner of three PHF clubs, said in a phone interview. “The world of women's sports is at an inflection point, and we're really trying to ride that wave. This investment at this time is going to allow us to move even farther, even faster than we've been able to up to this point.”

Each team will put 10% of its equity toward an investment pool owned by the league’s players, which the PHF said will allow its athletes to share in any financial success. Players will also control their own likenesses and be able to profit from their image in individual endorsement or sponsorship deals.

The investment will also support COVID-delayed expansion plans for the league, which welcomed its first new franchise during the 2020-21 season when the Toronto Six debuted. The PHF’s six franchises, which also include the Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale, Metropolitan Riveters and Minnesota Whitecaps, will be joined by two newcomers next season, the league said. At least one of those clubs will be based in Montreal, which the league has targeted for expansion since the collapse of the CWHL in 2019. The PHF did not provide an update on where its eighth franchise will be located, but Boynton did say they are in “deep discussions” with a new ownership group about launching in a target city.

The current campaign marks the first time all PHF franchises are in the hands of private owners. The league, which was founded as a single-entity operation in 2015, divested itself of team ownership and operations entirely last year when it sold its four remaining franchises.

Boynton and BTM partners now own three of the six franchises (Boston, Toronto and the New Jersey-based Riveters). Entrepreneur Tobin Kelly, founder of equipment and apparel company Arc Hockey, led the group that acquired the Connecticut Whale in 2021. NLTT Ventures, which includes two members of the league’s board of governors, purchased Buffalo and Minnesota.

While two groups now hold multiple franchises, distinct individual ownership is the goal within the next few years. “Our vision is to have a very strong, well-capitalized ownership group for each team,” Boynton said. The model is reminiscent of Major League Soccer’s early days, when investors like AEG and Lamar Hunt owned multiple MLS teams, selling when new owners were found.

“It's always been the PHF's vision to provide leading opportunities for professional women's hockey players and for expansion to help fuel our growth,” commissioner Tyler Tumminia said. “New owners and investors who believe in the PHF are essential for helping reach our growth potential and providing sustainability.”

The league hopes the planned 2022-23 newcomers will be joined by two additional expansion teams in 2023-24, adding a 40 new roster spots to the league in each of the next two years.

The PHF is in the middle of its seventh season, but the first under its new name and brand. It has spent this season focusing on financial stability and expanding partnership revenue, in particular. The federation has ventured into trading card and equipment deals—sponsorships common in sports but previously absent in women’s hockey.

A multiyear deal with Upper Deck Sports will make the first trading cards for professional women’s hockey available starting with the '22-23 season (players will receive 50/50 revenue split and royalties), and a pact with equipment manufacturer Warrior gives the PHF its first league-wide equipment agreement. The PHF said those deals have contributed to the largest sponsorship revenues in its history. The pair join credit card company Discover, which signed on as the largest sponsor going into the 2020-21 bubble season.

It has also keyed in on broadcast partnerships, with ESPN+ serving as the PHF’s exclusive U.S. broadcasting partner for the current season, streaming all 60 regular-season games and the Isobel Cup playoffs. The deal also included international rights for ESPN affiliates, including TSN in Canada, and was a turning point for the league, which now wants to capitalize on its current momentum—and on the sport’s prominence in next month’s Winter Olympics in Beijing.