Over the last month, the National Women's Hockey League (NWHL) has announced the sale and transfer of ownership of two of its teams (as well as a handful of player signings) in advance of the league's upcoming seventh season.
Four of the six teams in the NWHL will be independently owned, while the two remaining teams – the Buffalo Beauts and Minnesota Whitecaps – are owned and operated by W Hockey Partners for the time being. The Connecticut Whale were recently sold to a group called Shared Hockey Enterprises, run by Tobin Kelly. (The other investors have not been publicly named.)
Of the four teams with independent ownership, the other three are run by the same group: BTM Partners LLC, a Delaware-based limited liability corporation who is in the midst of purchasing the Metropolitan Riveters. The group already owns the Boston Pride and Toronto Six, though each team has its own chairman. Miles Arnone serves as chair for Boston; Johanna Boynton for Toronto; and John Boynton for Metropolitan. (It is also worth mentioning that now-commissioner Ty Tumminia previously held the position of chairman with the Six.)
While it isn't unheard of for the same group to own multiple teams in different sports, many professional sports leagues have written laws preventing ownership or management in multiple clubs in the same league. This, it is said, invites questions about conflicts of interest.
For example, here are the bylaws for the National Hockey League:
Article XIII – Conflicts of Interest – Ownership
13.1 Purposes. This Article 13 prohibits the acquisition (or holding) of certain direct or indirect ownership interests in, or management rights with respect to, Member Clubs, by Persons having ownership interests in, or management rights with respect to, one or more other Member Clubs. The League and the Commissioner, as the case may be, shall continue to have all of the rights and powers, and all current and prospective Member Clubs and Owners shall have all of the obligations, set forth in the other provisions of the Constitution, By-Laws, rules, resolutions and agreements of the League. Without limiting the generality of the preceding sentence, the League shall continue to have the right to disapprove any proposed transfer of a direct or indirect ownership interest in a Member Club, even if the proposed transaction would otherwise comply with the provisions in this Article 13.
13.3 Restrictions on Controlling Owner
(a) Subject to Article 13.6 below, a Controlling Owner may not at any time:
(i) acquire or hold an Ownership Interest in another Member Club or its franchise, other than pursuant to the Public Company Exception;
(ii) serve, or permit any of its Attributed Persons to serve, as a Director of any other Member Club or any other Controlling Owner unless, in the case of a Controlling Owner that is a Diversified Owner, the Commissioner has given his prior written approval; or
(iii) enter into any business transaction with any Member Club (Other than the Member Club of which it is the Controlling Owner) without the prior written approval of the Commissioner.
(b) If the Commissioner disapproves any proposed transaction submitted pursuant to Article 13.3(a)(iii), the applicable Controlling Owner may appeal such disapproval to the Board of Governors, which may approve the proposed transaction by three-fourths vote.
The NWHL does not have any such specific bylaws, but has specified that "the full transition [to local team ownership] could take as long as 5-10 years, and until the transition is complete there may be ownership groups holding more than one club. Eventually, no group will own more than one club."
For the time being, BTM Partners now has control over three of the league's six teams and is also reportedly interested in adding a Montreal team in the coming years. It's an incredibly small group of people – the same people, over and over again – with a lot of control.
"In time, we will be divesting ownership of these teams, such that BTM. someday will have just one team, but again, during this transition, to ensure that all the teams have the support they need, this is the strategy the league is taking," said John Boynton in a recent media call.
According to Boynton, the NWHL's constitution specifies periods within which organizations have to divest ownership. The first divestment has to happen within five years, but Boynton said he expects and hopes it will happen sooner than that, since, in his words, "local ownership is the key to sustainability."
"This is what we all talk about every day," said Riveters GM Anya Packer. "It's investing in women, and it's watching a women's sports team and league become an investable, scalable business. That is what is at the apex of our success, today and moving forward. Today we learned that the Riveters are a brand people are willing to invest in, willing to buy and willing to grow."
The NWHL wants to transition to "local team ownership of individual clubs" over time. It's unclear at this point if there are any interested parties in purchasing the Beauts or Whitecaps, and if there are, if they are hyper-local or more broadly interested like the Boyntons.
The league recently added a "player benefits" page to its website, which outlines some of the previously-unknown benefits that players receive. The full list represents league minimums, meaning teams with private ownership may receive additional or enhanced benefits. Among the amenities listed: a $2,000 relocation stipend for players moving over 100 miles, pregnancy leave (full pay through the current contract) and support for visa and work permit costs.
As Packer discussed in the media call, up until now the NWHL – and women's hockey at large – has mostly been about convenience; playing on a team where your day job is located, or nearby, is simply easiest, particularly when these athletes need full-time jobs to make ends meet. Although the league still doesn't pay enough to live off of, Packer said these amenities and benefits are a start.
"It allows us to try to get out of that convenience-style hockey and attract players to our markets," she said.
Meanwhile, the league has announced a small handful of player signings. A restricted free agency period went through May 15; however, because the league likes to trickle out its signings after the fact, there's no way to actually know which players re-signed with their respective teams ahead of that deadline. We're now in the unrestricted free agency period, while the league holds its draft on June 29.
As of May 29, the Toronto Six, Connecticut Whale and Buffalo Beauts have announced player signings for the upcoming season, though it's likely that more have actually been signed and just not announced yet.
So far, the Six are returning captain Shiann Darkangelo and defender Emma Greco. The Whale announced the re-signing of Alyssa Wohlfeilier. For the Beauts, Marie-Jo Pelletier, Cassidy McPherson, and netminder Carly Jackson will return, while Cassidy Vinkle is also joining the team.
While the Riveters have not announced any player signings, the team did announce that head coach Ivo Mocek will return for another year behind the bench. He will also serve as director of player personnel. Packer also said that the team is looking at multiple options for a home rink for next season.
Here's one thing we do know, per Riveters GM Anya Packer in a recent media call: the Riveters' minimum salary is expected to be $7,500. While there is no explicit maximum, Packer said she doesn't anticipate signing any player for more than $30,000.
According to the NWHL and Packer, these are projections for the Riveters only. Each team will have different minimum and maximum salaries, and those numbers are not finalized at this time. Per a league spokesperson:
"Individual player salaries are based on player specific contracts that are offered by individual teams at their discretion within the $300,000 salary cap. The numbers Anya shared were her projections for the Riveters and could differ between clubs. This is not information that the league would have at this time given the majority of rosters and contracts have not been filed for Season 7."
While the league looks to prepare for the 2021-22 season, there is still a number of unanswered questions hanging in the balance. There's been no confirmation if the NWHL's bill to Lake Placid has actually been paid, or if players received their portions of the revenue sharing split, if the league has made any changes to its trans inclusion policy yet or found a new medical partner.
The NWHL never responded to inquiries from April 30 about their salary cap, after announcing the cap had been increased to $300,000. Among other questions, I wanted to clarify if there is a floor for the salary cap; if teams are expected to actually spend to the cap, and if full salaries will be guaranteed even if a full season cannot be played due to COVID-19 or other reasons. Since the increase in cap was reported as based on "projection that [the NWHL] is making strides in achieving financial stability," I also inquired about a backup plan in case projections are not met.
League communications never acknowledged the receipt of those questions.
Thank you to Mike Murphy from The Ice Garden for sharing his video recording of the Riveters/NWHL press call.
(Photo: Michelle Jay/NWHL)