Erika Nardini, Kelly Babstock, and Rebecca Russo appearing at a recording of Nardini's podcast, Token CEO.
- 9 min read

Barstool CEO Erika Nardini Was In Talks to Own Three Premier Hockey Federation Teams

As of November 2020, according to documents provided to the Victory Press, the then-NWHL's Board of Governors was in serious talks with Erika Nardini regarding her purchase of the Metropolitan Riveters as well as the Connecticut Whale and expansion rights to place a team in the Detroit area.

Barstool CEO Erika Nardini Was In Talks to Own Three Premier Hockey Federation Teams by Victory Press Staff, Melissa Burgess, Zoë Hayden

Ty Tumminia was named interim commissioner of the NWHL (now known as the Premier Hockey Federation) in October 2020, and at that time, the NWHL underwent restructuring and began transitioning away from having the league itself own and operate its teams. Boston and Toronto were already independently owned, so a separate entity, W Hockey Partners, was designated to own and operate the remaining four teams while the process of finding independent buyers began in earnest.

In November 2020, the pursuit of new ownership for those teams had progressed to serious talks with Erika Nardini, CEO of Barstool Sports, according to correspondence that has been provided to the Victory Press. This presented a significant financial opportunity for the NWHL, as Nardini is reportedly individually worth more than $10 million USD. The correspondence details that Nardini was pursuing ownership of both the Metropolitan Riveters and the Connecticut Whale, as well as expansion rights for a future team to be located in the Detroit area.

The correspondence confirms that this was being discussed internally with the NWHL Board of Governors and that meetings were taking place in November 2020 between Nardini and W Hockey Partners to begin the process.

Nardini wanted the acquisition of the existing teams to be finalized prior to January's Lake Placid season, but she was advised by a representative of W Hockey Partners that there was an application and approval process that needed to take place first per the NWHL's Constitution and that it could take some time. Regarding the Detroit team, that same representative suggested that an Expansion Committee may need to be formed first for planning purposes. Nardini also expressed a desire to be involved in marketing and corporate image for the NWHL, which was received positively by those involved in the talks.

It's unclear how the acquisition talks were progressing between November 2020 and puck drop of the Lake Placid season, but Nardini's desire to own an NWHL team had circulated on social media in the intervening period in a playful way, with NWHL staffers "liking" tweets regarding team ownership from Nardini's podcast, Token CEO. While this interaction was certainly friendly, the correspondence we have reviewed indicates that the relationship between Nardini and the NWHL was in actuality much more serious.

Back on January 25, as the then-NWHL was still in Lake Placid, New York trying to complete its shortened tournament-style season amid an outbreak of COVID-19 at the play site, Nardini posted a video that directly targeted fans of women's hockey, journalists who covered the NWHL, as well as league staff members. The video was an obvious response to negative comments and backlash regarding the suggestion that Erika Nardini might purchase an NWHL team. Nardini's video re-stated her desire to purchase an NWHL team as well.

When Metropolitan Riveters rookie Saroya Tinker saw the video, she posted a response:

Obviously, the acquisition was not finalized prior to the Lake Placid season as Nardini had wanted, but Barstool's relationship with the NWHL and its commissioner Ty Tumminia still seemed to be pretty close. Tumminia was slated to appear on Nardini's podcast, Token CEO, on February 1, 2021, according to the correspondence we reviewed. After the social media incidents that took place around January 25, the appearance was apparently cancelled.

Tinker's tweet and the subsequent harassment of her was heavily discussed – remember, David Portnoy posted a video stating that she should be in jail for calling Barstool a proponent of white supremacy. These social media interactions fundamentally changed the relationship between the NWHL/PHF and Barstool Sports. However, that change in relationship now appears to be much more transformative with the revelation that Nardini was in serious talks to become an owner of three teams just months before, including the team that Tinker then played for. (She has since signed with the Toronto Six and is no longer with the Riveters.)

Tumminia attempted to publicly distance the NWHL from Barstool in a press conference on January 26, as reported here, but her statement was equivocal at best and avoided discussing accountability for players who participated in Barstool's harassment of Tinker, NWHL fans, journalists, and other league employees.

In that same press conference, Tumminia also said that there had not been any application to purchase a team from Barstool or Nardini up to that point – despite the fact that WHP and the Board of Governors had been in serious talks with Nardini just a few months prior to make exactly that happen. Perhaps it's true that no formal application had actually been entered at the time, but this was, at the very least, not the whole truth.

Many of the players who interacted with Barstool's harassment of Tinker, the NWHL, and media have been re-signed for the upcoming season, including Rebecca Russo and Kelly Babstock. That duo's appearance on Nardini's podcast, Token CEO, on January 21, 2021 is what sparked this entire conversation in the first place.

The circumstances surrounding that podcast appearance are suspect in and of themselves. Back in January, Tumminia said during her media availability that she couldn't really prevent any NWHL players from associating with Barstool, but that if it became more than a couple of players, it would become something the Board of Governors would discuss. Such a comment would suggest that Russo and Babstock's decision to appear on Token CEO was made on their own, independent of any team or league approval.

However, this was clearly not the case, as Riveters GM Anya Packer posted a tweet that revisited this situation on October 5, stating the following:

Both Kelly and Rebecca gained permission from prior management to appear on BS to promote women's hockey, and leverage the size of the media company to attract new fans. Their appearance was exclusively to evangelize the upcoming season and does not mean they support every action and statement of every BS employee.

(It appears that Anya was responding indirectly to accusations that have been made towards The Ice Garden at SBNation on Twitter regarding their reporters' coverage of this story and the personnel involved. Packer took over as GM of the Riveters in April 2021, a few months after these events took place. Prior to that she was the executive director of the NWHLPA. In her role as general manager of the Riveters, she succeeded Kate Whitman Annis, who went on to become the director of operations for W Hockey Parnters.)

Not only did someone in the Riveters organization approve the appearance by Russo and Babstock on Token CEO – they even believed it would be a good marketing ploy to appeal to Barstool's fanbase. In retrospect, and in light of the correspondence reviewed by the Victory Press, it seems as though this podcast appearance was part of the growing business relationship between Nardini and the NWHL which would have potentially included ownership of the Riveters, where Babstock and Russo both play.

After Tinker's statement and the associated blowback that the NWHL/PHF had to face, Barstool and Nardini adopted a strategy of portraying themselves as the victims, as champions of women's hockey dealing with "haters" who don't understand their significant contributions to the sport. But the groundwork for this was already laid out prior, since Tinker's statement was in direct response to Nardini's video that targeted NWHL staffers, fans, and reporters. It's unclear why Nardini thought it was productive to the business relationship in the first place to attack people involved with the NWHL, just days before the league's commissioner was slated to appear on her show. Tumminia's appearance on Token CEO was confirmed at some point on January 25, the same day that Nardini posted her video. The video was posted to Twitter at 9:16PM and Tinker's response was posted less than 2 hours later.

Nardini stated the following in an Instagram post on January 28:

I'm at a loss with the NWHL. I don't understand how you actively court someone like me (and let's be honest it's fairly obvious who I am, what I do, and where I work) ...yet the minute someone else doesn't like it, to be swiftly and summarily shunned. When it served them, I was accepted as an advocate and a champion...yet when it hurt them, they bailed. I get that they don't like that I responded to my detractors, many of whom work for the organization, but this goes way beyond that. Two years ago, I asked to go skate with the Riveters during a practice. I was denied; told this was a "bad idea." I've worked hard since then to be accepted and understood by the NWHL only to find myself in the exact same place...

When they needed money and owners, I was attractive. When pushed by a small but mighty minority, I was instantly not. This is entirely their prerogative...

The ecosystem around women's hockey is much more insular and way more exclusive than I thought. I've had so many investors, mens teams and groups write and call me this week - all saying the same thing - "we looked at investing in, buying a team, or supporting women's hockey but it's a bad idea" - I hate that. What a shitty reality.

Nardini's post paints a picture of an organization that courted her when they wanted her money but were less keen on being associated with her as a person or with the Barstool Sports brand. Whether this was due to fan and public pressure, as Nardini implied, or other internal misgivings, is debatable. It is well documented in public record that Barstool has a long history of posting racist, misogynistic, transphobic, homophobic, and otherwise bigoted or harmful content, often perpetuated by David Portnoy.

Regardless, the documents reviewed by the Victory Press indicate that both PHF Commissioner Ty Tumminia and Riveters GM/former NWHLPA head Anya Packer strongly misrepresented the NWHL's relationship with Barstool Sports and Erika Nardini going back to at least November 2020. They then continued to do so in order to save face after Saroya Tinker spoke out against the company and Nardini.

Tumminia's response came off as an equivocation in the first place, but in light of the revelation that Nardini was seriously involved in team acquisition talks, it appears to be an attempt to avoid throwing Saroya Tinker under the bus while also not slamming the door shut on possible future relationships with Nardini and Barstool Sports. Regarding Barstool, Tumminia said: "I don't find that association being healthy [...] to the objectives that we're trying to do." This sounds rather anodyne on the surface, but clearly to Nardini and to David Portnoy, it was part of a pattern of public hesitation on the part of the NWHL to accept Nardini's involvement and financial backing despite the fact that behind the scenes, acquisition talks had gotten rather serious. This desire to play both sides backfired, since the NWHL/PHF came off looking like they didn't have clear or sincere values around racism and other forms of bigotry (while sporting "End Racism" patches on their uniforms in Lake Placid, no less), drawing the ire of many fans and media members across the sports landscape – and the relationship with Barstool and Nardini was also damaged in the process.

Ultimately, those who opposed Barstool's involvement in the PHF itself got what they wanted, but the entire series of events calls the organization's values and ethics into question and raises further concerns about transparency. The rebrand is fresh and the Premier Hockey Federation is trying to turn a new page for its seventh season, but the organization still seems focused on "looking ahead" regarding this and other recent equity issues (such as the PHF's policy on trans and nonbinary athletes and Toronto Six coach Digit Murphy's past association with a transphobic group) rather than making public efforts to restore trust and atone for harm caused to fans, players, and media members as a result of these issues and practices.

All six PHF teams are now owned by independent entities. BTM Partners, LLC owns three of those four (Metropolitan, Toronto, and Boston), with the goal to begin divestment within five years and have each team owned by an independent ownership group. NLTT Ventures, LLC owns the Buffalo Beauts and Minnesota Whitecaps. Shared Hockey Enterprises owns the Connecticut Whale. Currently, W Hockey Partners owns no PHF teams, though these various LLCs are largely comprised of longtime NWHL/PHF/WHP investors.

When reached for comment regarding the correspondence provided to us, PHF Senior Vice President of Communications Paul Krotz stated:

Thank you for reaching out. As a matter of policy, the PHF will not comment on discussions that may or may not have occurred between NWHL LLC and potential business partners, including those that may relate to the sale of teams or expansion franchises.

This response refers to W Hockey Partners, the ownership entity that was formerly operating NWHL teams after its October 2020 restructuring. W Hockey Partners was and is still legally known as NWHL LLC. This response specifically did not respond to questions regarding Ty Tumminia's interactions with Barstool or her scheduled appearance on Token CEO.

The Victory Press has also reached out for comment from W Hockey Partners and from Anya Packer and Erika Nardini individually. We will update this post if and when we receive a response.

(Photo: Token CEO/Facebook)