Does keeping financial information under wraps put NWHL on thin ice?
About a week after the National Women's Hockey League stunned its players by reducing their salaries by 50 percent, the league has yet to provide the detailed information about funding and finances that the players requested.
In a letter released last Saturday, the players asked officials of the second-year league to identify investors, explain why revenue dropped dramatically enough to trigger salary cuts and agree to a third-party accounting of the league's finances. Commissioner Dani Rylan met with some players and exchanged emails with others but still hasn't complied, according to a person who is familiar with the discussions but not authorized to talk about them.
With the league shut down for its Thanksgiving break, little is expected to happen until Monday.
NWHL spokesman Chris Botta said in an email that the league hasn't received any further capital contributions beyond a $50,000 pledge toward salaries from Dunkin' Donuts, its biggest sponsor. The league's financial issues and lack of transparency are troubling to Scott Rosner, the faculty associate director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania who is an expert on women's sports startup leagues.
"Unfortunately, this may be a harbinger of things to come for this league," Rosner said in a phone interview. "I'd love for it to succeed. But when you have this at the beginning of the season, it means your business model is not as robust as they predicted it to be.
"We know startup leagues, or any startup businesses, lose money. That's no great surprise. So you have to scale back and try to keep the doors open. Some leagues have done it and survived, but I worry that this may not."
Until the league opens its books, it's difficult to know what went wrong. But there might be some hints.
Canadian financial executive Joel Leonoff met Rylan and invested in the league in its inaugural season while his daughter, Jaimie, played for the Connecticut Whale. Jaimie, a Yale graduate, goaltender and aspiring Olympian, needed a place to improve her skills.
"I'm supporting my daughter more than anything," Leonoff told espnW last January.
Jaimie signed with the New York Riveters over the summer but injured her hip before training camp and is out for the season. It's not clear whether Leonoff remains a benefactor; he did not respond to an email asking about his involvement.
"Investors may have an ability to underwrite a certain amount of money," Rosner said. "If a business makes another capital call, it's not unusual to see them pull back. If that's what happened here, the league is in serious trouble."
The NWHL resumes play Dec. 3. Players can opt out of their contracts for virtually any reason, but where would they go? Rosters in the Canadian Women's Hockey League, the only other North American option, appear set. The CWHL pays bonuses but not salaries, so even a significantly reduced NWHL paycheck is better than none.
CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress said in an email that her league is considering "all options for our players and any players who display an interest in joining the CWHL at this point."
The CWHL, founded in 2007, is miles ahead of the NWHL in transparency. It lists its board of governors and directors on its website; the NWHL has never revealed them. And the CWHL far exceeds the NWHL in sponsorships and corporate partners.
Rylan attended Sunday's Riveters-Whale game in Newark, New Jersey. Rosner suggested Rylan meet with all teams face-to-face as soon as possible.
"The league needs to trudge on." Rosner said. "The league needs to be very, very forthright with its players. The league needs to be in front on this rather than behind it.
"If I'm the commissioner, I'm meeting with every team today and tomorrow. I need to speak to the players, tell them what's going on and be honest with them. You've got to do something to keep them happy and enthusiastic and understanding. They're all in this together. Basically, you've got to make sure you're holding their hands and assuring them you're doing the best you can under the circumstances."