Friday Five: NWHL Commissioner and Founder Dani Rylan

    • The NWHL has completed its fifth season since being founded by Rylan in 2015.
    • However, the 2020 Isobel Cup Final, the league's championship game, was postponed as a result of the coronavirus outbraek.

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March 13 was supposed to be a celebration for the National Women’s Hockey League, as the league’s Isobel Cup Final was scheduled to be played in Boston.

The championship game would have finalized an eventful last 12 months for the fifth year league.

On the one hand, the league signed its first-ever revenue-generating media rights deal with Twitch, added a 50/50 commercial revenue sharing agreement with players, and sold the Boston franchise to a group of local investors.

However, there have been some significant bumps. A group of female hockey players formed the Professional Women’s Hockey Association in May, criticizing and boycotting the league. Following that, the ownership groups of the Buffalo Sabres and the New Jersey Devils ended their partnerships with the NWHL’s teams in their respective markets.

But despite any setbacks, the league forged on, led by the 32-year-old Rylan.

“We are here, we are building, and we are never going to stop. We will never stand in the way of progress because everyone in our league is committed to pushing for it,” Rylan told Front Office Sports.

“For everyone. We wake up every day inspired to demonstrate the value of women’s professional hockey in North America. There are challenges in women’s hockey, and we will continue to do our part to work through them and work with everyone,” she said. “But most of all, I have an overwhelming sense of gratitude to everyone who supported or was involved in the NWHL over the last year. To the fans, I’d want them all to know we are ready for Season 6, Season 7, Season 8, and beyond.”

Rylan spoke with FOS’s Ian Thomas about the decision to postpone the Isobel Cup, how she grades this past season, and where she sees the most significant opportunities for growth.

Front Office Sports: Tell me about the decision to have to postpone the Isobel Cup indefinitely.

Dani Rylan: We really felt for the players, staff, and fans of the Minnesota Whitecaps and Boston Pride. They were the two best teams all season, and we fell less than 48 hours short of getting to the big game between them. On Sunday, they won their semifinals at home, and at the time, everyone was thinking we’d get to Friday and have an Isobel Cup winner. But then everything changed on Wednesday. When you saw what happened with Rudy Gobert and the NBA, everyone in sports had perspective. For us, we couldn’t ask the Whitecaps to fly from Minnesota on Thursday as planned.

Although the news was tough, especially for the players who’d worked so hard all season, it wasn’t a difficult decision. What’s going on in the world transcends a hockey game. And we also try to keep in perspective that we are fortunate. The World Championship and NCAAs and many other major women’s sports events are canceled, and that’s devastating. We have one game left to play, and we’re going to do everything we can to play it. I believe, at the appropriate time, we can make the Isobel Cup Final really special.

FOS: Now, looking back, how would you grade the 2019-2020 season?

Rylan: I’d give high marks to all of the players, our teams, staff, everyone involved. Each year we get stronger, and without question, this has been our most successful season. Almost every key metric is up: sponsorship, viewership, social media engagement, promotion of women’s and girls’ hockey, our work with youth hockey programs, and clinics. Miles Arnone bought the Boston Pride. Attendance was down slightly with the Beauts and the Riveters, which wasn’t unexpected since we were playing in new venues. But Boston is up and hosted six sold-out games – the Cup Final would be the seventh – and Minnesota remains very strong.

This year was extraordinary because we had everyone – more than 110 players, our GMs, coaches, team and league staff, and our partners and supporters – pulling in the same direction. It’s remarkable what can be accomplished when everyone works together, driven by the same goals. That’s the story of this NWHL season.

FOS: Through one season, how is the partnership with Twitch going?

Rylan: It’s been an enormous step for the NWHL, for many reasons. Twitch has become a destination for our fans, and they have introduced women’s hockey to new fans. We’re at 7 million views for the season, and that’s without the Isobel Cup Final. All our games are on the platform over two channels, and we started a talk show (“NWHL Open Ice”), which has been a hit. We’ve had more than 10,000 people watching the show at the same time, and the host and guests actually talk about women’s hockey as a sport, as a game – not a cause. That’s rare. We’ll keep the show going at least a few more weeks to fill the void in hockey talk.

But just as important, the people at Twitch have become true partners for us. They’ve seen that the NWHL and our players are dedicated partners. Our colleagues at Twitch are innovative. They care. They’re helping us with our business. Twitch has been a hero for women’s hockey, and we were all dancing in the league office on Wednesday when it was made official that they’re in business now with the NWSL.

FOS: The season opened with the sale of the Boston Pride. How are things going regarding the sale of the other teams?

Rylan: The success of the Pride under Miles’ guidance is showing what’s possible, and it has definitely opened some doors. There’s interest from investors in teams in our current markets and some potential ones. The Sports Advisory Group is working with us on that. I can say with certainty that the acquisition of the Pride is the biggest moment from a business perspective in the five-year history of the NWHL. As time goes on, it will be viewed as monumental.

I say that because we’re in an era of a lot of talk about doing things for women’s hockey, and it’s great that so many people care. But here’s Miles genuinely doing something about it – he bought the women’s major league hockey team in his market! Nothing compares to the meaningful step of an independent and resourceful entrepreneur and passionate advocate for women’s hockey buying a team. He is demonstrating to prospective NWHL owners the value of NWHL players and teams.

He and his partners are investing in the Pride, in all of the players and staff. The results are obvious: a strong team, sold-out games, great community outreach, and fan experience.

FOS: How has the implementation of the 50/50 revenue split with the players gone thus far?

Rylan: We’re really proud of it. Everyone wins. The players benefit, and I have to credit [NWHLPA director] Anya Packer for rolling up her sleeves and adding her voice to sponsorship discussions. We had more sponsors this season than ever before, and they’re seeing the value in women’s pro hockey players and of being partners with the NWHL.

Look at Chipwich as an example. I mean, just about every player in our league has spread the gospel of Chipwich. They were eating them on the benches during All-Star Weekend! Our fans are on social media like, “Ok, you’re supporting the NWHL, so we’re going to eat as many Chipwich sandwiches as we can keep in our freezer.” That’s not something that goes on a lot in other pro leagues.

Of all the many things I’m excited for next season, sponsorship is near the top of the list. I’m very confident there’s going to be another strong increase in partners next season.

FOS: As you move into the offseason, what is the biggest growth opportunity for the league?

Rylan: It’s a three-way tie for first: sponsorships, ticket sales, and adding an expansion team. And besides our partnership with Twitch for streaming, we aim to be on network TV and regional sports networks. We feel we have made the case that the NWHL and our players belong there.

FOS: Hockey fans seemingly have a lot of questions for what’s next for women’s hockey -what would you say to those fans regarding the NWHL?

Rylan: We are here, we are building, and we are never going to stop. We will never stand in the way of progress because everyone in our league is committed to pushing for it. For everyone. We wake up every day inspired to demonstrate the value of women’s professional hockey in North America. There are challenges in women’s hockey, and we will continue to do our part to work through them and work with everyone. But most of all, I have an overwhelming sense of gratitude to everyone who supported or was involved in the NWHL over the last year. To the fans, I’d want them all to know we are ready for Season 6, Season 7, Season 8, and beyond.