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Women's Hockey Takes Stage As New Pro Sports League

Jan 21, 2016
Originally published on January 21, 2016 6:49 pm

Featuring teams in Boston, Buffalo, Connecticut and New York City, the National Women's Hockey League has become home to some of the best players in the world. Meghan Duggan, for example, who was the U.S. Olympic Team captain in the gold-medal game in 2014 in Sochi, plays for the Buffalo Beauts.

It was that hockey final that inspired the league's commissioner and founder, Dani Rylan, to start it. The pro league launched in October. Its first all-star game is scheduled Jan. 24.

"I used to say that after the 2014 Winter Olympics was really the best time to start a professional women's hockey league. That gold-medal game out in Sochi was the most-watched event on NBC, with 4.9 million viewers," Rylan tells NPR's David Greene.

"And people weren't watching it because it was a women's game," he says. "They were watching because it was an amazing hockey game. The game is ready for the professional stage. If 2014 wasn't the best time, 2015 was the next best."

The women's gold medal hockey game between the United States and Canada, according to NBC, was the most-watched ice hockey game in the U.S., excluding Stanley Cup Finals, since the men's gold medal game from Vancouver 2010.


Interview Highlights

On paying players

Each team has a salary cap of $270,000, so the average salary is $15,000 a year, and we've had investors come in and support our business plan, and this first year we've also had our first corporate sponsor sign on — Dunkin Donuts — and a few broadcast deals as well, with a streaming package with ESPN3 and [New England Sports Network]. Broadcast and sponsorships make the sports world go round and we've really made a big splash in the first couple months here.

On comparing players' salaries with players in other professional sports

It's a great start. You don't want to compare a league in its infancy to a league that is about to have its centennial. ...

This is such an amazing group of women playing in this league. We have everything from coaches to teachers, nurses, mechanical engineers. We try to accommodate their schedule as much as possible. All of our games are on Sundays, allowing the players to have those jobs during the week.

Thoughts on the league's first season

This year has been amazing. It's crazy to think that on Jan. 1 of 2015, we hadn't even announced the launch of the league yet, and then Dec. 31, 2015, we're playing on the biggest stage at an event partnered with the NHL. So it has been an incredible year, and I think what's really special about it is the number of generations that this has affected.

One of my favorite moments to date is actually a young girl with a sign that says "NWHL 2027 first-round draft pick." And I think it's really special to think that that dream can become a reality for her.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

America has a new pro sports league - the National Women's Hockey League, launched last fall. The league has four teams in Boston, Buffalo, Connecticut and New York, and it's drawing the best female hockey players in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Duggan shoots and scores. It's one-nothing USA - Meghan Duggan.

GREENE: Like U.S. Olympic team captain Meghan Duggan scoring right there in the gold medal game at the 2014 Winter Olympics. The women's league recently shared the stage at the Winter Classic, the NHL's annual outdoor game, over New Year's. The founder and commissioner of the NWHL is Dani Rylan. She is 28 years old. She spoke to us from an ice rink in New York City, and I asked her what inspired her to start this league.

DANI RYLAN: I used to say that after the 2014 Winter Olympics was really the best time to start a professional women's hockey league. You know, that gold-medal game out Sochi was the most-watched event on NBC with 4.9 million viewers.

GREENE: Yeah, it was amazing.

RYLAN: And people weren't watching it because it was a women's game. They were watching it 'cause it was an amazing hockey game.

GREENE: And so tell me - you have four teams now. And I wonder, I mean, where the money is coming from and how some of these players are - how much money they're making.

RYLAN: Each team has a salary cap of 270,000.

GREENE: OK.

RYLAN: So the average salary is 15,000 a year. And we've had investors come in and support our business plan. And this first year, we've also had our first corporate sponsor sign on - Dunkin' Donuts - and a few broadcast deals, as well, with a streaming package with ESPN3 and then New England Sports Net. So broadcast and sponsorships make the sports world go round, and we've really made a big splash in the first couple months here.

GREENE: And I guess we should say in the world of professional sports - when we think about some of the salaries, like, in the National Hockey League, I mean, 15,000 probably doesn't sound like all that much.

RYLAN: Yeah. I mean, but it's a great start, and you don't want to compare a league in its infancy to a league that is about to have its centennial.

GREENE: And do most of the women who are playing have other full-time jobs - like, they're doing this and then going to work at other points?

RYLAN: They do. This is such an amazing group of women playing in this league. You know, we have everything from coaches to teachers, nurses, mechanical engineers. We try to accommodate their schedule as much as possible. All of our games are on Sundays, allowing the players to have those jobs during the week.

GREENE: And, Dani, what are the crowds like?

RYLAN: We have a really consistent passionate fan base. We're averaging around a thousand fans a game, which is close to capacity for our facilities.

GREENE: But what's the gender breakdown in the crowd?

RYLAN: We're actually about 50-50 - male to female. Actually, a couple weekends ago, a little boy was running around the stands, telling people to vote for Madison Packer into our all-star game. And it was just really cute to see that this little 12-year-old boy was just as passionate about the women's game as you would assume some girls would be.

GREENE: I guess just before I let you go, reflect a little bit on what this year means and, you know, after one successful season, what sort of message you've sent.

RYLAN: This year has been amazing. I mean, it's crazy to think that on January 1 of 2015, we hadn't even announced the launch of the league yet. And then December 31, 2015, we're playing on the biggest stage at an event, partnered with the NHL. So it has been an incredible year, and I think what's really special about it is the number of generations that this has affected. One of my favorite moments to date is actually a young girl with a sign that says NWHL 2027 first-round draft pick. And I think it's really special to think that that dream can become a reality for her.

GREENE: That's Dani Rylan. She is commissioner and founder of the new National Women's Hockey League. Dani, thanks so much for talking with us.

RYLAN: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOOT TO SCORE")

NANCY BEAUDETTE: (Singing) Tryouts were on Thursday night. College girls out on the ice, all suited up under lights, making it look easy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.