Ready for the big leagues.

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Women's Hockey Gets a Paycheck

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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Good news for fans of ice hockey and high-quality American women's sports: The National Women's Hockey League is coming to town.

That is, if your town happens to be either New York, Boston, Buffalo, New York or Stamford, Connecticut. The NWHL will feature four teams -- the Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale and New York Riveters -- with 18 players each. According to Yahoo Sports' Jen Neale, the season will be 18 games long and will run from October to March, including preseason and playoffs.

Most importantly: The players will be paid. Not much, but something

This is huge. As the league office told Outlook Hockey's Mike Burse, the NWHL will be "the first paid professional women's hockey league in North America." Currently, women seeking to play hockey professionally have just one option: The Canadian Women's Hockey League, which doesn't pay players. Some live off the stipend provided by their national organizations, but many countries don't offer any form of payment. So after competing in college and the Olympics, most of the world's top women's hockey players must work full-time jobs in order to continue playing their sport at the highest level. American players face a particular barrier: Only one of the five CWHL teams, the Boston Blades, is in the U.S.; to play for the others means obtaining a Canadian work visa.

The NWHL wants to change things. The salary cap will be $270,000; spread among an 18-player team, that works out to an average salary of $15,000. Star players will be able to negotiate with general managers to get more, but most will still likely have to supplement their incomes. Nonetheless, the door is at least opened to enticing high-level talent with the promise of pay, and the prospect of higher future salaries should the league succeed.

The funding will come from a mix of sponsorship and donations to the NWHL Foundation. Ice time will be donated in the four arenas, and the NWHL has struck a partnership with US Coachways, a bus line. The NWHL will also seek a partnership with the NHL, which, frankly, could  use some fresh content to break the monotony of NHL Network. The NWHL will offer a streaming package available on the its own website. 

As SBNation's Zoe Hayden notes, the close proximity of the four teams will keep travel costs down while fostering real, marketable regional rivalries. (Let's be honest: The Boston-New York rivalry has been lukewarm since the Red Sox started winning World Series in 2004.) The design of the teams' logos is also a positive sign that the league could be successfully sold to hockey fans: 

 Yes, that is a sideways spin on the old Hartford Whalers logo, which many uniform aficionados will tell you was the greatest of all time. Appealing to the desire of fans to see the Whalers return to hockey was a pretty shrewd move by the women behind the NWHL, who know a thing or two about winning. The commissioner of the league is former Northeastern player Dani Rylan, who launched the league with four-time Olympic medalist Angela Ruggiero after failing to bring an expansion CWHL team to New York. 

The NWHL will draw from an impressive talent pool including college juniors and seniors, who can enter the 2015 NWHL Entry Draft taking place in October. College graduates will be considered free agents, and can negotiate one-year deals until Aug. 25. According to Rylan, the league will also be open to foreign players. "Since it is a paid league, we can offer visas for international players, so the women who may have gone to college in Boston, and want to stay in the Boston area, will still have the ability to do that, because they'll have the visa," she told WNPR's Ray Hardman. Rylan says the league already has verbal commitments from several players, and will be announcing its first team owner next week.

It will be interesting to see how the NWHL coexists with the CWHL, especially since both will have a team in Boston. According to Hayden, the Blades went on strike in November after the CWHL sought three-year unpaid contracts, which didn't fly with some American players. It's unclear what convinced the players to return to the ice.

If the Buffalo Sabres, Boston Bruins and New York Rangers are smart (sorry, Stamford), they'll show some support for the women trying to make it in their hometowns. According to Nielsen, the NHL has the second-highest share of female fans among the four major sports leagues (32 percent, behind the NFL's 35 percent). For a league still trying to play catch-up among the other giants in North American sports, the NHL might find female fans are part of the answer. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net