New Commissioner, New Direction for NWHL

With a fresh face at the top and a reworked ownership model, the NWHL is focused on raising its game while remaining an independent circuit.
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Tyler Tumminia (Photo courtesy of the NWHL)

Tyler Tumminia (Photo courtesy of the NWHL)

It’s when she’s speaking about her new post as NWHL interim commissioner and whether she sees a long-term fit that Tyler Tumminia quips about her possession of a crystal ball, or rather her lack thereof. Even if she could have gazed into the future, though, one wonders if Tumminia would have believed where the past several months have taken her.

Consider it was only April when Tumminia, a longtime front-office executive with roots in minor- and major-league baseball, was named chairman of the women’s circuit’s expansion Toronto Six franchise. Since then, in the midst of a global pandemic, she’s helped in the successful launch and branding of the organization, watched as its roster filled out and as team president and acclaimed coach Digit Murphy stepped back behind the bench. But as Tumminia and her staff readied for a season sure to be unlike any in NWHL history, she was approached with a surprising opportunity.

League founder Dani Rylan Kearney was set to step down as commissioner as the NWHL prepared to embrace a governance model and shift franchise ownership from the league to independent groups. Tumminia was asked to assume Rylan Kearney’s role. There was little hemming and hawing. “It’s about a women’s movement for me,” Tumminia said. “It’s the evolution and making this game go forward. I wanted to be a part of that, to be honest. I wanted something for myself, personally, that I could get behind with energy, passion and a mission I believed in. As you get older, you look for those opportunities. And for me, this is a no-brainer.”

For the league, too, there was no time like the present for a restructuring. Though it had previously boasted independent ownership – from 2017 to 2019 the Buffalo Beauts were owned by Pegula Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Buffalo Sabres and several other sports entities – the NWHL’s first truly dedicated independent ownership group arrived when a team of investors, led by Miles Arnone, purchased the Boston Pride ahead of 2019-20.

Arnone’s ownership of the Pride highlighted an issue of its own, however. “Before the league was known as what’s called a single-entity league,” said NWHL board of governors member John Boynton. “But once the Pride were sold, that was creating an awkward hybrid. We thought that would create some unnecessary conflicts of interest...and it was hard to see that being tenable moving forward. You’d be in a situation where the team was essentially competing with the league for revenue.”

Thus, the solution was to transition to a joint-venture structure in which each team is represented by a governor. The model is akin to what’s seen throughout professional sports, including North America’s Big Four, and it’s a system that stands to benefit the on-ice product as much as the off-ice health of the league.

Last season’s Pride outfit saw near-immediate benefit from Arnone and Co.’s ownership. Within weeks of gaining independent ownership, Boston had moved from its old, substandard practice facility to the new Thayer Sports Center, where they had a dedicated dressing room and the Pride were given amenities of which they had only previously dreamt. “The accommodations on the road were better, the type of food we were eating for pre- and post-game meals, and we had the benefit of the type of additional apparel and footwear to be training outside of the rink,” said defender Kaleigh Fratkin, who’s heading into her fourth season with the Pride. “In the years prior, we just didn’t have the financial bandwidth to be able to allocate dollars for those type of resources. Now, with individual ownership, you’re allowed to extend that budget further.”

The on-ice results were tangible in Boston, where the Pride lost just one regular-season game and qualified for the Isobel Cup final before its pandemic-related cancellation. It was the product of the players being able to focus their efforts on individual and team performance, Fratkin said, and Boynton indicated it was proof of the benefits of independent ownership. “If you have a 

single-entity league where that ownership group is focused on a whole bunch of teams, you’re not going to get much focus at all,” Boynton said. “Whereas if you have individual local ownership of teams, you’re going to get much more passion and much more focus on what’s really going to make those teams sing.”

It’s that passion the NWHL wants, too, not groups looking for an arms-length venture. Tumminia and the board want dedication. They want builders who are committed to the communities in which the franchises play, visionaries who have not only enthusiasm for the game but who share the same desires as the league.

Finding those owners isn’t the only thing on Tumminia’s plate. There’s a matter of securing new sponsorships and partners who believe in supporting the NWHL, there’s finding methods to increase viewership and visibility and discovering a way to further elevate the platform at a time when women’s sports are garnering more attention than ever before. (The WNBA’s regular season averaged upwards of 200,000 viewers and the National Women’s Soccer League’s audience for its Challenge Cup championship was an outstanding 650,000-plus viewers. Tumminia laughs, saying she’d like to see similar numbers for the NWHL, “like, yesterday.”)

And there’s also dealing with the fact that several of the best women’s players in the world are still unwilling to play in the NWHL, choosing instead to align with the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association.

The NWHL board has confidence in Tumminia’s ability to accomplish all of that and more. “In terms of grasping what we’re trying to accomplish, she just has so much talent and experience,” Boynton said. “She shares the view of the new board that we want this league to remain independent, and we 

really believe that a successful league is an independent league. We want the women’s game to stand on its own two feet. Ty gets that, and I think she’s going to be a really effective leader for us.”

But that brings us back to the question only the non-

existent crystal ball can answer: how long will Tumminia be that leader? She isn’t going to play clairvoyant. “I’m focused on helping the league grow and strengthening the platform for the young women to pursue their hockey dreams,” Tumminia said. “That’s why I got involved with the league in the first place with the Toronto Six. I’m going to work to make sure whoever the next commissioner is, the league is in a stronger place. But right now I have a tall order of getting a lot of things right and fast.” 

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