Two-time Olympian Hilary Knight, the most famous women's-ice-hockey player in America, picks at her food at a Mexican restaurant in Medford, Massachusetts, at 9 p.m. on a Tuesday. She's driven over from a rink in Everett, Massachusetts, where her professional team, the Boston Pride of the National Women's Hockey League, had held practice.
"Do I think I'm worth what I'm getting paid?" The 26-year-old repeats my question, only with an edge.
Arguably the most talented member on the NWHL's most Olympian-heavy roster, she will be paid $22,000 in this inaugural season. The salary will tie for the highest on her team. It will also represent a quarter of one percent of what Patrice Bergeron, the highest-paid player on the Boston Bruins, will make this year.
She leans forward, shaking her head.
"Absolutely not. I am worth way more than that."
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Before 2015, women's-hockey players had never been paid to play their sport in the United States. And, originally, league founder (and former Northeastern University co-captain) Dani Rylan accepted the status quo when she planned to bring a Canadian Women's Hockey League expansion team to New York to play without pay. (Rylan moved to New York after getting her master's in sports leadership from Northeastern in 2012; when the NHL lockout delayed an expected job with the NHL Network, she opened her own coffee shop in East Harlem.)
But when the Canadian league opted not to expand, the 28-year-old thought bigger, opting to start a second league … one that would actually offer salaries.
An ambitious woman, Rylan named herself commissioner as well as general manager of the New York Riveters, one of the NWHL's four teams (along with the Pride, the Connecticut Whale, and the Buffalo Beauts). Each team has a salary cap of $270,000; the average individual salary works out to about $15,000. Some players, like Knight, make more, and some make less. Players are paid biweekly, and the season runs from October to March, including 18 regular-season games, plus playoffs.
Rylan's move is virtually unprecedented in women's hockey, but it makes sense. At the 2014 Winter Olympics, the gold-medal game between the U.S. and Canada attracted 4.9 million televised viewers; it was the most-watched event in Sochi. Plus, the sport has grown markedly at the grassroots level. When women's hockey first appeared in the Olympics in 1998, there were 19 Division I programs and 28,000 registered female players. Over the years, this mainstream exposure has steadily bolstered the growth of the game. Now, there are 35 Division I programs and 70,000 girls and women registered.
Even when the timing seems perfect, women's leagues still struggle — and often fail. Who can forget the excitement that Brandi Chastain and her teammates brought to the sport of soccer in the 1999 Women's World Cup? Hoping to harness that momentum, John Hendricks of the Discovery Channel launched the eight-team Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA) in 2000. But by 2003, the league had folded.
"I was intoxicated by what I witnessed in 1999 with the corporate sponsorship," Hendricks told the Los Angeles Times when the league went belly up. "I mistakenly assumed it would overflow onto the league."
Selling sponsors on millions of guaranteed viewers for an Olympics or World Cup is one thing. Selling them on women's sports every other day of the year is another thing entirely. And there's been no indication that this challenge will be any easier for women's ice hockey — as of December 27, the average attendance at an NWHL game was 900 people. In comparison, the NHL's lowest average overall attendance this season belongs to the Carolina Hurricanes, with 14,258 (as of this writing).
While the NWHL has had some encouraging developments, including its first corporate sponsorship (Dunkin' Donuts) and its first televised broadcasting agreement (New England Sports Network will air eight of the Pride's home games this season), its solvency is still debatable. If the NHL got involved, it could help. The WNBA, which finished its 19th season in October, was able to survive its early years in part because the NBA contributed millions of dollars in direct support.