The National Women’s Hockey League, the first paid professional hockey league for women in North America, reached another monumental milestone on Tuesday when it announced Dunkin’ Donuts as the league’s first corporate sponsor.
Considering the rookie organization already has broadcasting partnerships with both ESPN3 and NESN, there are plenty of signs that the NWHL — founded this spring by 28-year-old Dani Rylan without funding from the NHL or any other established hockey organization — is here to stay.
The NWHL launched in October, just 18 months after Rylan began looking into ways to bring women’s pro hockey to the United States. Currently, the league is presented as a part-time job for the athletes — each of the four teams in the league have a salary cap of $270,000, and all of the players make between $10,000–25,000 per year. There are only two mandatory practices each week, and the games are on Sundays. Currently the league is averaging 900 fans per game.
“The goal isn’t to make a profit the first year, it’s to have a sustainable product. If you do that, the profit will come,” Jake Duhaime, the director of media relations at the NWHL, told ThinkProgress.
Many still consider the league to be fledgling, but partnerships like the one with Dunkin’ showcase how valuable the trailblazing league — and women’s hockey as a whole — is becoming. After all, Duhaime said the brand isn’t just interested in gaining influence with the league, but also with the 70,000 women all over the country who play the sport.
The partnership will reportedly include Dunkin’-coordinated youth hockey clinics in each of the four markets and the addition of the Dunkins’ logo on all team jerseys, goal posts, arenas, and league websites.
— Meg Linehan (@itsmeglinehan) December 8, 2015
“The popularity of women’s hockey is rapidly growing and our sponsorship of the National Women’s Hockey League is a perfect way for Dunkin’ Donuts to support this exciting new league,” Tom Manchester, vice president of field marketing for Dunkin’ Brands, said in a statement. “Additionally, the founding four franchises are located in key Dunkin’ Donuts markets in the Northeast, and we believe our guests will be excited to learn more about the NWHL and help them make this inaugural season a wonderful success.”
There is also a “personal services agreement” with Meghan Duggan involved in the partnership, making the U.S. Women’s Team captain and star of the NWHL’s Buffalo Beauts’ essentially a brand ambassador.
“It’s going to be fascinating to see what happens with our players once we have a brand behind them promoting them. Dunkin’ is really invested in getting [Duggan] out there in Western New York.”
Coming into the inaugural season, the NWHL had four major targets for sponsors — a quick-service restaurant, a telecommunications provider, an automobile manufacturer and a bank. Having Dunkin’ Donuts on board fulfills the first category, and it should also make it easier to attract more sponsors going forward.
“We’ve taken advantage of the news that was centered around our launch,” Duhaime said. “There’s a lot of value to our league. It speaks to the work that we’re doing.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t still major challenges for the league. While there are broadcasting partners in place — ESPN3 for streaming and NESN for TV — right now, the number of games that can be produced on quality streams are limited because Boston is the only NWHL arena that is broadcast-ready. ESPN3’s agreement with the league only includes nine games and the playoffs, which will be in a not-yet-determined venue, and NESN is broadcasting eight Boston games.
“We’re working on getting [all of the arenas] as TV-ready as possible,” Duhaime said. “These are not rinks that are used to having 15–20 games broadcast in them per year. We have to learn on the fly.”
The NWHL has a long way to go until it’s on par with the NHL, or even other women’s leagues such as the NWSL or the WNBA. But getting a first sponsor is a significant step in the right direction — more money and support will allow the league to expand in all directions.
“This is symbolically the perfect first sponsor to bring aboard,” Duhaime said. “Now that we’ve had one, others will follow.”