“12 hours away from history”: The End of the NWHL Season and Why It Hurts So Much

An abrupt end to the 2021 NWHL season halts the league’s historic television debut

By Alex Holmes & Preston Bradsher

NWHL Commissioner Tyler Tumminia said it best: the league was  “12 hours away from history” before multiple COVID-19 cases in Lake Placid forced the NWHL to suspend the remainder of the 2021 season.

Although it was the right decision, this one hurts. It hurts for the players, coaches, team personnel, and league leadership who came so close to showcasing their sport on a major television network for the first time in their history. It hurts for the women’s ice hockey fans and women’s sports supporters who were rooting for the league’s brand exposure to grow. It hurts for the underpaid media members who have worked tirelessly to cover the league with professionalism. So many people poured themselves into this season to try to bring the NWHL back despite the enormous obstacles of the pandemic, but it just wasn’t enough this time. 

The cancellation of the season just ahead of its national television debut will be a tough pill to swallow for some time because it’s a painful reminder of the fragility of women’s sports in this country. In a culture where full-throated support for women’s sports is lacking and big opportunities are hard to come by, a major setback like this can force an athlete to ask herself, “Was this my last chance?” While we know the answer is no—advocates for women’s sports don’t go down that easily—it doesn’t change the fact that opportunities like this are historically few and far between. This was not the last chance for the NWHL, but that doesn’t mean that constant uncertainty and endless waiting for big-time opportunities should remain the status quo for female athletes.  

Last week, the Metropolitan Riveters left the bubble—later admitted by the league to be more of a “restrictive access environment” than a true bubble—due to positive cases within their organization. In light of concerns over player safety, the Connecticut Whale followed suit a few days later, packing their bags and leaving Lake Placid. With the Isobel Cup playoffs—and its airtime on NBC Sports Network—just one day away, the NWHL announced it was suspending the 2021 season as more positive test results came to light. Heading into this season, everyone involved in the bubble knew the inherent risks that came with playing in a pandemic. Unfortunately, those risks became a reality, and there will be no 2021 Isobel Cup champion until further notice. 

Until a full evaluation of the league protocols can be completed, there will be plenty of questions concerning contact tracing, testing, and player accountability. Surely there are aspects of the season that should have been handled differently, but we also can’t overlook the logistical complications that the NWHL faced from the beginning. The league’s limited resources, even in comparison to bigger women’s leagues like the WNBA, put them at a disadvantage that made attempting this season a herculean endeavor. 

The league has a very small staff compared to mainstream sports leagues like the NBA, NFL, and even the NWSL or WNBA. The NWHL has only a small number of full-time staff, meaning that those same few people are in charge of scheduling games, overseeing COVID-19 protocols, responding to the media, and taking care of player needs on and off the ice. The logistical work would be a lot to handle under normal circumstances, and the additional burden of dealing with COVID-19 pushed the workload to a new level. 

Another reason for the bubble’s failure was the inability to properly quarantine players prior to their arrival in Lake Placid. The majority of NWHL players have full-time jobs aside from playing hockey because at the moment, these athletes do not have the luxury of depending solely on their team salaries. The league couldn’t realistically ask players to take 14 days off from the full-time jobs that pay their bills, so the bubble was more porous than most from the start.

When asked by Rachel Brady of The Globe and Mail about why players did not arrive to the bubble earlier, Anya Packer, the director of the NWHL Players’ Association, elaborated on the logistical complications that prevented such a quarantine. “We aren’t yet in that position where they’re full-time athletes,” Packer said. “We’re definitely fighting for that goal. But when we looked at our season, to increase the amount of support that we could give our athletes, it does make it a little bit more challenging with the resources that we have,” she said in a press conference Wednesday (transcript provided by the Ice Garden).

After months of hard work and diligent planning, limited resources and the pure difficulty of playing in a pandemic caught up to the league. Suspending the season one day before coverage on the NBCSN was a necessary but crushing blow, and players, fans, and media alike are feeling the pain.

Television coverage matters, and women’s sports in particular need widespread coverage to build up their fan bases. The NWSL proved this just last year, when the league saw huge viewership numbers coinciding with increased television coverage. Last summer, the first and last games of the Challenge Cup drew 572,000 and 653,000 viewers, respectively, comparable numbers to an English Premier League match and MLB game that aired in a similar timeslot. That number broke viewership records by almost 300%, and thousands of new fans were surely introduced to the NWSL during those two nationally televised games. Increased coverage leads to more fans—something that’s been proven in the men’s sporting world for years.

The first men’s college basketball game to air live on TV took place on Feb. 28, 1940, when a New York NBC affiliate broadcast two games in Madison Square Garden. The exposure that this broadcast brought is widely considered a turning point in college basketball history, ushering in an era of basketball mania unlike anything seen before it. It also was a launching point for increased media attention that historically favors men’s sports.

Television airtime is important for league exposure and critical for growth, and women’s leagues currently make up less than 4% of televised sports. This was a massive chance, and it is heartbreaking for the NWHL that this rare opportunity will be on hold for the foreseeable future.

The pain of this cancellation has been deeply felt in the women’s sports community this week, and not just out of disappointment for the hockey games left unplayed. Losses like this feel so much worse for the women’s sports world because of the sheer amount of work and force of will it takes to gain these opportunities in the first place. It’s not like men’s football, for example, where no matter how many games have to be cancelled due to Covid-19 cases, the league can rest easy—those games will never lose their prime network television spots and everyone knows it. Women’s leagues, meanwhile, operate under constant threat of failure as they fight for every scrap of recognition. 

What separates men’s and women’s sports in this country today is not level of play, nor fan base, nor even money; it’s leniency. Men in sports can fail. They can fail spectacularly even, with full confidence that they can try again tomorrow. Investors will take risks on men’s sports and, when risks don’t pay off, come right back to try again. The confidence and grace given to men’s sports is what has let them thrive in this country, and it’s high time we allow women’s sports the same freedom. 

Imagine where women’s sports could go if they didn’t have to tread on eggshells all the time, if behind each opportunity wasn’t the threat that it might be the last. Imagine if major publications covered the leagues in their successes and in their day-to-day operations, rather than only swooping in like vultures to revel in their failures. Women in sports have gotten good at living on crumbs, thriftily taking what small resources they’re given and turning out the best possible product. But just because they’re good at it doesn’t mean they should have to stay at that level. Leagues like the NWHL have created incredible products with scant resources; with proper investment who knows what they could do? No one has yet given women’s leagues that kind of freedom to try, but anyone who knows these leagues can confidently tell you that the first person to invest won’t be sorry.

Look at what the NWHL was able to do in this Lake Placid season despite the obstacles. Amid chaos, confusion, and uncertainty, the scrappy leaders of this league still managed to make great strides in fan engagement and sponsorships, laying the groundwork to keep growing the league when a deadly virus isn’t stopping progress at every turn.

Fan engagement has been at the center of the NWHL bubble experience. The league has been incredibly responsive to fans both on Twitter and in the chat of live Twitch games, working in conversation with the fans to improve the viewing experience every day. The sheer number of people watching on Twitch has been impressive, surpassing 30,000 at points this season. The growth in Twitch viewership created an air of optimism prior to the suspension, with the cancelled NBCSN games expected to bring in record numbers.

The league has been continuously adding new sponsorships to increase revenue, player salaries, and brand awareness. Discover became the “Official Credit Card of the NWHL” last week which was a huge win for the league and its players. The league also scored big in its partnership with InStat. InStat, along with Stathletes, is bringing highly-detailed stats data to women’s hockey to bring their level of analysis to compare with men’s leagues. Other big-name sponsors, from footwear to beer, have been pouring in this year, and continued interest from brands will give the NWHL the support it needs to move forward and build a sustainable future for itself.

NWHL leadership took on a nearly insurmountable task in making a season happen this year amid a global pandemic, and though it did not end the way we had hoped, the progress made this season will not be forgotten. Women in sports are notoriously tenacious; they know how to come back from a defeat to fight even harder. The NWHL’s day will come, whether mainstream media and investors make it easy or not. The major networks will take notice because the people who love this league will make them notice, and a national audience will finally get to see what we’ve known all along: The NWHL is worth watching.

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