NWHL Returns to Ice as League Skates Toward New Ownership Mode

Michael McCann
·4 min read

With the NWHL resuming the Isobel Cup playoffs tonight at the Warrior Ice Arena in Boston, John Boynton is a busy person. He and his wife, former Harvard hockey captain Johanna Boynton, play leading roles in two franchises in the women’s pro hockey league—the Boston Pride and the Toronto Six. A Massachusetts-based entrepreneur and president of Firehouse Capital, John spoke with Sportico about his family’s involvement in the NWHL and the league’s new organizational direction.

Boynton described his family’s decision to join the league’s ownership ranks as a continuation of their longstanding involvement with women’s hockey. In 2014, the Boyntons found billet families for 10 players on the U.S. Olympic Team who were training nearby for the Sochi Games.

“For six months, we had amazing athletes, like Julie Chu, Hilary Knight and Kendall Coyne eating at our dinner table and cheering for our four kids at their youth sports events,” Boynton said. “That was our family’s first taste of elite women’s hockey, and we were hooked.” He added that he and his wife are committed to “addressing some of the persistent inequities [in women’s hockey] that are all too visible.”

The NWHL, which began in 2015, made the important decision last year to reorganize. It began a transformation from a single-entity league, where the league owns all of the franchises (like the XFL and the early years of MLS), to the more common joint venture pro league model, with individually owned franchises. Boynton called the decision an organic part of the NWHL’s natural evolution.

“Most of the new [sports] leagues that have been formed in the past 20 years,” he noted, “took the form of single-entity because it was easier and safer. Easier because one group of investors with sufficient capital can get the whole thing going—think XFL—and safer because single entities are less exposed to antitrust claims than joint venture leagues.”

Boynton’s reference to antitrust reflects Section I of the Sherman Antitrust Act. This federal law prohibits competing businesses—including individually owned sports franchises—from conspiring in anticompetitive ways, such as in player movement and salaries. A single entity is exempt from Section I since the teams are owned by the same company (league), and everyone is employed by said company. But single entities have drawbacks, including if fans expect franchises to have truly separate identities.

The Boston Pride were the first NWHL franchise sold to individual owners, with the Boyntons joining a group led by Boston-based venture capitalist Miles Arnone. Boynton says the first year under this model brought the Pride major benefits, including increased attendance and new types of local sponsors. The Toronto Six are also independently owned (by a group that includes the Boyntons). The league intends to sell the remaining four franchises in the near future.

The transition to a traditional league has meant operational changes.

“If the league were a house,” Boynton said, “we essentially replaced all the wiring, plumbing and ductwork inside the walls.” To that end, the NWHL adopted a constitution and bylaws, hired interim commissioner Tyler Tumminia and created a board of governors—steps that make the NWHL more closely resemble the NHL.

Boynton’s optimism in the NWHL’s future comes only seven weeks after the Lake Placid playoffs ended abruptly and prematurely after COVID-19 cases surfaced and two teams withdrew. “It was a really simple decision,” Boynton said. He believes this weekend’s games “will showcase the NWHL to a broader audience,” especially with both the semifinals and the championship game airing live in primetime on NBCSN and internationally on Twitch. This exposure, Boynton believes, is “tangible evidence that the broadcast world is taking women’s hockey more seriously.”

NWHL’s arrangement with Twitch has Boynton especially excited. “We saw record [streaming] viewership and engagement” during the playoffs in January and February, “with over 1.6 million people turn into that series,” he said. He noted Twitch’s live chat feature works uniquely well in generating fan engagement—”the way fans coalesced and engaged with each other is not something you can get with linear broadcasts, so that was pretty exciting.”

The NWHL playoffs resume at 5 p.m. ET tonight with the Six and Pride facing off.

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