PHF: Storylines that set the stage for 2022-23 hockey season

PHF player and Boston Pride captain Jillian Dempsey celebrates with teammates after scoring during the Isobel Cup playoffs
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Premier Hockey Federation (PHF), previously known as the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL), had a busy offseason filled with signings, expansion, and new hires coming aboard. Here are a few of the biggest storylines that set the stage heading into the 2022-23 PHF season, the eighth in league history.

Some PHF players able to focus on hockey full-time thanks to higher salaries 

PHF players will benefit from higher salaries this season, the result of a $25 million, three-year commitment from the league’s Board of Governors, which was announced in January. In addition, this season marks the first time players will receive full health care benefits.

While each PHF team is allowed to have 25 players on a roster, most teams are closer to the league minimum of 20, which comes out to an average of $37,500 per player (assuming each team is spending to the cap limit).

Buffalo Beauts defender Dominique Kremer, who has the highest officially disclosed salary ($65,000) of any PHF player, said the impact of that salary cap boost has been huge.

“Just the difference in how we trained this past summer was exponential,” said Kremer, a Merrimack College grad who enters her third season with the Beauts.

“In the past, I was working an 8-to-5 job, coming home and working out… my mom would make me dinner so I didn’t have to cook. And I would go to bed and do it all over again the next day. So this was the first summer where I could completely dedicate everything I did to hockey and I think — I hope — it’s reflected in my play.”

“The salary cap increasing is very exciting because it’s allowed more opportunities for players,” said Boston Pride captain Jillian Dempsey, who has played in the NWHL/PHF since the league launched in 2015. “And with that extra compensation and extra training obviously (brings) in some players who are going to have those increased opportunities that I think we’ve all been working towards.”

That said, many PHF players still won’t be paid enough this season to focus on hockey full-time, at least not without some other financial safety net.

The PHF confirmed that it will impose an individual salary minimum ($13,500) as well as a $562,500 salary cap minimum for each team (75 percent of the $750,000 team cap). Still, that doesn’t cover PHF practice players, who make $150 week, do not receive benefits, and are required to sign a liability waiver, according to the league’s bylaws.

PHF expands to seven teams with addition of Montreal Force

The Montreal Force joins the PHF as the league’s seventh team. While a Montreal PHF/NWHL team has long been rumored – dating back to the league’s inaugural season – the team was made official over the summer.

Montreal’s roster is captained by Ann-Sophie Bettez, who previously played with the CWHL’s Montreal team(2012-2019) before joining the PWHPA when that league folded. On making the jump to the PHF and the Montreal Force, the 35-year-old Bettez said it was the right choice for her at this moment in time.

“I’ll put it this way: it’s a selfish decision. It’s where I am in my life, this is what fit for me,” she explained. “I don’t want to compare the association (PWHPA) with the league (PHF). … For me, the opportunity of having a franchise in Montreal, it was the right fit for me to be part of a team and work towards a common goal. This is what I have been lacking in the last few years and that’s what I wanted to do. So I didn’t have any resistance (from the PWHPA) whatsoever.”

While the Montreal Force will train at Centre 21.02 in Verdun, the team’s home games will be played across the province of Quebec.

“When you look at our schedule, you realize that we play 23 out of 24 regular season games on the road, if you will,” said Montreal Force head coach Peter Smith.

“There’s two sides to that. For a first-year team, I think it’s a really good opportunity to spread the word across the province. … The downside is that we’re on the road 23 out of 24 games.”

The team’s furthest “home” game will be played in Sept-Îles, Quebec — a 10-plus hour drive (or one-and-a-half hour flight from Montreal) — and the hometown of Bettez.

“Even the traveling will be good team bonding,” said Bettez. “Every time we go away on the road, it will be a chance for us to get to know each other even more.”

Team ownership further complicated after Toronto Six sale fizzles

The PHF made headlines last spring when it announced that a BIPOC-led group including Anthony Stewart, Angela James, Bernice Carnegie, and Ted Nolan had purchased the Toronto Six, but that deal quietly fell through over the summer.

The PHF finally confirmed this detail last month when it announced Sami Jo Small had been hired as Toronto Six President. According to the PHF release, the Toronto Six will continue to be owned by BTM Partners, while the new BIPOC-led ownership group will hold a minority stake in the franchise. The league’s release did not mention whether the four new owners announced in March — Stewart, James, Carnegie, and Nolan — were still involved. On Her Turf reached out to the league for clarification in September and was told that the team is “planning a separate announcement that relates specifically to ownership in the coming weeks.”

With the news of the Toronto deal falling through and the addition of the Montreal team, BTM Partners now owns four of seven PHF teams (Montreal and Toronto, plus the Boston Pride and Metropolitan Riveters).

While the PHF has said that the long-term goal is for every team to be owned by a separate group, in the interim, the current ownership structure has the potential to create actual and perceived conflicts of interests, especially now that the group holds the majority of seats on the Board of Governors.

The dynamic is also complicated by the fact that BTM Partners is led by John Boyntonwho is also chairman of Yandex, Russia’s largest tech company. Yandex has played a role in suppressing factual information and promoting propaganda related to Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine (more here).

Influx of European hockey players join PHF

Thanks in large part to the increased salary cap, the PHF has seen an increase in the number of European players signing with teams. (Due to visa rules, it is difficult for players to work additional jobs if they are on a visa to play hockey.)

Just under 15 percent players in the PHF this season hail from outside of the United States and Canada, up from about six percent last year.

“I’m just looking forward to the whole experience and to play on such a high level,” said Hungary’s Reka Dabasi, who signed with the Metropolitan Riveters after team president Digit Murphy reached out to her over the summer.

“You can see the improvement of the league, year-by-year… It’s nice to see that we have the chance to play professionally,” Dabasi added.

“(This will be) the first time in my 26 years that I’m going to make some money from (playing hockey),” said Czechia’s Dominika Laskova, who signed with the Toronto Six. “(To) call hockey as my job is something we’ve been dreaming for.”

Getting players across the ocean has had its challenges, though, particularly when it comes to player visas.

“Our immigration lawyer (helped with) all of the that, said Buffalo Beauts head coach Rhea Coad, who has four players from outside of North America on her roster (Lovisa Berndtsson of Sweden, Antonia Matzka of Austria, and Emma Nuutinen and Jenna Suokko, both of Finland).

“It’s a little bit nerve wracking because there (were) still times where they could get denied coming into the country.”

PHF players head into 2022-23 season with new Players’ Association leader

Nicole Corriero took over as the new head of the PHF Players’ Association shortly before last season’s Isobel Cup playoffs, though her hiring wasn’t made official until after the PHF season concluded.

“What (the players) emphasized to me is that we’ve got a good, positive relationship with the board, with the league, with the office,” Corriero told On Her Turf after coming on board this spring. “We obviously need to be able to know that we can hold the league accountable, when need be, but we’re sort of working out of a place of mutual goals, mutual objectives.”

Corriero, a personal injury lawyer based in Canada, played collegiate hockey at Harvard. Her first introduction to the PHF came from fellow Harvard alum and PHF owner Johanna “Jojo” Boynton (wife of John) at a Friends of Harvard Hockey event.

“She had done a presentation just for a group of the alumni to sort of say, ‘You’re a group of people who have consistently supported women’s hockey for all of these years. This is what we’re doing. This is our vision,’” Corriero recalled. “They talked about options for ownership because they wanted independent owners for all the different teams and other options that might be available. Being a team owner is not an option for me. I mean, I’m not a sultan or anything like that. But I just sort of said, ‘I think this is amazing’ and I started following the league.”

After the previous Players’ Association leader, Alex Sinatra, was hired and then let go in January 2022, “I was notified by Jojo that the players were in need of a player rep,” Corriero explained.

Toronto Six forward and Players’ Association representative Shiann Darkangelo said the PA was in touch over the summer, going over its goals for the future.

“Working with the Board of Governors and the other teams as a group to go over the player agreements and different things,” Darkangelo said. “We have monthly calls, sometimes twice a month, to go over all of that.”

Connecticut Whale, Metropolitan Riveters and Minnesota Whitecaps move to new arenas

Of the six returning PHF teams, three are playing in new arenas this season.

The Metropolitan Riveters’ new home got the most attention after the team announced it will be playing its home games at the American Dream Mall in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

“For us that’s an investment in marketing,” John Boynton, the principal owner of the Riveters, told Sportico, noting that the team is paying 2x-3x more to play at the mall than it would at a traditional suburban rink. “We need to build visibility for this team. We need to build brand. And playing in a facility like this is going to be a big leap forward for us.”

The team plans to set up around 1,000 seats for each game, while shoppers will also be able to stop and watch games from upper levels of the mall.

Still, the goal of turning shoppers into PHF fans may be hindered by the team’s game schedule. The Riveters play seven straight games on the road from before Thanksgiving until after the New Year, meaning the team will miss out on the holiday shopping bump.

The Minnesota Whitecaps also changed venues, moving from Tria (the Minnesota Wild’s practice rink) in downtown St. Paul to Richfield Ice Arena, which has 1,300 seats and standing room for another 500 spectators. The move means the team will have access to their own locker room and training space.

“Now having our own space, you’ll walk in the rink and you’ll notice it is the Whitecaps rink, our logo was just put on it,” said Minnesota head coach Ronda Engelhardt. “You see a place you can call home and the players can call home. … There’s a lot more time at the rink now than there was previously.”

The Connecticut Whale also have a new home at the International Skating Center of Connecticut (ISCC) in Simsbury, where the team will play on the NHL-size rink. Whale general manager Alexis Moed told On Her Turf that the arena will fit around 600 fans.

While many PHF teams were on the move during the offseason, the Toronto Six remain at Canlan Sports’ York facility, a 1,200-seat, Olympic-size rink. The team’s new head coach, Geraldine Heaney, is quite familiar with the venue, having played there in the early 1990s in the Central Ontario Women’s Hockey League (COWHL).

“It’s actually kind of funny because when I played with the Aeros, my home rink was what is York. It used to be called the Ice Gardens,” Heaney said. “So it’s kind of ironic that I’m back at the same facility that I started with the Aeros.”

(For context: The COWHL pre-dated the first iteration of the NWHL, which pre-dated the CWHL, which pre-dated the current NWHL/PHF. The longer history of these women’s hockey leagues folding and launching can be found here.)

Heaney went on to note how that the facilities have gotten a major upgrade in the intervening three decades. “I think it’s great to see how far it’s come and just the facilities alone,” she said.

PHF expands front office, while some hires spark questions

During the offseason, the PHF hired several big names to its front office, including new commissioner Reagan Carey, Scout and Player Relations Liaison Kacey Bellamy, and part-time Team and Player Development Advisor Brianna Decker.

Other hires, however, have raised eyebrows.

Digit Murphy, a Senior Vice President at BTM Partners, went from being President of the Toronto Six to President of the Metropolitan Riveters, a move that received backlash from some PHF fans and staff members.

The Buffalo Beauts announced that Jeff State would be joining the team as an assistant coach. State played hockey in the AHL/ECHL in the early 2000s, but the team’s press release mentioned no prior coaching work or experience in women’s hockey. Asked why State was hired for the role, Beauts head coach Rhea Coad said this week that the team was looking for someone with pro experience, but that they also liked his personality and ability to relate to players.

“Something that he shared is that he really has a good understanding of reading players,” Coad said. “For me, I can’t see everything. Having someone on the staff who understands exactly what we want for our culture… We really do have something special and unique in Buffalo.”

The Boston Pride has a new general manager in Maddie Rigsby, who previously served as the team’s equipment manager.

Finally, the Connecticut Whale posted a job listing for a new head athletic trainer. The required qualifications made no mention of athletic training certifications or sports medicine experience, but did specify that the position required “demonstrated expertise in minimizing workers compensation claims.” While the person ultimately hired for the role, Hailey Rock, is a board-certified athletic trainer, the terminology used in the listing still raised red flags for reporters and fans about the team’s commitment to player safety.

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

PWHPA Explainer: Pro league status, Dream Gap Tour schedule, roster selection and more

Players from the U.S. and Canada compete in a "Rivalry Rematch" hosted by the PWHPA
Getty Images

Originally published on October 14, 2022; Last updated October 19, 2022

The 2022-23 Secret Dream Gap Tour, hosted by the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association (PWHPA), is underway. Competition began the weekend of October 15-16 in Montreal, Quebec, and continues on November 4-6 in Truro, Nova Scotia.

While this year’s competition will look more like a traditional hockey season, the Dream Gap Tour is not the PWHPA’s end goal. With that in mind, here are a few answers to frequently asked questions about the PWHPA, including an explainer on how rosters were determined, info on how to livestream games, a schedule of upcoming games, and an update on the organization’s long-term goal of launching a new women’s pro hockey league.

When and where is the PWHPA playing this season?

Results from the October 15-16 stop in Montreal, Quebec (Centre 21.02): 

  • October 15, 1:30 pm ET: Team Scotiabank 2, Team Sonnet 4
  • October 15, 4:15 pm ET: Team Harvey’s 2, Team adidas 4
  • October 16, 1:30 pm ET: Team adidas 0, Team Scotiabank 5
  • October 16, 4:15 pm ET: Team Sonnet 2, Team Harvey’s 3 (SO)

Two additional stops have been announced as of October 19, 2022: 

  • November 4-6: Truro, Nova Scotia (Rath Eastlink Community Centre) — Note: Truro is one hour ahead of eastern time (ET)
    • November 4, 3:30 pm ET: Team Scotiabank vs. Team Harvey’s
    • November 4, 7:00 pm ET: Team adidas vs Team Sonnet
    • November 5, 2:30 pm ET: Team Sonnet vs. Team Harvey’s
    • November 5, 6:00 pm ET: Team Scotiabank vs. Team adidas
    • November 6, 11:00 am ET: Team adidas vs. Team Sonnet
    • November 6, 2:30 pm ET: Team Harvey’s vs. Team Scotiabank
  • November 25-57: Pittsburg, Pennsylvania (UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex)
    • November 26, 12:30pm ET: Team Harvey’s vs. Team adidas
    • November 26, 3:30pm ET: Team Scotiabank vs Team Sonnet
    • November 27, 11:30am ET: Team Sonnet vs. Team adidas
    • November 27, 2:30pm ET: Team Scotiabank vs. Team Harvey’s

How can you watch PWHPA games?

Fans worldwide will be able to watch every PWHPA game this season via, the CBC Sports app, CBC Gem and the CBC Sports YouTube channel.

How were PWHPA rosters selected this year?

In a change from previous years, the four competing PWHPA teams — Team adidas, Team Harvey’s, Team Scotiabank and Team Sonnet — are no longer regionally determined.

“The goal from the beginning was really to create parity across the four teams and make it very competitive all season,” said PWHPA Operations Consultant Jayna Hefford.

While the PWHPA has traditionally used a tryout process for its regional sites, Hefford noted the timing of August’s IIHF Women’s World Championship made that complicated. The organization didn’t want to hold tryouts in July, when most players typically aren’t in hockey mode, but waiting until September wasn’t an option given that the organization’s player pool shrunk this year.

“We didn’t think (September) was fair for players who may not make a roster and then, at that point, wouldn’t have a chance to tryout for another team or another league,” said Hefford.

As a result, the PWHPA implemented a new ranking system. A nine-person selection committee — with experience in the NCAA, U Sports, and national governing bodies — began by providing the 150-plus players who registered with a skill rating and experience rating. In addition to the ranking process, players who weren’t with their respective national teams during the summer were invited to a more traditional tryout at the regional sites.

“No player in the PA knows what their ranking is, which I think is really great,” said Kristen Richards, who attended the tryout in Toronto and was ultimately named to Team Harvey’s. “So everybody kind of went into the tryout thinking, we’re gonna do our absolute best and do whatever it takes to make the team.”

Following the tryout, the PWHPA invited the top-100 players — based on their original ranking or their tryout score — to participate in the 2022-23 season.

The process of dividing the players into four 25-player rosters was also complicated, as Kristina Rutherford highlighted in this Sportsnet story, with everything from nationality to sponsorship affiliations playing a role. (Final PWHPA rosters are listed below.)

The new roster format will result in some players playing on the same team together for the first time, including the hypothetical — and thrilling — prospect of Canadian Sarah Nurse and Americans Amanda Kessel and Kendall Coyne Schofield competing on the same line for Team adidas.

“We’re mixing it up a little bit and there’s four star-studded rosters that we’re really excited about,” Coyne Schofield said ahead of the first stop in Montreal, adding that she didn’t yet know who her linemates would be.

Richards, who is based in Toronto, is personally excited to play with two players from Montreal: the legendary Marie-Philip Poulin (the “obvious” choice), as well as Karell Emard.

“We typically butt heads on the ice quite a bit, so it’ll be exciting to have her on my team this time around,” Richards said of Emard. “We always battle about who has the most penalties, too.”

How is the PWHPA organized?

Hefford serves as the PWHPA’s Operations Consultant, while the organization’s strategic decisions are made by its board, which consists of nine current and former players: Jocelyne Lamoureux Davidson, Karell Emard, Alyssa Gagliardi, Brianne Jenner, Hilary Knight, Sarah Nurse, Noora Raty, Kimberly Sass, and Kendall Coyne Schofield.

“I bring suggestions to them, or if our advisory board has suggestions, I’ll bring those to the board. And ultimately, the board decides how they want to proceed,” Hefford explained.

“I think trusting the process and trusting the leadership is a huge part of being a player and being a member of the PWHPA — and understanding that you’re not going to know the ins and outs of every conversation, every phone call,” Richards said of what it’s like for non-board members.

“As players, we’re not used to non-disclosures. … There’s some information that some players will be privy to and there’s going to be information that players aren’t. The best thing about being in the PWHPA is that my job right now is to show up, play hockey, and put the best product on the ice… while I’m trusting that the others are doing their best to build what is going to be the future of women’s hockey.”

While the nine-player PWHPA board makes the big decisions, they aren’t the people doing the groundwork or crunching the numbers on market prospects.

“We’ve spent the last year-and-a-half or so working with the team at Deloitte and other industry experts and developing our own business plan for a women’s professional league,” explained Hefford. “We felt like it was time for us to take control of our own destiny and not wish and hope for anybody else to do that. So it’s been a really empowering process for our players and our board.”

Do players make money playing in the Dream Gap Tour?

PWHPA players receive stipends for competing in the Secret Dream Gap Tour, and there is also the potential to earn prize pool money. While Hefford said that players will be compensated more this season than in the past, she noted that player contracts are still being finalized and that the organization won’t be announcing figures until that process is completed.

How close is the PWHPA to launching its own hockey league?

To be clear: the Secret Dream Gap Tour is not the PWHPA’s end goal, even if this year looks more like a traditional season.

The PWHPA formed in May 2019 after more than 200 players announced they would be sitting out the 2019-20 season, essentially boycotting the then NWHL (later rebranded as the PHF). While the Dream Gap Tour has served as a stop-gap solution in recent years, most of the organization’s work has been happening behind-the-scenes and away from social media.

In May, the PWHPA signed a letter of intent with Billie Jean King Enterprises and the Mark Walter Group, with the goal of creating a new women’s professional hockey league.

It was previously reported that a PWHPA-led league (seperate from the Dream Gap Tour) would launch in January 2023, but that timeline has since shifted, and this season’s Dream Gap Tour will continue through March.

“When I’m up close to it as a player, I wanted it (a new women’s pro league) yesterday. I think we all did,” PWHPA board member Hilary Knight told On Her Turf in August.

At the Women’s Sports Foundation Annual Gala on Wednesday night, Billie Jean King confirmed that talks with the PWHPA are ongoing. “We’re doing due diligence and we’ll see what happens,” she said.

But the connection between King and the PWHPA extends beyond their current letter of intent.

In 1970, the “original nine” in tennis — led by King — broke away from the men’s tennis tour to take a stand for equal pay, despite warnings from U.S. tennis officials.

“We were willing to give up our careers,” King remarked ahead of the first Dream Gap Tour stop, noting that she’s seen the same in the PWHPA.

“They’re willing to give up their careers for the future generations so I really admire them. … You have to visualize where you want to go, see the dream, and then you have to build it. And that’s not easy. It’s really not easy.”

This isn’t some theoretical concept for Richards, who knows she might not play in the league that eventually launches.

“For me, I hope the PA gets so good that, at some point, I don’t make this league,” she explained. “Our goal as the PWHPA was always to create something that was much bigger than ourselves.”

What will the future league include that doesn’t currently exist?

Things like a living wage and health coverage are just two bullets on the PWHPA’s laundry list of requirements. Other highlights include team medical staff, player representation, and arena standards.

“It’s very easy for a lot of people to be like, ‘This is the girls complaining. They don’t have enough, they want to make millions of dollars like the NHL.’ No, we don’t. We want basic employee rights, where we have parameters around our work day and we have access to the needs of professional athletes,” PWHPA Advisor Liz Knox told On Her Turf last spring.

“We’ve been saying for years now that it’s not just about the salaries,” echoed Hefford on Friday. “If it were about salaries, our players would be playing in various leagues around the world. It’s really about infrastructure and the resources… and that’s why it’s taking as long as it is — because those things don’t happen overnight.”

The importance of proper infrastructure has only been emphasized in recent weeks. The U.S.-Soccer commissioned Yates report detailed how the lack of basic workplace protections in the NWSL created an environment in which abuse could thrive.

Following the release of the Yates report, On Her Turf reached out to a variety of women’s pro leagues — both established and those in planning mode — about whether they have or plan implement an anti-harassment policy. PWHPA media consultant Ashley McLellan confirmed that player safety policies (including an anti-harassment policy) will be implemented from the beginning of their planned league.

“What’s happened recently with both the Yates report and the Hockey Canada situation, it’s a good reminder that we need to ensure (a strong foundation) and we have an opportunity to do it from day one,” Hefford said.

“I read some of the comments from the soccer players that they just wanted to play, they just wanted to be in a league. And our players feel the same way and that’s what’s made this so challenging is that they just want to play. I get that. As a former player, I feel the same way. But I think we also have a lot of comfort in knowing that we are doing this the right way, we are doing the work that — in our minds — has never been done for women’s professional hockey.”

PWHPA Rosters – 2022-23 Secret Dream Gap Tour

Team adidas

  • Defenders: Emily Curlett, Jessica Digirolamo, Jincy Dunne, Megan Eady, Renata Fast, Halli Krzyzaniak, Jocelyne Larocque, Meaghan Mikkelson
  • Forwards: Kendall Coyne Schofield, Samantha Donovan, Laura Dostaler, Kelly Gribbons, Jess Jones, Amanda Kessel, Sarah Nurse, Kristin O’Neill, Sarah Potomak, Jill Saulnier, Laura Stacey, Kayla Vespa, Kaitlin Willoughby
  • Goaltenders: Aerin Frankel, Maddie Rooney, Sydney Scobee, Shea Tiley
  • Staff: Matt Leitner (GM/Head Coach)

Team Harvey’s

  • Defenders: Mellissa Channell, Laura Fortino, Jacquie Greco, Savannah Harmon, Kristen Richards, Lauriane Rougeau, Lee Stecklein
  • Forwards: Emily Clark, Rosalie Demers, Jessie Eldridge, Karell Emard, Alexa Gruschow, Rhianna Kurio, Bailey Larson, Marie-Philip Poulin, Alexandra Poznikoff, Jamie Lee Rattray, Hayley Scamurra, Sophia Shaver
  • Goaltenders: Marlène Boissonnault, Ann-Renée Desbiens, Geneviève Lacasse
  • Staff: Danièle Sauvageau (GM/Head Coach)

Team Scotiabank

  • Defenders: Jaime Bourbonnais, Mélanie Desrochers, Katelyn Gosling, Megan Keller, Brigette Lacquette, Makayla Langei, Cat Quirion, Ella Shelton
  • Forwards: Victoria Bach, Alex Carpenter, Mélodie Daoust, Madison Field, Grace Graham, Rebecca Johnston, Nicole Kosta, Hayley Lunny, Kelly Pannek, Tatum Skaggs, Natalie Spooner, Blayre Turnbull
  • Goaltenders: Kristen Campbell, Amanda Makela, Emerance Maschmeyer
  • Staff: Becky McGee (GM), Dean Seymour (Head Coach)

Team Sonnet

  • Defenders: Erin Ambrose, Leah Bohlken, Lilian Braga, Emily Brown, Emma Buckles, Ella Matteucci, Nikki Nightengale, Claire Thompson, Micah Zandee-Hart
  • Forwards: Hannah Brandt, Hanna Bunton, Samantha Cogan, Demi Crossman, Iya Gavrilova, Brianne Jenner, Hilary Knight, Rebecca Leslie, Carolyne Prévost, Abby Roque, Malia Schneider, Natasza Tarnowski
  • Goaltenders: Lindsay Browning, Nicole Hensley, Erica Howe
  • Staff: Rebecca Michael (GM), Laura McIntosh (Head Coach)

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Yates report takeaways extend beyond NWSL: ‘Guardrails’ are essential for women’s pro sports

Soccer players from the U.S. and England pose for a photo with a "protect the players" banner
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U.S. Soccer and the NWSL were so focused on putting and keeping players on the field that protecting those players fell by the wayside.

That was one of the key takeaways from the U.S. Soccer-commissioned report released last week. Former acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Q. Yates and the law firm King & Spalding found that emotional abuse and sexual misconduct are systemic in women’s soccer and that league’s lack of basic workplace protections created an environment in which abuse could thrive.

“They did not institute the most basic of workplace protections,” the report explains. “For most of the League’s history, there was no anti-harassment policy, no anti-retaliation policy, and no anti-fraternization policy. Nor were there independent reporting lines, coaching codes of conduct, or any guidelines regarding the due diligence necessary to hire a coach. Most teams did not have human resource functions, and if they did, some teams did not believe those services were available to players.”

The report continues: “Without basic protections in place, what followed, almost inevitably, was the systemic abuse of players.”

It wasn’t until the spring of 2021, the start of the NWSL’s ninth season, that the league published its first anti-harassment policy. And that was only after 240 players — organized by Alex Morgan — sent then NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird a letter demanding workplace protections and a way to report complaints. (The current policy can be found here.)

While the Yates report focused on the NWSL and U.S. Soccer, its takeaways are broadly applicable to other leagues.

“We hope that other leagues, other teams, other Federations look inward. The whole goal of this is so that no one else suffers from the abuse that so many players in this league have faced,” said USWNT captain Becky Sauerbrunn. “If that takes people (being) introspective and creating policies and anti-harassment policies — things that we were very late doing — no better time to start than right now.”

Following publication of the Yates report, On Her Turf surveyed women’s professional sports leagues that compete in the U.S. about whether they have an active anti-harassment policy in place. Here is a summary of the survey:

  • WNBA players and employees are covered by a “Respect in the Workplace Policy.” The league mandates yearly training and provides an anonymous workplace hotline for reporting complaints.
  • In a statement, the LPGA said it “has had anti-harassment policies in place for its players and staff for more than a decade.” Additionally, the organization said it regularly reviews and updates these policies “to provide maximum protection to players and staff.”
  • The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) official rulebook can be found here (the relevant section of the Code of Conduct, which has been in place for over a decade, is on pages 306-310). A spokesperson for the WTA also said that the organization has a department staffed by qualified mental health practitioners that helps “educate and inform players on matters of personal safety and on WTA procedures, resources and support systems for suspected abuse. … Additionally, WTA staff with roles involving close player interaction are provided additional training to help with early identification and support of at-risk players and to guide players to the appropriate athlete assistance team for help.”
  • Athletes Unlimited (AU) — which organizes tournaments in basketball, volleyball, lacrosse, and softball — has an anti-harassment policy that can be found here.
  • The Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) directed On Her Turf to its ‘Equal Employment Opportunity Policy‘ and confirmed that players are covered by the policy. PHF SVP of Communications Paul Krotz also told On Her Turf that “this area has been prioritized and discussed in internal meetings with players and staff members. The current policy is being reviewed with the intent to launch new and increased resources for the upcoming season.”
  • The Women’s Football Alliance (WFA) has a Safe Sport policy that can be found here (page 15).

On Her Turf also reached out to four organizations that are in the process of launching leagues about their plans for player safety policies.

  • The Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA), a player-led organization that is aiming to launch its own women’s pro hockey league next year, says player safety policies (including an anti-harassment policy) will be implemented from the beginning of their planned league. “Our board has consisted (of) all players from the launch of the PWHPA, and creating a professional, safe environment has been a top priority all along. Every decision made is with a player-first mentality,” PWHPA media consultant Ashley McLellan said in a statement. The PWHPA formed in 2019 after over 200 players stepped away from the ice due to low wages, a lack of healthcare benefits, and poor working conditions.
  • Women’s Professional Fastpitch (WPF) — which was founded by USA Softball, USSSA, and Smash It Sports — played its first exhibition games this year, but will officially launch in 2023. WPF Commissioner Lauren Chamberlain told On Her Turf that a draft of the league’s anti-harassment policy is currently going through legal review and will be active for the inaugural 2023 season.
  • The USL Super League, a Division II women’s soccer league that is slated to launch in August 2023, plans to have an anti-harassment policy in place ahead of its first season and says it is taking the Yates report into consideration as it finalizes that policy.
  • The Women’s Independent Soccer League (WISL), a Division II women’s league with a 2024 launch year, plans to finalize its league-wide anti-harassment policy ahead of its first season and is also pressing individual clubs to have their own policies. “To us, it’s all about creating a safe and supporting environment,” managing director Lynn Berling-Manuel said. “And a safe supportive environment means everyone — players, coaches, front office personnel, the entire organization — there needs to be a clear series of action that will take place when you report a problem.”

Despite billing itself as a professional league, the Yates report found that the NWSL’s lacking infrastructure — from poor training and playing facilities to dangerous living situations — resulted in an environment that was far from professional.

“In the haste to get the League off the ground, the Federation conducted limited financial due diligence on the new league’s prospective owners and did not put in place the infrastructure or planning necessary to support the League over the long haul,” the report says.

“Truth Be Told,” an ESPN E60 on the NWSL that premiered last week, provided additional insight on how the league’s startup mindset and cost-cutting measures — from salaries as low as $6,000 to the use of host families to the absence of a union — led to widespread issues.

“You would have thought that, in launching a business, there were some pretty basic things you could look at: background checks, anti-discrimination policy, an anti-harassment policy, an HR person,” NWSL Players Association executive director Meghann Burke told E60. “(No one was saying) you’re not going to use a trash can to do ice baths. We’re going to give you a bathroom that’s not the woods. We’re not going to provide adequate medical staffing, we’re not going to provide adequate training facilities. It was a severe control of costs without, on the flip side, a plan for how to grow revenue.”

“The standards were low — very low — but we just wanted to play,” USWNT and San Diego Wave forward Alex Morgan said of the players’ initial mindset.

“The league was set up hastily, in a way that got it off the ground and gave us a place to play — and I think every player would say that we’re thankful and appreciative for that — but it was also done with absolutely zero guardrails. And that’s just unacceptable,” USWNT and OL Reign forward Megan Rapinoe told media last week.

Even if NWSL players wanted to speak up, fear of seeing the league collapse kept them silent.

“Players were also repeatedly enlisted in the effort to keep the League afloat by protecting it from scandal and were told to be grateful that they had an opportunity to play professional soccer at all,” the Yates report explains. “The threat of team or league failure was acute and persistent. The NWSL was the third attempt to field a women’s professional league and was established with low capital requirements to ensure the league had eight teams. Many teams seemed to be one bad season away from shuttering. Players reported being told by Federation leadership and certain team owners that the League was not commercially successful enough to warrant further financial investment, and that the only way to ensure the League’s survival was for players to support the League.”

“I think everyone was afraid to ultimately cause the league’s demise,” USWNT and Washington Spirit goalie Aubrey Kingsbury told E60. “We knew it was fragile.”

Conditions in the NWSL have improved in the last year, thanks especially to the NWSL’s first ever collective bargaining agreement. But the Yates report recommends U.S. Soccer “strengthen player safety requirements in professional leagues” and consider whether “all owners are financially committed to the NWSL and are providing a professional environment that is safe and respectful of players” — two takeaways key for women’s leagues across the board.

“I think these hostile conditions that are kind of now being unearthed and publicly revealed, but it’s things that we’ve been dealing with for the entirety of our careers,” said USWNT and OL Reign defender Alana Cook. “We have gotten to this point because we have learned how to deal with the difficulties surrounding what we do.”

“We, as women soccer players, have faced a lot, not just in these last two years, but for a very long time,” echoed Sauerbrunn. “You have to enact as much change as you can, while also demanding more from those that have the power to do so.”

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC