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President of NWHL’s newest franchise reflects on women’s sports

The NHWL announced last month it was expanding to Toronto next season, but the league really shook feathers in the women’s hockey world when it announced that Digit Murphy would be the president of the unnamed franchise. Murphy, the longtime coach at Brown University, has also founded a women’s lacrosse league and coached in China. Most pertinently, she coached in the CWHL, the NWHL’s old rival league, and was one of the NWHL’s most vocal critics when the American-based league first launched.

On Wednesday, Murphy joined me and Greg Wyshynski on the ESPN on Ice podcast to discuss why she joined Toronto, elaborate on the battle lines drawn in women’s hockey, and illustrate her vision for sustainable women’s professional leagues going forward.

Do you get a say on the team name?

We will be rolling out the name very soon, because when I was hired, they already had it in the works. They’ll probably be announcing in a week or so. Foreshadow, foreshadow. It’s coming, baby.

There’s some irony. You were the coach of the Boston Blades, the only U.S. team in the CWHL, and now it’s flipped — you’re coach of the only Canadian franchise in the NWHL.

All I can say is like, seriously? We fought so hard to have an American league, and a Canadian league. It was really difficult for us, in Boston at the time, to be called the Canadian Women’s (Hockey) League. Sponsors were like why do I want to sponsor you, you’re in Canada? I was like yeah, that’s a good point, but for all of these other reasons. Then when the CW shut down, they didn’t have a franchise in Toronto, and I just happened to be in a spot where I was in a place to help lead it, and I’m happy to do it. Because anything that I do is about growing the game, providing opportunities to women. Bring it, let’s go. Let’s start something.

Back when the NWHL launched, you questioned the sustainability of the league. What do you think when you hear those comments now? Do you cringe?

No, I love it. I love it. Obviously, women’s sports has gone through so many iterations, right? And we’re still growing, still trying to figure it out. What people forget is that men’s sports has a long history. They’re probably 125 years ahead of us, when you look at when women’s sports first started. When the NWHL first did start, I was a little concerned about their model because it was the same one as the CWHL, but the markets they were opening in were a little different. But that was six years ago.

The reason I think it has evolved to a point where yes, I can jump back in, is that we have a franchise model. To continue to do it in that league model — because, as you mentioned earlier, we did lacrosse. My partner and I [founded the UWLX] in 2015-16, and then it evolved into that other place, WPLL or whatever that is, but again to my point: We keep evolving. When you look at jumping into this franchise model, I now work for a franchise ownership: Jojo Boynton, Ty Tumminia — women leading the charge, and in leadership roles. That’s really what my brand represents, that’s what the NW represents, and that’s why it’s time for Digit Murphy to come back into this model of women’s sports.

You mentioned the competing women’s lacrosse leagues, and there were also competing women’s hockey leagues. Do you feel like there’s a similarity there with the landscape, that there can’t be two competing pro women’s leagues that survive, especially when they’re so young?

I’ll tell you, when that happened, I was like, really? Really? Do we really need two different [lacrosse] leagues and two different ways of doing things? Kind of like when the NW came up, and the CW was happening, it was like, can’t you just work together? It’s just … ugh. It’s like why do we have to recreate the wheel when we live in this small pond to begin with? It’s always a little frustrating for me to watch it happen as someone who wants things to go faster.

Think about it, when I started at Brown it was 1987, and we grew it to where it is today. The players are really benefiting from the hard work of people who came before them like Katy Stone, Jackie Barto, Heather Linstad, Kelly Dyer, Cammi Granato in the early days. All these pioneers made it possible for players to get scholarships in the NCAA. So literally these guys got a lot of money, when you really think about what the value was for a player in the NCAA, $50,000 over four years, that’s $200,000.

In my opinion, it’s now the players’ chance to take that same leadership role in the pro space and exponentially grow it. If you’re fighting amongst yourself, amongst scarce resources, it’s just not a model that can work, and we need to change that.

Well how do you change that? We’re at a point of divisiveness among players.

It makes me crazy. No joke, it makes me crazy. As someone who has been in the sport for so long, it’s about creating opportunities. It’s always about flattering the other people that are trying to grow it. The [Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association], they have their model, and I’m happy that’s where they want to go, but our model is really about women coaching women, leading women, having a sustainability model, having franchise owners being female. Personally, if they wanted to come play with us, I’ve got no problem with it. If they want to do cross games — for me, personally, I’m not speaking about my ownership or anything. I think that our ownership would really embrace whatever positive energy could come of this. Because we do want to unite, and that’s the only way to change it.

Back when, we started something called United Women’s Sports, and the idea was to unite all of the women’s sports under one umbrella. The theme we always had was to unite people, not tear them down, not be divisive, not say anything negative about them. That’s what our franchise is going to be all about. We have three pillars that are going espouse in Toronto: It’s about empowerment, inclusion and education. When you have those three pillars, there’s no room for divisiveness. Every player — we have nine, going on 10 players that we’re signing — is going to be cut from that cloth, and that’s what’s going to make them successful.

What’s your recruiting pitch to players?

You just heard it. I always say, listen: This is about women’s empowerment. It’s about the three pillars of success. And it’s really about the mission. If you want to grow, and be a leader, if you want to be a hero and a role model for women, by women … and I also say, if you’re doing this for the money, hang up the phone right now. Because it’s true. That’s the problem with the whole thing, with women’s sports right now, is it’s about the money. And that’s excluding women’s soccer because they’re on a different plane. They’re putting hundreds and thousands of people in stadiums. That’s a sustainable model if you can sustain those crowds.

But what happens in women’s sports is it’s about the revenue. What are you doing for ticket sales? Merchandise? Broadcast rights? In order to sustain a livable wage for these players, let’s just do the math. $30,000 a year, that’s nothing, that’s the poverty level. Times 20 players, that’s $600,000, just for salaries. Times six teams, that’s $3.6 million. That’s just for salaries! Now you have to sell that many tickets, that much revenue coming in, just for a six-team league, and that doesn’t include ice or anything else.

I think you’re getting my drift of why the models aren’t working right now. And quite frankly, it’s about society embracing women’s sports like they do men, and that takes time. And I hate saying that, I’m someone who wants to keep chugging along at 90 miles per hour, but unfortunately society is chugging at like 25 when it comes to women’s sports.

Would an NHL endorsement expedite that acceptance?

Absolutely, and I think the NHL being a part of this is a great “and” to what we’re doing. I don’t think it’s an “either” or an “or.” I think a sponsorship or a partnership is where we want to go. Personally, I don’t think the NHL taking us over does a women’s empowerment platform that much good. Although I would completely welcome the help and the guidance and the mentorship on how to grow it potentially differently on the other side. Because it’s hockey, and hockey is hockey, men’s or women’s. We’re in like that fourth tier anyway … you’ve got football, basketball, baseball, then hockey. So we have to play 90 games on the men’s side to generate the revenue that we have to. When you look at their model, I don’t believe — especially with COVID now — that they’re going to embrace women’s hockey, which is going to take years to cash flow positive. So why not be a partner, sponsor, and do it that way? But I think differently.

Where do you stand on finding an arena? What type of criteria you are looking for? Is it going to be smaller, like the other NWHL franchises, or more ambitious?

We probably will go into an arena that is similar to the other NW venues now, This is a long term strategy by our ownership. It’s not like we’re going to go into a 5,000-seat arena and fill it. Our sustainability model is on a three- to five-year path. It’s not going to be overnight. WIth that said, yes we have a couple of arenas in mind. We need obviously a professional-type arena that can seat 1,000 or so. The No. 1 goal is to fill those arenas.

But you need other things that the players really demand, and as a coach I demand it all the time: locker room space, gym, just simple things like warm-up spaces. You go into some of these municipal arenas and you can’t warm up your team. As a coach, that’s really annoying as a professional organization. Just access to things men’s teams take for granted, college sports take for granted. I see why some of the players get ticked when they go from the NCAA to the next-level pro, and they put it in quotes, it’s hard. Amateur sports and NCAA sports, they don’t have that interim space to go to. We’re going to roll it out with this criteria in mind, probably a smaller arena at the beginning, parking, all the things that go with a good franchise arena partner, then go from there. Then a couple years after that, maybe we can graduate into a larger arena. I think the first step is to fill the stands with the rinks that you have.

And there are other revenue streams that people aren’t thinking about right now. Like appearance fees, talking to companies that really want women’s hockey involved. We have a kid right now who wants to be an investment banker. How cool is that to have an investment banker do a speech in front of a technology group of little girls? There are other things creatively I don’t think people are thinking about, because they think about the traditional model of sports, this is how the men do it. But, like we said earlier, 125 years, versus what do we have, like 20 years? It takes time.

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