Dani Rylan: Founder and Commissioner, National Women’s Hockey League

Editor’s Note: Join us this week as we celebrate the women who are breaking through barriers at the National Women’s Hockey League. Today’s post is interview 1 of 4 in a series titled Women of the NWHL.

In 10 days the National Women’s Hockey League will kick off its second season with four franchises in Boston, Buffalo, New York and Connecticut. It will boast a roster of former and current Olympians, a signed league sponsorship deal with Dunkin Donuts and two broadcast deals – with ESPN3 and NESN.

And, at only 29 years old, Dani Rylan is the league’s face, founder and commissioner. And she’s not just any commissioner, she’s the youngest C-Suite holder in the sports world. She pounded thick cracks in the glass ceiling when she launched the first paid professional hockey league for women, and as you’ll read, she continues to invest in creating value not just for the NWHL, but for professional women’s sports everywhere.

“Right now I’m working to make sure that these women have the best job in the world – being a professional hockey player,” Dani says. “I have to make sure that I’m doing everything I can to make their dreams come true and keep their dreams alive.”

With an attitude like that, it’s no wonder this go-getter was named to Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People In Business, ESPN’s IMPACT 25 and Yahoo’s Top 10 Hockey People of 2015. Read on to hear how Dani discovered hockey, how she started the league and where she sees the NWHL headed in the next five years.

Were you always interested in hockey?

I started skating in 1992, which was actually the Tampa Bay Lightning’s inaugural season in the NHL. They had a great grassroots initiative to get more kids involved in the game. I went to the rink with my brothers, put a pair of skates on and never looked back.

How did this passion for hockey lead to you starting the National Women’s Hockey League?

My hockey career brought me to Northeastern University where I finished my competitive career, as well as my Master’s degree in sports management. From a young age, I’ve had a passion for business as well as the sport of hockey. I came up with the idea for this league and one thing led to another, and before I knew it, it really started to take off. It was the perfect dream job to parlay my love of the game with an entrepreneurial spirit.

What is a typical day in your life like? How do you organize your day, and where is the majority of your energy focused?

There’s no such thing as a typical day. My day could be filled with a range of things. Sometimes it’s putting out fires, and sometimes it’s going to a game and getting to watch the fastest game on earth being played by the best women in the world.

Right now, it’s [the focus is] on cultivating the fan base and really building the strongest foundation for long-term success. Year one is all about proof of product and getting paid fans to walk through the door for the first time and fall in love with this special brand of hockey. And we did that. It was really the majority of our focus and our time spent – to commit to the atmosphere and the game, both on and off the ice. And we proved that. There was an unbelievable fan base for women’s hockey that didn’t exist before. To watch that grow throughout the season was something that was really special, and we also saw it in the number of girls who started playing hockey for the first time. USA Hockey saw its largest jump in growth since 2011, and their registration jumped almost 5%, which was pretty special.

What is your approach to business and growing the NWHL?

Starting the league was maybe the easiest part. Really breaking through the glass ceiling is going to be the hard part. That’s what we’re focusing on now in year two. We’ve had a lot of time to look back and see what worked, what didn’t work, really improve on it and really scale where sports have that opportunity, which is in the media, sponsorship and broadcast deals. Right now, less than half of 1% of all sponsorship dollars are invested in women’s sports. We’re looking to break that number alongside some of the bigger entities in the women’s game right now – like the women’s soccer team, Serena Williams and all of these other big players who are looking to do the same thing and prove that there is a business and there is entertainment in women’s sports.

On that topic, you signed a major sponsorship deal with Dunkin Donuts this year. What is that relationship like?

It was huge for the league to have one major brand support us and see us as a bonus to their product. We weren’t just the league. We were the league, 4 teams and the 88 brand ambassadors and players that we have in the league, and they saw that as a huge asset. They saw a return on Day 1. The first day of that announcement we received 54 million media impressions, and it wasn’t because Dunkin was supporting another sports entity. They were supporting women getting paid to play hockey for the first time. They are an amazing partner.

As you see the league evolving over the next five years, where do you see it headed? What is your goal?

I really see it thriving. Fortunately for women’s hockey, it’s on the international stage every four years at the Olympics. The 2014 gold medal game was actually the most-watched event on NBC, and we anticipate it being just as big of a game with a larger fan base in the 2018 Olympics. We think that we’ll have a natural surge in our sport following that, obviously in addition to what we’re doing for the game right now. I think in the next 4-to-5 years, we will be expanding as we continue to prove that there is an amazing fan base for the sport.

As you’re building the team to help bring you to that goal, what qualities do you look for in those you hire?

A go-getter attitude is the No. 1 requirement to work here. At the end of the day, we are a startup. Even though we’ve received amazing press and become a league, we are still a startup and everyone’s wearing multiple hats working and doing whatever we can to make this as successful as possible.

What do you feel is the biggest challenge for women in sports today?

I think one of the biggest challenges is the pay gap. One of the ways we continue to tackle that issue is to drive more sponsorship dollars and media attention to the game. That’s really what makes the sports world go ‘round – broadcast deals and those sponsorship dollars. They go hand in hand. As it becomes a chicken and egg type of a game, it’s really about getting those leaders and progressive decision makers to commit to women’s sports.

Also, a huge part of it is patience. A lot of people will see it and say, “Well obviously these are the best women in the world and there should be more of an equality. This is long overdue.” But we have to be patient with it and take the appropriate steps to get there. (Though not too patient!)

On the flip side, what do you think is the biggest opportunity for women in sports right now?

There’s never been a better time to be a female athlete. The opportunities are endless for women in sports right now. You can see that there’s been a change in coverage, and I think that soon we’ll see the bigger ripple effect.

What advice do you have for other women who are looking to become the next Dani Rylan and grow something in the sports world?

Don’t be afraid to jump in. A lot of things you’ll learn as you go. I think that a lot of people – not just women – will feel that they’re under-qualified or not in the best position to make the next step in business, whether it’s in sports or otherwise. Taking that first step, jumping in the deep end and learning to swim is the best way to get involved. Don’t be afraid to do that.

How do you maintain that “jump-in” attitude?

There are highs and lows, and I think a really important part of any business endeavor is surrounding yourself with the right people who can support you through the lows and ride the highs with you as well. Whenever there has been doubt, I’ve surrounded myself with a good group of colleagues and advisors who have been able to reassure the message.

What is some of the best advice you’ve received?

Take the bumps and bruises and wear them like badges of honor.

With this startup mentality and your hectic work schedule, how do you avoid burnout?

I get a lot of sleep, and I have a pretty good availability to start each day fresh without the troubles of yesterday.

What are some ways you recharge?

I skate every week in the city. Getting my aggression out on the ice is definitely advantageous for the rest of the week. I also have a dog, Tucker (a lab mix), and I’ll go on walks or runs with him. It’s calming. I’m also into gardening. I have a little backyard here in Brooklyn that I like to spend time in.

How does it feel to be recognized by Fast Company and ESPN for the work you are doing to change the lives of female athletes?

I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet, because I feel like there’s still so much work to do. It’s an honor to be on those lists, and it’s crazy to look at the people who are on the list with me. But there really is a lot of work left to do, so I think I’ll be able to look back on those accomplishments later and be able to say, “Wow, we’ve really made it.” But as long as my To Do list is still there and there are improvements to make, I don’t think I’m able to fully realize it.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

We are an extremely data-driven sport. And the data is something that’s becoming harder and harder to find in sports – especially women’s sports. We are dedicated to analyzing everything that we are building and the data we are pulling in. We are really building our story off of that and proving that there is a fan base not only for women’s hockey, but for women’s sports.

After Hours graphic

I’d love to grab a Dunkin Donuts coffee with:

No milk and no sugar.

My go-to outfit is:

A summer dress.

My favorite dinner is:

Not microwaved!

I can’t live without:

My cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee in the morning.

My favorite way to unwind is:

A glass of wine in the backyard.

I feel my best when:

My team scores! I love celebrating!

A really important part of any business endeavor is surrounding yourself with the right people who can support you through the lows and ride the highs with you.