Coyte: Barstool Tried to Sink the NWHL. Now the League is Stronger Than Ever.

The NWHL done an incredible job in building a sustainable women’s league.

Deliberately fostering an inclusive community, making the successful transition to Twitch and engaging with online fans in a way most leagues can only dream of, the NWHL can be described very simply: It’s a ton of fun.

All leagues care about its players and teams to some extent, but few have been able to connect with their core audience as effectively as the NWHL. That’s largely in part to the people behind the social media accounts, journalists constantly reporting on the league and an audience of devoted fans always quick to reply with one of countless inside jokes (What’s up Harv the Zamboni Driver).

The Lake Placid bubble where the league is currently playing has produced some fun match-ups and the hockey has been great. We’ve seen the introduction of the Toronto Six, the emergence of new forces within the women’s hockey pantheon, and increased parity between the teams.

That isn’t to say it’s been completely seamless. The Metropolitan Riveters had to drop out of the bubble due to COVID-19 cases, but the league has handled the bumps in the road with grace.

Unfortunately, we now have to talk about Barstool.

I’m not interested in describing the times they’ve decided to sick their supporters on their target-of-the-week, or the times they’ve punched down on smaller creators, journalists, leagues, etc, or to examine the examples of their racist and misogynistic behaviour. Better articles have been written about that. This is simply a recap of what’s happened this week.

There’s no denying that Barstool CEO Erika Nardini has been a supporter of the league, hosting many players on her podcast. The events of this week were set off when many players and journalists publicly rejected the Nardini’s support afterwards because of her company’s history.

What followed was a video from Nardini that publicly attacked the journalists, fans and accounts who had dared call Barstool out for its behaviour. But this wasn’t just a “message to the haters” like Nardini suggested. It was a road map for their followers on which accounts to harass like they’ve done so many times before.

Excuse the dated reference, but this felt a lot like an online version of the now-iconic Game of Thrones moment, “The Battle of the Bastards.”

On one end, Jon Snow, righteously reclaiming his home alongside his trusted army of followers, friends and family, battling against an army that vastly outnumbers their own. On the other, Ramsay Bolton arguable the most detestable character to ever grace television. I don’t think I have to explain which side is which in this situation.

This of course doesn’t reconcile the fact that a multi-million dollar corporation whose CEO claims to support the league and the people who have built it up from the ground up basically ordered a hit against them. Many of the people named in that video were forced to turn their accounts private to avoid a mountain of misogynistic and hateful attacks.

The NWHL quickly came to the defence of their people, a stand that many leagues would be scared to make considering the sway Barstool holds. NWHL commissioner Tyler Tumminia criticized Nardini for publicizing the names of NWHL supporters and journalists in the video. Rookie Saroya Tinker was the first player to call this video out and deserves all the credit in the world for doing so. It was a stand that a player needed to take, and as one of the few players of colour in the league, she stepped up the challenge in amazing fashion.

But it’s strange. Usually Barstool’s horde usually overpower their targets through sheer numbers. But it seems to have had the opposite effect this time, with the league hitting record streaming numbers, massively increasing their online presence and garnering sponsorships.

A few days after that video, the league announced that Discover Financial Services had become the largest sponsor in league history. Then this happened.

People saw that spotlight, and it translated into real success, indicated by the massive streaming numbers we’re now seeing from the league. Fans flocked to the league’s stream and social media accounts to offer support. It’s indicative of this league that they’ve managed to turn such a potentially toxic battle into positive change that will continue to create sustainable and exciting women’s hockey.

The biggest worry I’m sure many had about this ordeal was that it would overshadow the most important thing about the league: The hockey.

The hockey has been outstanding. That Beauts-Pride game that garnered 32k viewers was a fast-paced, exciting and engaging match-up, much like the rest of the games the Lake Placid bubble has produced.

Anyways, go subscribe to twitch.tv/NWHL and watch the Isobel Cup. The hockey is fun as hell, the players are exciting and most importantly, the league cares.

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