Anya Battaglino in action. Image by: Courtesy of NWHL.
Meet Anya Battaglino, Connecticut Whales forward and new head of the NWHL Players’ Association. She’s on a mission not just to earn more respect for her fellow athletes, but for women in general.
Anya Battaglino had the job locked up. She was ready for an exciting new role as a tech sales rep in Stamford, Conn.,, but something didn’t quite sit right. Her new employer told her what her salary would be and, in her heart, she knew she had to take a risk and speak up. She asked him if he felt the number offered to her was appropriate and whether a male employee with the same qualifications would earn the same figure. Her frankness may not have landed her the number she truly deserved in the end, but it helped. Her employer listened.
“It did change where I was as the start of the conversation vs. the end of the conversation,” she said.
“That’s what sports gives women.”
It’s a strong-willed, inspirational perspective, befitting a leader of people, and that’s precisely what Battaglino has become. By day, Battaglino holds down that tech sales job, but she moonlights as a forward for the NWHL’s Connecticut Whale, and she was named director of the NWHL Players’ Association earlier this month.
She feels competing as a professional athlete, in North America’s first paying women’s hockey league, has rubbed off on other aspects of her life, made her more confident and willing to stand up for what she knows is right. She sees the value in athletics for all women. She’s realistic in her expectations for women’s salaries in pro sports – she knows they won’t become millionaires overnight, even if they deserve to – but she believes female athletes must respect themselves more. That means, she says, an equipment sponsorship deal should earn NWHL players some money. Speaking engagements should be paid gigs if they aren’t for charitable causes. Women provide just as much value as men in these arenas and deserve to be treated like the role models they are.
“We’re professional athletes, too, and we have that poise to say ‘No, I’m not just going to take your stick for free and give you free marketing,’ “ she said. “Why don’t you give me something or appreciate what I do?’
“It’s the principle. It’s saying, ‘If you pay Zdeno Chara $7,000 to come speak at your engagement, that’s wrong.’ Women have a very different story to tell, and it’s important.”
As you might guess, being named NWHLPA director wasn’t a case of the league and commissioner Dani Rylan searching endlessly for appropriate union heads and prompting teams to nudge candidates forward. No, Battaglino was first in line, volunteering herself. The decision was extremely easy for Rylan to make.
“It was obvious Anya wanted to take over the director role and that it was a perfect position for her,” Rylan said. “She believes in this league, and she understands the business as well as the player side and has always been such a great ambassador for the sport and the players.”
“Always” is right. Battaglino had been gradually growing into the role for years. The seeds were sown during her days attending Boston University and playing for the Terriers. She had no major leadership aspirations at the time but was forced to join a student athlete support group as a freshman walk-on. The happy accident lit a spark.
“I really fell in love with that,” she said. “I like viewing athletes in a position of power, saying, ‘Your kids should meet these people. They are doing something amazing in their own right, and they should be treated that way.’ You start looking at athletes in a different way, as a benefit to the community as opposed to just a part of it.”
Battaglino understood the privilege of playing at the highest level of women’s hockey and how she could stand out as a role model to inspire other young athletes. Before taking over as NWHLPA director, she was already prominent on social media, known for wearing GoPro cameras to document her practices and even providing some color commentary for games. She was a natural fit as player union champion. She also oozes leadership. She speaks loudly, passionately, words dripping with conviction. She has big ideas and a magnetic personality.
"I’m going to be trying to monetize my players’ time and help them to feel they’re valuable. I don't think women’s professional athletes think they are valuable, and that breaks my heart.”
“She is incredibly charismatic, outgoing, and really one of the more kind-hearted people that I’ve encountered over the last couple years on this venture,” Rylan said. “I’m incredibly honored to be working alongside her as we continue to grow as a business and make something special for the players.”
Battaglino never seems to waste a breath when she speaks, every thought she shares seemingly a meaningful quip, and maybe that’s because she actually doesn’t have time for small talk. Her average day is jaw-droppingly busy. It starts at about 5:00 a.m. She catches up on work emails she may have received overnight, as she deals with people from the west coast in her job. She gulps down a quick breakfast and hits the train by 7:00. During that two-hour commute, she dons her NWHLPA hat. She studies where the league’s dollars are allocated. She searches for causes the players can associate themselves with, such as the epically impactful 2017 Women’s March. She hunts for potential sponsorship in companies expressing love for women’s sports. She looks for speaking engagements and other ways in which the league can give back to the community. She explores publicity opportunities through the media. She works tirelessly with Rylan to get the players and league office in more of a dialogue, as Battaglino lists lack of communication within the young organization as a major early hurdle.
Then she arrives at work for her day job at 9:00. At lunch: back on the NWHL beat, where she’ll often hop on a phone call with Rylan. Then it’s work until 5:30, and more NWHL on that train home. Then she has an hour to get ready for her Whale practice at 8:40. She’s home by 10:30 and somehow expected to turn off her brain and sleep. She estimates she gets five hours of shuteye per night. And that might be too optimistic considering Rylan says she’ll sometimes get a text from Battaglino at 4:30 a.m.
So Battaglino clearly puts a lot of sweat into everything she does, and that’s what it will take to get the NWHL to new levels of popularity and the players to earn the living they deserve. Rylan said the league is a full go for Season 3, but sponsorship has remained relatively sparse, and player salaries got slashed by 38 percent this season in the interest of prolonging the league’s life. That’s a devastating number for a circuit in which the minimum pay was $10,000 and top earners Kelli Stack and Amanda Kessel got $25,000 and $26,000.
Battaglino didn’t take the news as a defeat. The day of the salary announcement, she tweeted: “It’s time to roll up our sleeves and prove ourselves now, @NWHL. Hearing ‘No’ never stopped me before…you taught me that.” And she sees a few different ways she can effect change as NWHLPA director. One is to make the sport more appealing to new fans by being more inclusive and inspiring people through sharing personal stories – something that has traditionally been stigmatized on the men’s side of hockey, at least until recently.
“I am very open about mental health awareness, trying to tell people my life hasn’t always been easy, but I have gotten to this great place in my life,” she said. “Making a kid do something like that who doesn't have hope or doesn’t think they can achieve great things, being open and honest about the problems and questions and the hardships, it makes it more relatable. Maybe a little girl read my story and was feeling down on herself, and maybe she brushed it off and went to practice that day, because I know there were times when I couldn’t.”
The natural issue for a PA director to target, likely the first one most of us think of, is player salaries. Battaglino considers herself a realist on the topic. She believes it would take at least a decade for female pro players to earn a full-time living. She doesn’t think she or the other players have reached a juncture where they can give up the separate, often highly fulfilling non-hockey lives they’ve built for themselves. She does, however, see piecemeal ways to earn better pay for NWHLPA players. It starts with proper compensation for equipment sponsorships and public appearances. Rylan says she’s discussed the topic with Battaglino and that they’re working on a platform through which players can book themselves for appearances, youth practices or to be ambassadors for certain brands – and be paid accordingly. Doing so would give the NWHLers some supplementary income while the league continues to grow and hopefully work its way back to the salary benchmarks set in year 1.
“I’m going to be trying to monetize my players’ time and help them to feel they’re valuable,” Battaglino said. “I don't think women’s professional athletes think they are valuable, and that breaks my heart.”
Her words evoke real emotion. The NWHL hasn’t yet achieved solid financial footing, and its existence remains year to year, but it’s now armed with a potent weapon, a player rep bursting with passion and ideas, and that can only help the league’s chances of surviving and thriving. What Battaglino really wants us to understand is that the NWHL and women’s sports in general can’t be treated merely as fun startup projects. They really matter. They have a role to play in the world, and it transcends sports entertainment.
“One of the things I always say is get your girls to play hockey, because it doesn’t change the world you live in, but it changes the amount of confidence you have,” Battaglino said. “Even though you’re getting paid less than the guy who didn't do half as well, it gives you the poise, dignity and confidence to go advocate for yourself, your work, your life.”