Ty Tumminia started out as an intern for a minor league baseball team, and once she’d carved out a career in the game that included sharing ownership in four minor league clubs, she knew she’d eventually get involved in another sport.
But unlike her namesake, Ty Cobb, Tumminia isn’t sticking to baseball. And her next move is now official: The 41-year-old baseball executive is wading into hockey.
“At least I can skate,” Tumminia told Sportsnet in a phone interview. “Not well. I mean, I still fall on my ass every now and then. But, you know…”
It’ll have to do.
News that the National Women’s Hockey League is expanding to Toronto next season was officially announced early Wednesday, and five players and a trio of executives have been named, including Tumminia, who’ll serve as the team’s chairman. She’s the only name new to hockey circles.
The familiar names in the sport include the team’s ownership group leader, Johanna Neilson Boynton, a former Harvard Hockey captain, now CEO and co-founder of a housing company; and team president, Digit Murphy, one of the winningest coaches in the history of NCAA women’s hockey. The five signed players include two who won the 2019 Clarkson Cup just before the CWHL folded: Ontario-born defender Kristen Barbara and Manitoba-born forward Taylor Woods. Former CWHL goalie Elaine Chuli from Waterford, Ont., will make her NWHL debut, while Emma Greco of Burlington, Ont., and former U.S. National Team member, Shiann Darkangelo, are returning to the league.
The NWHL’s first Canadian franchise still needs a lot of things: A name (fans can vote on that and more at NWHL.zone), a venue, more players, a GM and a coach, to name a few. Announcements will come in the weeks and months ahead, with the season scheduled to open in November. But among the eight women announced so far with this team, it’s Tumminia who stands out: She’s the only graduate of MLB’s Scout Development Program, for one. (Her dad scouted for the White Sox for more than three decades, and he’s also the reason she’s named after Ty Cobb).
“Ty is bold and creative,” NWHL founder and commissioner, Dani Rylan, told Sportsnet in a statement. “There are very few people with the experience and passion for building a sports business like she has. The opportunity for us to work alongside such a smart and strong woman like Ty makes my job even more enjoyable. I’m really excited to see what Ty and her team bring to life in Toronto.”
As chairman, Tumminia has a big task ahead. She’ll be a sounding board to the owner and management, and much of her responsibility will be as a resource for Neilson Boynton and Murphy when it comes to sponsorship, partnership and broadcast deals. She understands it’ll be a challenge to bring out fans in a saturated sports market like Toronto, but it’s not unlike work she has done before.
“What I made my career off of — which I think brings a unique, outside perspective — I made a living off of living in a landscape where really entertainment value was valued higher than the wins and losses,” Tumminia says. “In minor league baseball we capitalized on this idea of a demographic that might not even be wanting to come to a minor league game. I mean, how can we compete with the big league guys? There is no competition… The landscape of minor league baseball felt like, we need to be targeting and bringing in [fans]… bringing the entertainment value, like outside of the lines. What could we do to bring fans and families to the rink or to the ballpark, [so] that if they weren’t even a fan, they would still walk out of there having a lot of fun and say ‘Oh, yeah, I want to go back, that was a lot of fun’?
“As we build this going forward, I think it would behove us to be smart about the fact that there is a lot of competition in Toronto for that dollar and for the attention, and hopefully we can lay out a successful plan of how we’re going to specifically operate going forward.” She points out: “There’s room for us to test the waters and kind of give a unique business model and entertainment model. It can’t hurt to try.”
And though this foray into hockey is new for Tumminia, the city of Toronto isn’t. She says it has been “a second home” for her family, which includes two young daughters. Tumminia’s husband, Ben Cherington, served as the Blues Jays’ VP of baseball operations for nearly four seasons before the Pirates hired him last year to be their GM.
Joining the NWHL’s first Canadian team’s management group was a “no-brainer,” she says, and not just because of her familiarity with the city. “I definitely wanted a next chapter of my life to become involved in something that had a little bit more purpose and personal purpose and goal,” she says. “Women’s hockey and growing the sport, for women in particular, definitely has always been a passion.”
Once Tumminia gets her foot in the door, she’s been known to make things happen quickly. She was working in public relations with IBM when she sought out a role with Tampa Bay’s affiliate, the Hudson Valley Renegades. “I’m not joking, I had to beg for an internship,” she says. But her time as an intern was awfully short: Six weeks later, the team named her director of community relations.
“I often felt if someone could just give me a chance, if someone could just get me in there, then I could prove to myself and to everybody else that I can make this work,” she says, of her early days in baseball. She spent less than a year with the Renegades before joining the Goldklang Group, which she left in 2016. Tumminia is now co-owner of the Massachusetts-based Pittsfield Suns of the Futures Collegiate Baseball League.
And now, the chairman is excited to delve into the pro women’s sporting landscape with the NWHL’s expansion team in Toronto. And yes, she’s well aware many will see her name (it’s “Tyler” on her birth certificate) and title (she prefers “chairman” to “chairperson” or “chairwoman”) and assume that she’s a man.
“All my life, you know, you see Tyler Tumminia on paper – it’s been wild,” she says. “I kind of love the double confusion there. That’s been part of my thing. I love to make people think.”
The hope is this new face and name in women’s hockey can also help mobilize a fan and sponsorship base in Toronto, to make it think about and support the game. “I really think Toronto is going to be and should be excited, and hopefully impressed with the product that we put out there,” Tumminia says.
And just how long does she figure it’ll take for this NWHL team to make waves in Toronto and capture the city’s attention? “I kind of think it already is, right?” Tumminia says. “I feel like we’re already getting some good attention, and once we start playing, hopefully that grows, with the natural momentum going forward.”