BURLINGTON – Take a long section of string. Crumple it in your hands and toss it on a table. That is women’s hockey today. Now, take both ends of that string and pull it taut. Place it on the table. That is what women’s hockey needs to become.
Val Ackerman hopes her hands can help to pull that string taut. The founding president of the WNBA has been working as a consultant with the National Hockey League for the last 18 months trying to understand where the game has been, where it is today, and where it has to get to.
“The NHL has been following women’s hockey closely,” she began. “They brought me in to help educate them about where the game was, at all levels—grassroots, collegiate, post-collegiate, national team—and to help them formulate a strategy about how they might be able to support the women’s game in the future. I’m trying to gather information about where the women’s game is, particularly at the elite level, so I can pass that along to the NHL.”
Why the NHL? Why would a North American men’s league that is healthy and wealthy knock on the door of a sport that has only one real tenant—a Canada-United States rivalry?
“The NHL’s interest is that they’d like to see hockey grow, period,” Ackerman explained. “That means hockey in all of its forms. And because women’s hockey is a bigger and bigger piece of the pie, it’s part of that growth. Their motivation is simply that what’s good for women’s hockey is good for hockey, and what’s good for hockey is good for the NHL.”
The challenges are myriad and the solutions many, but Ackerman, as a sports lover but hockey outsider, brings to the game a common-sense perspective which is neither blindly devotional nor cynically fatalistic. What she stresses is patience and planning.
Look at the big picture. Understand what’s going on. Do your job. Then keep doing it.
“It seems to me that a truly viable pro league, where the players are getting paid a reasonable amount, and it’s run in a first class way, is a ways down the road,” she asserted. “When we started the WNBA, women’s basketball was much further along then than women’s hockey is today."
"Here’s an example," she continued. "There are 1,100 women’s basketball teams at the college level in the U.S.; there are 80 in women’s hockey. There are half a million girls who play basketball at the high-school level; there are 8,000 who play high-school hockey. If you imagine a women’s pro league at the top of the pyramid, then what has to happen is that the base has to get stronger before you can drop a pro league on the top.”
Patience. A pro league is not formed by investing millions of dollars in something with no solid ground. For a pro league to work, you need fans and players first, but there are not enough of either to start up, and there won’t be for quite some time.
“There are geographic limitations in hockey that don’t exist in basketball,” Ackerman continued. “Basketball is played in 215 countries. Every continent. It’s easy to translate in any culture. Hockey is more geographically confined, which creates challenges. The equipment, the rink, make access more difficult. But even within its limitation, there’s room for it to grow. If the participation levels can be boosted--which seems to be happening anyway with USA Hockey, Hockey Canada, the IIHF, the NHL--the sport can grow. You have to get the key stakeholders together in ways that haven’t been done, and they have to lay out a vision of where the sport needs to get to.”
Organization. Women’s hockey is a jumble. The CWHL does its thing. The WWHL comes and goes. The CIS lacks any cohesion at the university level in the vastness of Canada. The NCAA is great, but only for four years and with academic challenges that are burdensome for non-English speakers. The Olympics is a pinnacle which comes but once in four years. How do all these elements fit together? Does the puzzle even have a solution?
“Right now, the top of the pyramid is the Olympics,” Ackerman said. “The CWHL has created a great opportunity for post-collegiate, non-national league play, but the players don’t get paid because the league doesn’t have the revenues and structure. A pro league is all about a fan following. Fans translate to ticket sales, television ratings, sponsor interest. And although the fans here in Burlington have been good, they don’t come close to what you see in women’s college basketball.”
A business model. “Having spent the bulk of my career in sports, mostly women’s basketball, I see women’s hockey as a sport with real potential,” she continued. “It’s come on the scene later than women’s basketball, which took off after Title IX, which really helped women’s sports take off at the collegiate level beginning in 1972. Women’s hockey didn’t take off until the 1990s. It’s a newer sport, so it doesn’t have the participation numbers or the visibility yet. But I see real potential for it to continue to grow. The U.S.-Canada matchup is a great asset for the sport right now. It will make for great interest going into Sochi. At the college level, I think there is untapped potential from a visibility standpoint. There’s very good hockey being played; the real shame is that many people can’t follow it because it doesn’t get the media coverage. Even the Frozen Four isn’t on television, for a variety of reasons including the fact it’s on during the opening weekend of the NCAA men’s and women’s tournament [i.e., March Madness]. But I see potential for the future. What I see missing is the marketing angle, the visibility. It’s not out there. And it’s not going to happen overnight; it’s going to be a multi-year process.”
One unknown concerns that connection between fans and the game. Is women’s hockey an Olympic sport fans follow for a few days every four years, or is it like the NHL which fans obsess over every minute of every day, year round? Of course, the answer lies somewhere in between, but where? Towards quadrennial interest or minute-by-minute interest?
“There is only so much interest any sport can command in any one-year cycle or four-year cycle,” Ackerman acknowledged. “We’re working to see if there’s annual interest outside of the World Championship or four years with the Olympics. Those questions are hard to answer—we don’t know yet with women’s hockey. We don’t have enough informed data yet.”
But there are examples good and bad. While the WNBA has proved popular and durable, women’s soccer, for instance, has not. “The World Cup in 2011 was a huge success for FIFA, in the United States, around the world, but yet women’s soccer can’t translate that to the league level,” Ackerman noted. “There’s a women’s pro soccer league in the U.S. which suspended operations last summer. The future is very uncertain. It’s not always a guarantee that national-team success will translate to club-team success.”
For now, as Ackerman et al try to build the game from the bottom up, out of the spotlight, as it were, the stakeholders are trying to find ways to capitalize on the most powerful element of the sport.
“One idea is for the U.S. and Canada to play a pre-Olympic tour, exhibition games in the winter of 2013-14, to take advantage of that matchup, do some barnstorming, some ancillary events around it, bring more attention to it, and perhaps have the NHL involved in that in a way it’s never been before, and bring its resources to bear on pre-Olympic marketing,” she suggested.
Yes, she admits, it’s more hockey featuring just these two teams—and “more” has some limits before it gets saturated—but it’s the best way to focus on the good while fixing the problems.
Consider a general overview of women’s hockey: Canada was dominant for most of the first 15 years while the Americans were a dominant second while still lagging behind Canada until catching up around 2005. Europe has lagged far behind but is making headway. Sounds a lot like the NHL and the men's game, doesn’t it? The key to growing the game will ultimately be in establishing a pro league in Canada and the northeastern United States, a league where North Americans can play and establish the sport and where Europeans can come to play when they are good enough. Like Borje Salming and Anders Hedberg and Jari Kurri, the Europeans need something to motivate them to play, and a solid league will be the answer—just not today or tomorrow.
Ackerman may or may not be there when it happens, but she’s only too happy to do her bit for the immediate future. “I’m just happy to be involved with it. I’m disappointed women’s hockey isn’t bigger; I think it should be. It’s an amazing sport—the fitness level, their technical skills, their ability to skate. I’m in awe of them.”