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The National Women’s Hockey League Blows Their Biggest Opportunity

James Murphy
by in NHL on
  • The NWHL has suspended their playoffs due to a rise in COVID-19 cases.
  • They were scheduled to have their semifinals and finals broadcast on MSNBC, a first for women’s pro hockey.
  • They reportedly did a poor job maintaining their ‘bubble’ and spent more time on a pointless spat with Barstool Sports than promoting their league.

There’s a well known saying often attributed to the Roman philosopher Seneca that ‘luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity’. The National Women’s Hockey League had a perfect opportunity to promote the sport and increase the visibility of their league. They had reached a deal to air their Isobel Cup finals and semifinals on cable network NBCSN. These would have been the first women’s professional ice hockey games to be shown on a major cable network in the United States.

At the time of the announcement, NWHL league commissioner Tyler Tumminia clearly understood the significance of the opportunity:

“Our partnership with NBC Sports is monumental for the visibility of the NWHL. Never before has women’s professional hockey had the opportunity to reach so many people on American television in the United States.”

“As we have seen with the WNBA and NWSL this year, when women’s major league sports leagues are given a strong showcase, viewership is increased and countless new fans connect with the teams and players.”

“NBC Sports provides the NWHL’s biggest games in our upcoming season in Lake Placid with best-in-class production and award-winning announcers. The NWHL will deliver intense, memorable hockey for the viewers on NBCSN as an Isobel Cup champion is crowned.”

The opportunity was clearly there but the preparation was lacking. Actually, a better way to say it is that they screwed up monumentally. First, they made the dubious decision to pick a fight with hugely popular website Barstool Sports. Not because Barstool had been making fun of them–to the contrary, they had been actively promoting the NWHL and talking up the sport. Nope, the NWHL took umbrage with the fact that Barstool didn’t meet their litmus test for political correctness.

Like it or not, if a niche sport like the NWHL wants to grow their audience they can’t afford to pick a fight with one of the biggest sports platforms in the industry. For *supporting* them, albeit while not being as politically correct as, say, a NPR correspondent. Women’s sports have forever made the case that they just needed exposure. Well, the NWHL got great exposure to literally millions of sports fans and they not only turned their back on the incredible promotional opportunity but spat in its face. They had a perfect opportunity to change perceptions about women’s sports, winning some new fans in the process. Instead, they simply reinforced these perceptions and likely lost some fans in the process. In the words of This Is Spinal Tap ‘there’s such a fine line between stupid and clever’. In an effort to look ‘clever’–presumably to curry favor with progressive elements that traditionally fawn over women’s sports–they ended up looking downright ‘stupid’:

Their pointless and silly fit against Barstool Sports was just the beginning. Having successfully alienated a massive source of new fans, the league had one job to do: to keep the wheels on and finish their playoffs–the same playoffs that were going to be a ‘landmark’ for women’s hockey due to their unprecedented cable TV audience. Well, guess what–they found a way to screw that up too.

Yesterday, the NWHL abruptly suspended their shortened 2021 season ahead of what several media sources referred to as a ‘historic nationally televised playoffs’ due to positive COVID-19 tests. Just one day before what could have been a game changer for the sport. They’ve not even gone to the trouble of issuing a decent press release explaining the decision–they did, however, post this Tweet:

This was described as a ‘make or break’ moment by the New York Times, quoting a previous article in which Anya Packer, director of the NWHL Players Association, said of finishing the playoffs in a bubble:

“It’s a huge make or break for the league.”

In the same article, first year interim commissioner Tyler Tumminia spoke of the need to ‘package’ the product for potential investors:

Tyler Tumminia, who is in her first year as the interim commissioner of the N.W.H.L., said she hoped the brief season could help attract investors; the league currently has independent owners for only two of its teams, Boston and Toronto, the newest club.

Even the New York Times sounded a bit dumbfounded as they reported the news of the league pulling the plug:

The Hockey News didn’t prevaricate in their assessment of the NWHL’s historic–and possibly fatal–flail:

The only women’s pro hockey league in North America has made some very positive strides, but will the damage done over the past 11 days – a lot of it self-inflicted – be too much to overcome?

After talking about the party line of women’s hockey that there are changes forthcoming–‘Really positive changes around being more organized, accountable, transparent and professional’–they gave this assessment:

And that’s great, but you have to wonder if the damage that has been done over the past couple of weeks is irreparable. You hope it isn’t, but it might be. Considering all that has transpired since the league launched in Lake Placid 11 days ago, you’d have to think there are fans (and potential sponsors) who are so turned off that they feel this league can’t fold soon enough, paving the way for the NHL to save it. That might be the only answer here.

We do know this. The 2020-21 NWHL season and playoffs in Lake Placid was an enormous opportunity for this league to make strides and capture the hearts and minds of casual sports fans. And it failed. Miserably. The two semifinals Thursday night and the final Friday night were to be televised nationally on the NBC Sports Network, which would have given the league a level of exposure never seen before. But in the space of 11 days, the league waffled on its ties to a misogynistic website, then had to send a team home (the Metropolitan Riveters) because of a COVID outbreak, then saw another team (the Connecticut Whale) leave because of fears of COVID, then had to shut the entire season down because of a further outbreak.

Details are sketchy on what happened to the ‘bubble’ but ESPN quotes a ‘source’ that implicates the league for poor planning and communication:

Sources told ESPN there had been concerns around the Lake Placid “restricted zone,” enforcement of team personnel quarantines and social distancing before and during the tournament.

“It wasn’t a true bubble,” one source told ESPN. “A lot of error comes from [poor] communication.”

Commissioner Tumminia gave some vague platitudes about feeling sorry for the athletes and learning from the experience:

“The fact that we didn’t get these athletes on their deserved and due platform on NBC. That’s the most heartbreaking part to me.”

“As I move forward after this bubble, I can assure you that there’ll be a lot of evaluation, now that I’ve been involved and now actually meeting my staff for the first time on a lot of different levels in this bubble. There will be an incredible amount of evaluation and assessment and change. And necessary change, I believe.”

At least she kind of takes responsibility for the monumental screwup and what sounds like a knee-jerk decision to throw in the towel. And she’s right about feeling bad for the athletes–they did their part for the sport. Unfortunately, their league and the people that run it rendered it all meaningless with their ‘epic fail’. Hopefully, the league will get another chance and attract some new investors. And hopefully, these investors will stipulate that the league clean house and hire some professionals to properly manage their financial backing.

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