The last time the Isobel Cup was hoisted, the National Women’s Hockey League was proud to announce record-breaking viewership for a 2018-2019 season that ended with a Minnesota Whitecaps championship. A press release from the NWHL relayed that viewership for “games on YouTube and the Twitter Game of the Week was 70,000 viewers — a new high for the league.”
Flash forward to today and the league prepares to hand out the cup again, but this time on NBCSN during the Saturday night prime time slot. Both the two semifinals on March 26 and the final on March 27 will be broadcasted on NBCSN to Americans and streamed on Twitch for international viewers. The NWHL is coming off two weeks’ worth of regular-season games in Lake Placid that drew millions of viewers on Twitch, which generated a very important slice of revenue for the league and its teams.
For the first time in the sport’s history, every professional women’s hockey game in North America this year has either been broadcast on live television or had a sponsored, high-quality stream. In addition to the Twitch and NBCSN feeds for the NWHL, February saw Sportsnet, NBC, and CBC showing at least one of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association’s four games this season.
In the excitement of consistent coverage and the growth in popularity that’s come with it, it’s easy to forget that as recently as two years ago these leagues struggled to secure streams or airtime consistently, and when they did, the quality and promotion were sorely lacking. For years, the only way that fans could watch women’s hockey outside of the Olympics was at the rink itself. Certain International Ice Hockey Federation events like the Women’s World Championship were available on TSN for Canadians, but it wasn’t until 2016 that the games were made available in the United States on the NHL Network. Even after the success of the 2018 Olympic Gold Medal Game, which drew 3.7 million sets of eyeballs on NBCSN and NBC streaming platforms despite starting just before midnight on the East Coast, watching women’s hockey did not become as easy as turning on the television. For the 2020 Women’s U18 World Championship, the IIHF faced backlash for setting up a broadcast that was a birds-eye view, similar to that of a doorbell cam. Meanwhile, the Men’s World Junior Championship tournament was aired in its entirety on TSN, with expansive coverage, analysis, and multiple cameras.
Large international events are one thing, but league play provides an entirely new set of challenges for fans wishing to view games. The now-defunct Canadian Women’s Hockey League started off having a paid streaming service for games in the early 2010s, with the Clarkson Cup Championship available on Sportsnet. Budget restrictions made streaming harder in the CWHL’s final season, where only 18 of the 80 regular-season games and 2 of the 6 semifinal games were available to watch for free through the league site. Outside of that small sample, the remaining games for the ‘18-’19 season were scattered across various platforms ranging from the radio to the participating teams’ YouTube channels… if they were available at all. Coming off a very successful Olympic year, it’s hard not to wonder if the league could have avoided folding at the end of the season if companies like NBCSN or CBC had capitalized on the momentum and partnered with women’s hockey earlier and more consistently to provide adequate coverage for newfound fans of the sport.
The NWHL’s inaugural year in 2015 marked the first time that every game of a North American league was easily available to watch for free online, especially for American fans. Games were streamed on Periscope, YouTube, and Twitter, but it became quickly apparent that simply having an available stream was not enough. Due to the multiplatform method of the NWHL’s initial streaming, even diehard fans had trouble finding where to watch games, making it nearly impossible for casual fans or newcomers who weren’t already invested to find the action. The aforementioned platforms put the marketing responsibility solely on the league, as their algorithms would likely show games only to people who had engaged with the NWHL or CWHL before. Having games streamed through league websites or social media meant a better, more consistent source of action for existing fans, but little or no possibility to create new fans or stay relevant in the minds of more casual hockey fans.
The NWHL’s Twitch partnership revolutionized the league’s game broadcasts. Though better known as a gaming and E-Sports platform, Twitch became a way to reach a new audience who were new to the sport of hockey entirely, not just the women’s side. Chats made the stream more interactive, with the ability for fans to donate to the NWHL while watching the game. More people could stumble upon games with perks like having the games featured on the front page of the website and the ability to host additional content like the talk show NWHL Open Ice that featured players in collaboration with ESports personality Dr. Lindsey Migliore, also known as GamerDoc. A small but crucial detail is that all games are at the same hyperlink every week, providing easier advertising with every game only one click away instead of having to look through a team’s social media for an updated link for each game. The PWHPA also streamed two of their four games on CBC’s website, a traditional platform, which helped fans watch with ease and return to the stream when the game was over. Being on a platform for virtual streams doesn’t always have the glamour of a live television slot, but it does go a long way towards putting the professional in professional women’s hockey.
A lot of unknowns lie ahead for women’s hockey, including the demise of NBCSN after this season, which will bring their male counterparts in the NHL to ESPN instead. NBC may be more willing to host women’s hockey on channels like USA Network and the main NBC channel to get some hockey on their network ahead of the Olympics, which they hold the rights to, especially with the loss of the NHL. Both the NWHL and PWHPA have lighter schedules than the NHL in a normal year, under 25 games per team with all games on the weekend, making it an easier commitment. ESPN hasn’t shown interest in women’s hockey thus far, and any future deal would likely come without any help from the NHL, which has no affiliation with either women’s hockey organization.
As people cut their cables and look for cheaper ways to watch games, digital streaming is just as important for women’s sports as television. Last year, NWSL viewership increased by nearly 300% with games on CBS Sports (mainly CBS Access, their digital platform) and Twitch for international viewers. Both the NWSL on CBS Access and WNBA on their league pass require a paid subscription, something women’s hockey hasn’t tried since the early days of the CWHL. Jumping to a paid subscription is a hard step for a growing sports league to take, with the risk of alienating new fans. The PWHPA and NWHL are likely too young to make the jump this year, but it could be a viable option if they continue to get games on television throughout the season. Televised games provide an opportunity for fans to sample the product with no additional cost before they commit to a paid service, and also help the less tech-savvy crowd engage with the sport. Teams could potentially look to local broadcasts as well. Back in 2016, the Boston Pride had games broadcasted on New England Sports Network, something that may be worth it for their second-year ownership group to consider pushing for again.
For the immediate future, the NWHL has another year on its partnership with Twitch, and the PWHPA’s flexibility makes it a desirable product for hockey networks like Sportsnet and CBC. Hopefully, no matter who the PWHPA, NWHL, or IIHF partners with, doorbell cameras and handheld Periscopes are a thing of the past.
Photo Credit: Michelle Jay