ICYMI: The IX Newsletter talks to Val Ackerman about the future of women’s ice hockey

Hi all:

I haven’t updates in a while, but ahead of my next hockey edition of The IX Newsletter, I wanted to repost my interview with Val Ackerman from last week.

You might recognize the name Val Ackerman from her time with the NBA, USA Basketball, the first WNBA President, or as the current commissioner of the BIG EAST Conference. Val is exceptionally bright and well-attuned to the business of sports. She continues to be an important leader for women in sports as well.

So, I was delighted when, in an interview for a basketball story, she and I also got to talk women’s hockey. I hope to clean up the full transcript and make it available sometime soon. For now, here is the hockey except of my conversation with Val Ackerman.

Val Ackerman is the current commissioner of the Big East Conference. She has also served as a consultant to the NHL on the viability of women’s hockey. I spoke with her for an article for High Post Hoops a week ago and she kindly offered some insight to women’s ice hockey.  I pick up mid-conversation as Val lays out her for keys to success in sports.

Val Ackerman: The WNBA still remains the best positioned of all of the women’s team sports endeavors because of the NBA support. I’m on the board of U.S. soccer now. What women’s soccer has done–I mean what their national team has done– has been incredible. But the pro league has a long way to go.

Women’s hockey is still on the horizon. I did a white paper for the NHL. In 2010 Gary [Bettman], the commission the NHL, asked me to help him understand women’s ice hockey and whether the NHL could give a lift. I do believe they can and I do hope they do because I think that’s the future of women’s ice hockey at the professional level is for there to be a league fronted by the NHL. And so I hope that happens but that’s on the horizon.

You know I kind of lost track at this point where softball and volleyball are lacrosse. I think they may be in the embryonic stages. But you know, it’s really the WNBA leading the way at the women’s professional team sports level … to me the formula is product, promotion, scheduling, and leadership. That’s my four-point formula for success. All four have to come together. Every single one matters.

ELA: I’m curious to get your thoughts on scheduling in particular, a little bit more. 

VA: Scheduling is sort of, it’s like the untold story of success. The sports calendar is so crowded and promotion and visibility are so important that if you don’t strategically and thoughtfully schedule when your season is, what days a week you’re playing, what times of day you’re playing. You can get lost in the shuffle and you will lose fans.

And when you lose fans, you lose everything because fans are what attract sponsors. They’re what attract networks. And they ultimately are the key to revenue and revenue is everything in a women’s professional sport It’s not a Title IX driven equity argument. It’s a revenue proposition. It’s about what the marketplace wants and so it all comes down to interest levels and fans. And fans have so many options now across sports across entertainment, across just you know offerings in their lives, that sports leagues have to be very thoughtful.

I’ll give women’s ice hockey on this since I mentioned my work here. The women’s frozen four is under-performing in my judgment because they play it on the opening weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament.

The men’s frozen four is the weekend after basketball ends. But the women for whatever reason, are sticking with that mid-March time frame and they’re invisible because March Madness is one of the biggest national sporting events we have. And it’s to me it’s sort of suicidal to go up against that and that’s what women’s hockey at the collegiate level has chosen to do and it makes no sense.

So if we’re going to we’re going to you know if they want to use basketball as a model, we were able to build on the women’s Final Four which you know has been successful in the time frame it’s in. But, women’s hockey you know hasn’t really been able to figure that out. So I think that’s an example of disadvantageous scheduling than hurting the sport.

ELA: That’s interesting. I want to stick with hockey just for a little bit. There are conversations about moving them to a summer season … What would be your advice perhaps to the commissioners plural of the North American leagues to hit those four those four prongs you talked about earlier?

VA: I think that’s the future of women’s ice hockey at the professional level is you know is an NHL fronted league like we had with the WNBA. I think if the sport’s looking for long-term success, that’s the ticket. I think the question you asked is important in fact when I did my inquiry I was one of my questions was could you play it in the summer. Right. And I’m not sure you know worked in basketball interestingly like basketball as a summer sport at the Olympics. Even though it seems like a winter sport and every other way, it’s actually you know for Olympic scheduling purposes it’s actually summer sport  … I don’t know what other issues there might be. It would probably be you know on rink availability better but … I don’t know how that would play at all with the hockey crowd whether people would want to go to ice hockey games in the summer.

New York Riveters 2016
The 2016-17 Riveters line up for the anthem ahead of a game against the Connecticut Whale.

But, I do think the NHL above all has the infrastructure. They have the NHL Network. You know I mentioned leadership … I’m talking about the visible leadership are the people that are kind of out front the faces of these leagues. But then the invisible leadership or the people behind the scenes who are part of important strategic direct decisions about things like scheduling, economics, and most of all … that five-year outlook, all the things you have to be thinking about when you’re at the top of the pyramid structures. It’s very it’s a very complicated and difficult business … and then you gotta be prepared to lose money.

So, there has to be a light at the end of the tunnel on the economics. So it’s either turn in a profit at some point or an asset play, so you feel like you’re building an asset that at the end of the day that you can flip and get your return at that point.

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