NWHL Fan Feedback Part 2: Concerns & Constructive Criticism
The National Women’s Hockey League has nearly concluded year three. This presented a good opportunity to hear from NWHL fans about how they think the league is doing. The second part of this series focuses on where fans think the league can do better. Fans were given the opportunity to submit feedback via a form, or through twitter or email. While many are granted anonymity in the piece, fans had to identify themselves to some degree to provide input to prevent any false submissions. This piece features mainly fan points with as little editorializing as possible.
Numerous fans not surprisingly felt fan engagement could be improved. Several season ticket holders had comments on their experience and what the league is offering, though the issues raised certainly are translatable to all fans.
Anna Shea, a longtime season ticket holder, wrote of fan engagement that the NWHL has “been less on the ball on that one this year.” Shea outlined that the NWHL could do better with “responsiveness to inquiries and Incentivizing season ticket holders.” Another season ticket holder, Abby, felt the NWHL should give season ticket holders more than just the tickets as well.
“It would be nice to have some adult-focused events or perks for season ticket holders,” one fan said.They would go on to add that “open skate with the players/have a beginner hockey class for adults who never played before would be fun events to do.”
“I’d also like more adult-oriented promos,” Abby wrote. “I know part of the goal is to grow the game, but I don’t have kids or nieces and nephews nearby, so kid-oriented promos aren’t going to draw me (or my friends) in. I’m the same age as some of the players, and it would be great to chat with them on that level.”
Terri Yu had many thoughts on this topic too: “As a fan, I would like to see the NWHL reach out to groups beyond girls hockey teams,” Yu commented. “Growing the game through children is important, but the NWHL community can be so much bigger than that. Why not honor an adult “superfan” for each team or write a profile about them for the NWHL.zone website? Why not invite adult fans to skate with the players? Why not reach out to the LGBTQ and women’s recreational hockey communities?”
Yu added specific targets the NWHL should consider: “Whenever I write on Facebook about women’s hockey, the people who are interested in my posts are invariably female friends who play recreational hockey. I personally know that there is a huge women’s recreational league in the Boston area, called the South Shore Women’s Hockey League which currently includes 47 teams. As far as I know, the NWHL has not contacted the South Shore league. Why hasn’t the Boston Pride reached out to them? This seems like an easy demographic to capture. Many of us did not have the opportunity to play as children and were only able to start playing as adults, due to lack of opportunity, money, or parental support.”
In general, there were several suggestions of events the league could add: “Do something along the lines of…opening one practice a year for season ticket holders to attend,” Shea suggested. “Or have a team auction at a game, where fans could bid on signed pictures of players, etc. Low-investment high-reward things that would build up fan goodwill without costing much time or money.”
Abby echoed the call for more special chances: “I’d love more fundraising opportunities. Why aren’t they hosting “skate with your team” days (with discounts for season ticket holders) or one or two open practices?” Abby wrote. “I also think there should be at least one meet-and-greet opportunity outside of the post-game signings. Not everyone can wait on line after a late game…at least for the Rivs games, we’ve got trains to catch.”
Interestingly enough, with the concerns from adults over the league not providing enough options, an additional concern came for more family-friendly scheduling. One Pride fan noted that Boston’s schedule used to have afternoon games, but this season Saturday evening games were the norm and that “just does not work with a small kid.” The league which in fairness, did have afternoon games in the other three markets, still did create a concern in how Boston was scheduled.
Transparency And Keeping Promises
Even some of the most loyal NWHL superfans continue to have concerns about the league’s transparency and past broken promises. One fan called for more exposure of “some of the inner workings of the league, or at least reassure fans/players that financial longevity is assured. And if there is better financial stability, work on increasing player compensation.”
“I want more transparency about the league’s financial situation,” Abby wrote as well and continued to say “I know it’s still a very young league and that means finances are tight, but I think it’s important that they be honest with their fans and their players about it.” Shea also agreed with the need for transparency in the league as well as did Kara who wrote that the NWHL “could make changes that would help to boost their credibility (especially if they were more transparent when it comes to how some decisions are made.” David Lebovitz also was concerned with transparency including the difficulty in finding attendance numbers.
Another fan had a bit of a twist by writing “transparency remains an issue, although it may be for the best due to a current wave of optimism and growth following the 2018 Olympics. Good PR is even better right now and missteps could ruin the hype and momentum the league has going for it.”
Shea also urged the league to either deliver on promises” or to avoid “making promises they aren’t sure they can keep.” Another fan agreed. “With all the growth, don’t forget your season ticket holders and fans who have been with the league since the beginning,” they wrote. “I understand that sometimes things happen or promises are not kept. But don’t say something you can’t follow through on, or make fans have to call you out to make right on your promises. As the NWHL transitions away from a startup, fans putting money into the league aren’t going to treat it like a charity forever.” There have been times in the past where the league promised fans certain benefits that were not delivered on. These fans remember.
Various calls for different improvements in communication beyond transparency came from respondents. Shea urged that the there should be “a clear point of contact for each team or the league: for volunteers, for questions, etc,” so fans know exactly who to reach out to when they want to get questions answered.
Matt Smitha wrote that the league should announce the location and dates of the All-Star game events earlier in the season if not at the beginning.
Another fan wrote about the controversy with Riveters Autism Awareness day and noted “fans didn’t even know that [Autism Speaks] was the benefiting organization until a player randomly tweeted it out. And then, when it was changed, it was confirmed by a different player tweeting. This was something that should have been publicly addressed by the Riveters team account, if not the official NWHL Twitter, not individual players. That’s really not something that should come from the players, it’s not fair to them.” Part of the issue with the day was the event was promoted by the Riveters but was generated by several players. For fans though, there was confusion over whether it had started from the league, the team, or elsewhere. The quote above signified how this confusion was compounded.
Technology and Presentation
A wide swath of constructive criticism came in about the league’s presentation on their various channels, whether it be online broadcasts or social media.
Yu called for better camera work and technology: “The modern sports world depends financially on live television. One reason the NFL became popular was because of beautiful cinema quality shots that tracked the ball as it left the quarterback’s hand, was caught by the receiver, and run upfield. The televised game became a film where the athletes were depicted as heroes. It seems inevitable that the NWHL will need to head in that direction to truly become a “national” league.”
“Technology-wise, it’s just a matter of investing or finding accessible ways to get better technology into the game,” one fan wrote. ‘If there’s really good camera work the presentation and professionalism will attract general fans, and visuals go a long way to legitimizing a product.” They would add that it would also be a good idea to have the technology for in-game reviews. “I would probably die for more/better camera angles at ice level. And better in-game replays,” another fan wrote.
Yu would go on: “People who are used to watching the NHL or the Olympics will be disappointed with the current NWHL broadcasts. The video for Boston Pride home games is shot through a net, making it very difficult to follow the puck. For many of the Buffalo Beauts home games, the camera appeared to be operated by a robot, which did not always track the puck. Hiring camera operators and obtaining more cameras is a large investment, but without it, it’s difficult to see how the league can grow beyond the fans who come to see games live.”
Another fan had concerns on presentation as well: “I’d love for consistency in what data they display. The sound acts up sometimes too, for example in this year’s All-Star game, there was at least one interview that there was no sound for.” Cooper agreed in writing in favor of “more consistently having the graphics on live streams. Sometimes they’ll have the clock, scoreboard, and power play clock, but others don’t. I’ve noticed the ones that don’t are Boston and Connecticut.”
Yet another fan went even further on the stream presentation.:“The graphics on the Twitter stream really, really bother me. They are very slow to respond to what’s happening on the ice. After a team scores the graphic sometimes doesn’t change to reflect it for several minutes. There’s no additional graphic for a power play timer. And they’re very sterile, the colors aren’t unique, they don’t display the NWHL logo, nor those of the teams playing. And the individual banners they put up to highlight certain players are also hit and miss. There are a lot of other graphics that say an NHL game would have that NWHL games don’t, and I’m not saying that they should, but more graphics could be a good way to educate viewers in an eye-catching and professional way.”
Rhys also called for more on-screen displays, but also felt there could “better closed captioning” which was a new point. They also commented that the streams often won’t play for them, and asked if the league had a stream on more than just Twitter. As a background note, the league does, but if a fan isn’t aware of that, it speaks to a need for more promotion of that.
Kara also wrote of the stream presentation but pointed at content: “The intermission is the same “The boys are back” commercial and then a white screen/timer/song every time,” they wrote. “Other leagues have commercials for their sponsors, previous highlights, vignettes with players, etc. that keep the intermissions from getting boring and keeps the person watching engaged. Keeping the watcher engaged would help to keep the watcher from becoming distracted during the intermissions. Look into having additional media that could be streamed. They already have the highlights created, finding a way to incorporate them would be great.”
Jennifer Moglia took matters further by noting that “being able to see games on TV would be amazing, but that’s another thing I believe will change in time as the league grows.” As a note, the league did air multiple games on NESN in year one, and also had ESPN3 deals in the past, but has yet to find a new broadcast partner.
Kara also wrote on a social media side of how the NWHL “could be a bit better with team graphics and gifs. For example, Buffalo has player images for when each person scores, but as far as I’m aware, that’s really all they have. The NCAA especially has little gifs that they record at the beginning of the season where the player can do something goofy and it’s shown when they score/win/whatever. Something like that may take a bit of time to create in the beginning, but I think that it would be super positive addition overall.”
On the issue of content, Shea had ideas hoping to help players connect with remote fans. This included creating “a list of questions (from hockey to random fun facts)” and then giving “one charismatic player on the team a phone camera” so they could interview every other player. The output could be put online and “let the personalities we all love at games be seen everywhere!”
It had been touched in other topics but several fans lamented the league’s lack of promotion: “I skate regularly at five or six local rinks and have never seen even a flyer advertising games,” one Pride fan wrote. Chandler Knight also felt not enough was being done to promote the league. Another fan urged the league to aim higher in the promotional area: “I’m enjoying how word is getting out in the hockey world about the league, but there’s still a lot to do to spread the word! Take the momentum from the 2018 Olympics and use it to the league’s advantage!”
Ashley noted that part of the issue in getting the word out is “a societal problem,” but they also wrote that society should continue to “place greater value on and into these leagues and celebrate the achievements of non-cis-male athletes “
Beyond transparency, the financial status of the league continues to be a concern for the fandom: “The NWHL needs to expand coverage and get more money. It’s not simple, and very difficult, but it needs to happen as [Commissioner Dani] Rylan probably would be first to admit,” one Whale fan wrote. “The NWHL can’t retain key players and provide competitive play at low salaries. The women’s Olympic team was mind-blowingly amazing, and all NWHL teams could compete on that level every week if the players had the opportunity and resources to play and practice full time without worrying about second jobs.”
The same fan urged the NWHL to “keep being aggressive in getting sponsorship and investment and building partnerships with existing clubs (NHL, WNBA, etc.). Make it clear to everyone these players are skilled, unique, and try and create strong, sustained solidarity with strong players in the NHL. Having [Marc-Andre] Fleury stand up and talk about what Fitzgerald did last weekend carries infinitely more weight than the Knights making a tweet about Hilary Knight. Having the NHLPA and NWHLPA stand together makes the leagues look more like a brother and sister and less like a patronizing teacher and frustrated student. The current public success of the NWHL has been almost entirely player driven, using that momentum will be critical to expanding the league. You also can’t afford high player turnover, which means good pay.” Several other fans also wrote of the obvious need for more resources and higher player salaries.
“I want to see more money going back to the players,” Yu wrote. “I was shocked to hear that many players don’t attend practice because they work evenings. How can the NWHL put out the “best product” if players don’t practice together? The fans deserve better, and the players deserve better. The league exists because athletes sacrifice so much to play in the league. When are we getting news about the salary situation and whether it will improve soon? There has been talk about the NWHL expanding to more teams. I don’t think the league should expand if we’re just going to depend on even more female athletes making sacrifices. Some big name players, Kendall Coyne and Hannah Brandt said in a ESPN article they didn’t want to make the sacrifice. They decided not to play in the NWHL because they thought the money and training opportunities weren’t good enough. Training independently worked out well enough; they both played big minutes at the 2018 Olympics.”
Even with the league’s new partnerships with NHL teams, several fans who responded were hopeful for more and soon. One fan wrote that “the continued lack of news on partnerships or support from the NHL or with the CWHL remains a concerning roadblock in the path of the league growing beyond its current modest borders. The NWHL is still young and signs point to it continuing to grow in the near future. However, remaining in isolation while splitting your talent pool with a larger league in a better hockey market and staying in the shadow of a potential major partner with vast resources and influence is not ideal…The sooner the entire NWHL can partner with the NHL as a whole or with local pro team partnerships (Riveters-Devils) the better. A merger with CWHL seems great in theory, but the headaches involved in that scenario may keep that option off the table for at least a couple more years. ”
Ashley was concerned with the league’s need for sponsorships: “The lack of support from the other Major North American Sports Leagues is damaging. The NWSL suffers from similar issues, but they have more sponsors and are bolstered by MLS. WNBA is supported by the NBA.”
Jersey Design – Player Recognition
There were several responses concerned about the jerseys themselves: “Player recognition on the ice could be much better,” one fan suggested. “The NWHL style jersey is really cool, with the nameplate on the bottom to accommodate how most players have long hair that would obscure a conventional nameplate. But a lot of players also tuck their jersey into their hockey pants, making the nameplate unreadable. For fans both new and old this is really bad because if you don’t know a player by sight or number than you don’t know who is on the ice who you might want to become a fan of. The jersey right now has way too much space between the collar and the top of the number. If the number could be moved up several inches and the nameplate with it, it wouldn’t be nearly as hard to read when players tuck in their jersey.”
James felt the changing of logos and uniforms each season was a problem. They felt the fans should vote on the logo and uniform and kept it for more than one season. Moglia had noticed errors on jerseys including mismatched helmet and jersey numbers. “As far as jerseys and helmets go, I understand that there are always mistakes,” they wrote “but it makes people question the credibility/legitimacy of the league. These are just “careless mistakes” that can be fixed by whoever makes the equipment.”
Fans from outside the NWHL’s current market footprint urged growth outside of it, though one Whale fan said the league should “try and build a strong market with the founding four before moving forward.” They would go on to still call for the league to “play a few games on neutral ice in the cities fans want it to expand to (Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh, DC, Minneapolis, Columbus, Raleigh, etc.) It can provide an avenue for fans outside the area without forcing the league to expand beyond what’s a feasible market.” Even with the call for cautious growth, the same fan still wrote of strong support for the league expanding to Pittsburgh.
Several fans called for league expansion west including to the Midwest, Portland, Minnesota, Seattle, the west coast in general and Anchorage, Alaska.
It was slightly surprising that only a few fans wrote of diversity. One though was especially eager to see this increase in the league. “It would be awesome to have more players of color next year!!!” they wrote. While editorializing on what fans wrote was kept at a minimum in this piece, The growth of the game to add more players of color is an area the NWHL has found success, but where the league no doubt has much more room to grow.
A few other subjects got less mention but are nonetheless notable.
One Pride fan wanted more options in the area of merchandise: “Sell player shirts in kid sizes. Sell cheaper/smaller merch like stickers, patches, etc (my kid and I would both love stickers!.)” Anna Shea also suggested more merchandise be made available.
Lebovitz wrote critically of any work with Autism Speaks. Though as a note the event that was to benefit the organization, later benefited a different organization after fan concerns were expressed. This is a much larger and complicated topic to explore in the future.
Lebovitz was one of several who wrote in favor of the playoff format being changed: “They don’t need to be best-of-seven but they could at least be best-of-three,” they said.
Another fan urged the All-Star game to have equal representation from each team calling the small number of Whale player’s on this year’s squad “a travesty.”
Moglia was the lone respondent to write on officiating, which has been a hot topic in recent weeks: “The officiating is usually terrible, and I believe that the linesmen need to take player safety and what kinds of “hitting” are allowed in the league a lot more seriously…the rules for hitting and checking in the league should be made obnoxiously clear, and referees should strictly adhere to them.
As these two fan feedback pieces have indicated, the NWHL has made progress, but like any new venture, has many areas to improve upon.