Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Women Get Centerstage

It's 2021 and I'm writing this article like it's a major achievement in network broascasting, but this should be a reflection of how far we still have to go in normalizing women's sports on network television. The three networks shown above - Rogers' Sportsnet, the NHL Network, and ESPN - are all making pushes for women's hockey as announcements broke today from all three networks. Let's dive into the news that we saw today because this, in all honesty, should be the start of something amazing when it comes to women's hockey.

We'll start with the professional ranks where the PWHPA is preparing to hold two games this weekend at Madison Square Garden. As per the release today by the PWHPA, the Sunday, February 28 game featuring the Team Minnesota group against the Team New Hampshire group will air live on the NHL Network in the US and Sportsnet in Canada at 7pm ET! For those who may be busy, MSG Network will re-air the game on Monday, March 1 at 8pm ET!

Having these games on network television is a strong showing from the NHL's partners in their interests in the NHL games. Besides the New York Rangers and Madison Square Garden hosting these two games being played by the women, two networks who carry NHL games are coming together to show women's hockey without worrying about profitability or the bottom line for their respective businesses. For once, women's hockey is being given a level playing field when it comes to TV exposure by these networks.

"We're looking forward to taking the ice at Madison Square Garden for the first time in women's pro hockey history," Hilary Knight stated in the release. "This partnership with the New York Rangers, NHL Network and Sportsnet is so much more than that. It provides us with a platform to demonstrate just how exciting women's hockey can be. The visibility it provides is why we launched the Dream Gap Tour in 2019."

The women in the PWHPA have been playing under the radar for the most part. There have been bigger weekend events in Toronto in Canada and in a handful of places in the US like Tampa Bay, but the visibility of seeing the PWHPA players has been difficult because there haven't been simple ways to find those games to watch. With the announcements that Sportsnet and the the NHL Network are stepping up to cover women's hockey coinciding with the announcement that NBC Sports will air the March 6 game live on NBCSN at 3pm ET that day, we're legitimately on the precipice of having women's hockey televised regularly if these broadcast partners stick with investing in the women's game.

Before we go off celebrating in the streets, there's still another announcement that was made today concerning the four-letter US sports cable network, and this one excites me as much as the one above does. ESPN, who has pretty much avoided hockey for years when it comes to live broadcasts, announced today that they have entered a multi-year agreement with the NCAA to air the NCAA Women's Ice Hockey Championship - better known as the Frozen Four - starting in 2021!

"We are excited ESPN will broadcast the 2021 NCAA Women's Ice Hockey Championship," Anita Brenner, Deputy Director of Athletics at Cornell University and Chair of the NCAA Women's Ice Hockey Committee, said in the release. "ESPN will provide the broadest access to the championship in its history, and we are honored to showcase these student-athletes, among the best players in the world."

For years, it was lamented that the women's championship was relegated to online streams or no coverage until the final at all. While this is an increase of three women's games per season on ESPN and doesn't seem like much, it also should be viewed as the first domino to fall when one considers that ESPN is working to get back into the NHL scene behind the scenes. Having NCAA women's hockey on a larger platform like ESPN - even if it's only the final three games of the season - is better than none at all when it comes to exposure.

The catch is that ESPN also included what seemed like a teaser for expanded women's hockey coverage in the future, stating, "The Frozen Four, in addition to culminating the 2021 season, also signals the beginning of a new, multi-year rights agreement for NCAA women's ice hockey coverage on ESPN."

If they do cover more games or possibly have a featured game each week, that would go miles in getting women's hockey on the map thanks to ESPN's broader footprint on the television landscape compared to the Big Ten Network. While BTN was always a solid choice for women's hockey thanks to schools like Wisconsin and Minnesota playing in the Big Ten Conference, having the wider coverage of ESPN will allow for, hopefully, more teams to be seen and more athletes to be watched. And that's the point of all this, right?

It was a big day for women's hockey in 2021 when it comes to smashing through that network broadcast glass ceiling. It will ultimately be up to the networks to decide whether or not they'll want to continue with this effort, but investing in women's hockey at the ground-floor level seems like the smart thing to do. I'm no CEO or anything, but having that feather in your cap when the NHL is quietly exploring a women's professional league seems like a good thing to have.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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