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Is it all about the numbers?


Ann Arbor Cougars, mid-1990's

I had an interesting conversation yesterday with a friend about the state of MI Women's hockey. We were reviewing the report from the MI Task Force on Women in Sport that recently released their Phase 1 - Research report. They are moving on to Phase 2 (Recommendations), followed by Phase 3 (Implementation). The last phase is intended to launch the recommendations in spring 2022 - the 50th Anniversary of Title IX.


My friend was arguing that women's hockey will never reach it's potential without a professional national league. And this got us into the weeds about the existing two leagues - the NWHL and the PWHPA. Rumor has it that the NHL is interested in helping with a women's professional league but that they aren't going to deal with two leagues - both competing against one another for sponsorships and players. And they won't sponsor one publicly against the other. And they will only take on a women's professional league if they can run it. Much like the relationship between the NBA and WNBA.


This irritates my colleague who wants the NWHL to just join the NHL. He (gender may be of some importance here) sees the current NWHL accepting small sponsorships and being unable to truly compensate their players. The elephant in the room is that there are people who feel that the quality of player in the NWHL is also lower than that in the PWHPA. My colleague's opinion is that attendees to the NWHL games don't go so much for the quality of the game as to show support for women's hockey and to expose their daughters to future opportunities. And then there's the monkey-wrench called covid. That's had a negative impact on both leagues.

My friend was adamant that the NWHL should "just become part of the NHL." I'm not so sure. As a woman of a certain age, this topic of "do we join in with the men" feels like it's been with girls'/women's teams since inception. With my coaching hat on it also feels like a variation of "should my daughter (or I) play on an all female, co-ed, or all male-but-me) team. But I digress.


For some of us, the assumption that newly emergent teams would join into an existing network was a given. It seemed like start a team, join a league, be rep'd by USAH, was a natural progression. USAH has a girls'/women's division of governance. But when I first joined that body to represent Michigan, I was struck that the Chair of our group, called the Section Director, only had voting rights at annual meetings. The Executive Board had no direct girls'/women's representation. That's because the girls'/women's section is part of the Youth Council and it is the Vice President of the Youth Council that represents all youth...oh, and girls and women. That was in the late 1990's. I would note that other than adding two female athletes to the Executive Committee as Athlete representatives, this is the same today in 2020.


When I was first elected to be Michigan's Girls'/Women's director my grassroots committee cautioned that our state governing board, Michigan Amateur Hockey Association (MAHA), hated us. The story they gave me was that we were hated for wanting to dual rostering as our MA colleagues did. Or that our teams (often small in terms of roster ice) would "take" ice away from larger roster boys teams. We were an irritant - constantly bringing up issues like how to dress in the locker room, or whether we needed equivalent ice time, coaching prowess, leagues for competition, and attendance at state playoffs. Our playing rules were not wildly different from our male counterparts but officials often declined to ref our games, or when they did they didn't understand how our game was played (non-check but still physical). In the older age groups it was not uncommon for players to come to the bench disgusted or confused by officials who had commented about how pretty they were. So I attended my first MAHA Board meetings expecting to face acrimony. Instead what I experienced was almost more dismaying. I relayed to my committee, "They don't hate us, they just don't care." In 2002 females were 12% of the total player population of USAH. In MI girls were 7% of the total.


Flash back to my argument with my friend. In addition to a professional league, he'd like to see NCAA D1 varsity women's teams in our state (so would I!). He and I both know that this is a money topic. No D1 program is putting on any new sport without securing a multi-million dollar donor. But I don't think it's only about the money. Or it *is* about the money, but in a very different way. Female players are now 15% of the total player population. MI females have dropped to 6% of all the females playing. Take out the women (aged 20 and above) and our girls drop to 4%. In Michigan, the top three sports for girls's participation are volleyball (~19,000 student athletes), track & field (~17,000 student athletes) and basketball (~15,000 student athletes). USAH registered girls in MI (aged 13-18) for 2019-20 equalled 1,011. Even adding in all the players of the 19 Girls' HS teams not registered with USAH only increases our numbers to a little under 1,500 players. No D1 school in our state is going to add a sport with such low participation numbers.


At the same time that MI numbers decline, college opportunities have increased. With ~ 106 NCAA DI, II, and III options and another 85 ACHA teams for club programs. across the US. But even if we assumed that every college had a full roster of 25, that's still only 4,775 "spots". There are 18,294 HS aged girl registered with USAH.


And that brings me back to the first line of our discussion. So does it behoove a female program, in the minority in terms of numbers, to join a majority male organization? Certainly the larger organization has the logistics in place and, in theory, can provide the support necessary to grow the game of the minority program. If they will. If they don't lose interest. If they don't hold it against the minority program when revenue is also proportionally (or not) smaller. Other NGO's for sport have handled their demographics differently. USA Lacrosse, for example, has seen record increases in their programs. And their Board has a very different look and feel than USAH.


I have sympathy for the women I know in leadership positions in the NWHL. Those of us who have played and coached and governed in this sport for decades are not confident that our larger, primarily male, peer organizations can have the best interests at heart for both their constituents and ours. For us it is evident that we are not all alike nor can we be governed equally. We have different rules and challenges for our players. And so we hesitate. We attempt to organize our own entity to represent our own demographic. And we are not always successful. But is that fear of failure enough motivation to create a strategic alliance that would outline a way to be successful in the larger pool? I have to hope that it could. Because I've learned that as much as I want sport to be about the true love of the game, a lot of it is about money. It takes money to pay players and provide health care so they can focus on being a single sport athlete. It takes money to fill the stands..heck, to have stands to fill. It takes money just to promote that the team exists.


And it takes money to get little girls to play. To see that any options exist. To ensure that the 1,011 HS girls can see themselves represented on tv alongside their brother's role models. Or to provide those 5,000 college women viable career options in their sport alongside their male classmates.


Who will put up that money and create those options if not the women themselves? We've had 100's of years for men to do it in their organizations. And it really hasn't happened. I don't blame those guys for that...they didn't hate us, but we weren't a large enough constituent for them to care. And when they did care, they wanted us to play by their rules. That's why so many of us are hesitant now. "Why should it be different this time?" we whisper. Shouldn't we care and put our money where our complaints are and form/develop/sustain our own? Wouldn't that be the true power behind Title IX?


A wise person once said, "Don't look back, you're not going that way." I hope the discussions I have with my friend, as heated as they get, can continue. I hope the women playing hockey now can find savvy attorneys and venture capitalists to set up successful business models for the development of a professional league. And I hope colleges across the country will continue to support varsity teams so states that are reticent (MI) will slowly lose their excuses for not having women AD's, women coaches (for girls and boys teams), and more female athletes. I hope more parents encourage and support their children as passionate fans of women's games. And I hope that once the pandemic is manageable we can begin to rebuild the interest and access for our girls in hockey. We need all the pieces of the puzzle on the table in order to solve it. And everyone will need to lend a hand.





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