It is certainly the little engine that maybe could, but the National Women’s Hockey League, which started its four team second season this weekend, has certainly earned well above its pay level for media exposure, both last year, and now as the season starts, this. They have continuously found ways to take their “everyperson” story, one which has been told time and again with every startup league, and amplified it well beyond the small geographic footprint the league has.
Multiple features in the New York Times, New York Post, Sports Illustrated, USA Today and beyond got the startup earned media well beyond what they were able to afford in paid during their launch year, and they have not skipped a beat this week, with features in the New York Post and New York Times as their Gotham-area team, the Riveters, moves from the isolated location of Aviator Sports and Entertainment Center to the practice facility of the New Jersey Devils next to the Prudential Center, an easier to access and more accessible spot where they can grab some crossover media from the home standing NHL club from time to time.
Even more impressive as season two began as the way the league dealt with the announcement of Harrison Browne becoming the first transgender athlete in professional sports in North America. While it is true that media weren’t exactly rushing to Buffalo for the start of season two, the hockey world and local media were aware that the league, led by Commissioner Dani Rylan, was on its way beck for season two. For a property looking to get anything and everything in terms of attention that would draw fans, brands and media, Browne’s decision could have quickly become a spectacle. Instead the league took a very cautious and respectful approach in a day when loud and broad would be the norm. The selected a wide platform, ESPN.com and writer Michelle Steele, to break the story and then quickly followed up by taking care of access to key bloggers and hockey-specific sites that had been there for the NWHL from the beginning. They then directed additional media to the game, one in which Browne played and scored in, which gave the league wider exposure on a crowded Friday night, and then made him available (albeit by most indications the session was way too short, a learning curve for a still-growing league). Knowing this is a story that will continue to grow as a positive one, the league carefully chose its path, delivered the news, and now will have the benefit of time, an active and vibrant athlete, and the social media world to help amplify the story, especially because the NWHL schedule is a modified one, and Browne will have the opportunity to discuss the path taken for access to a wide and varied audience.
The fact that he will come to New York, or the New York area, to play in the coming weeks will also give the NWHL a great forum for exposure and inclusion for their messages, and can only help amplify a positive message for all. Now are there pitfalls that come from such an announcement? Maybe, but they are far less than what the court of public opinion may have had only a few years ago. The league has deep, diverse stories that can appeal to all audiences beyond sport, and can help put a growing sport like women’s hockey on an even higher and positive pedestal as we head towards the 2018 Olympics. Translating those stories and this platform of inclusion into dollars through sponsorship, ticket sales and media remains a challenge for the league, but by doing this, and other announcements right, they scored some pretty big points and will almost certainly get a bigger look as the season goes on.
Well played and thought out for the NWHL, a startup still feeling its way along on the business side, but one that keeps scoring high marks in regional and national exposure.