Gov. Mark Dayton was among the frustrated Minnesota hockey fans who couldn’t find last year’s Women’s Frozen Four on television. The event was viewable only on NCAA.com.
After watching the Gophers lose to Clarkson 5-4 in the championship game held in Hamden, Conn., Dayton went onto his Facebook page to vent.
“My eyes are still cross-eyed from trying to follow the puck on a 4”x6” screen, via an NCAA computer link,” he wrote last March. “It’s disgraceful that no national or local television station televised the game for the National Championship.”
One year later, the Women’s Frozen Four is returning to the Gophers’ home rink, and tickets to 3,400-seat Ridder Arena have been sold out for months. Once again, the games won’t be televised, so the only way to watch without a ticket will be NCAA.com’s stream.
Minnesota faces Wisconsin in Friday’s first semifinal, followed by Boston College vs. Harvard, with the winners advancing to Sunday’s championship game.
The top-seeded Gophers are trying to reach their fourth consecutive national title game, so there is no mistaking their prominence within the sport. But the game of women’s hockey, established as an NCAA varsity sport 15 years ago, struggles with securing a steady audience.
The Gophers soared in popularity in 2013, when they capped a 41-0 season with wins over Boston College and Boston University in the Women’s Frozen Four at Ridder Arena. Those games weren’t televised either, and scalpers outside the rink were getting $65 for general admission tickets — 10 times face value.
Last season, several Gophers headed to the Olympics, and when Team USA lost a 3-2, overtime heartbreaker to Canada for the gold medal, the ratings showed that 4.9 million people watched on NBC, with another 1.2 million watching online.
“I was shocked [with the interest] when I came home,” said Lee Stecklein, who played for Team USA before returning to the Gophers this season. “I heard they were watching on TV at my elementary school. Then I realized, it wasn’t just my community, it was the whole country.”
But the widespread interest in women’s Olympic hockey hasn’t translated back to the college game.
The Gophers’ average home attendance — which grew from 838 to 2,487 over the previous four seasons — was down to 1,908 this season. Wisconsin has drawn 1,898 per game. Those totals tower above what Harvard (793) and Boston College (391) have drawn per game.
“College hockey, to me, is a little bit of a cult sport,” said Ben Smith, a Harvard graduate who coached the U.S. Olympic women’s hockey teams in 1998, 2002 and 2006. “You’re in the one place [the Upper Midwest] where it manifests itself to where there’s public attention. In Boston, the men’s college game is a big draw, but the women don’t draw very well.”
The sport still shows other signs of steady growth. According to USA Hockey, there were 6,336 female hockey players in this country in 1990. By the end of last season, that number was 67,230. Since women’s hockey first became an official NCAA sport in 2000, the number of Division-I programs have grown from 22 to 35.
ESPN anchor Linda Cohn said women’s college hockey has come “light years” from her playing days. She played goaltender for boys’ teams all the way through high school on Long Island, N.Y., and then played for the women’s team at Oswego (N.Y.) State.
Cohn, 55, still loves hockey but knows “SportsCenter” producers will be hard-pressed to show Women’s Frozen Four highlights this weekend in the thick of March Madness.
“Right now [interest in women’s hockey] is just regional,” Cohn said. “You have to start somewhere and try to get as much attention as you can, but it’s really a difficult sell. Unless you have an emotional attachment to a team, it’s really hard to get the exposure that it deserves.”
Gophers coach Brad Frost and other school officials have tried working with the NCAA in recent years to get the Women’s Frozen Four televised.
Turner Sports has the broadcast rights, as part of its multibillion dollar contract with the NCAA. Two years ago, the Big Ten Network tried working a deal to televise the championship game between the Gophers and Boston University. But it would have required buying out Turner’s contract for the event, and the sides didn’t reach agreement.
According to a BTN representative, the network did not inquire about televising this year’s Women’s Frozen Four.
“Turner Sports has the exclusive rights to distribute the Women’s Frozen Four on NCAA.com, our championships website,” Erik Christianson, the NCAA’s managing director of external affairs, explained via e-mail. “Our current broadcast agreements do not include coverage of the Women’s Frozen Four. However, we believe there is great value in live streaming these events for free so fans can watch their favorite teams regardless of whether they have cable or satellite TV.”
Meanwhile, viewers interested in the NCAA fencing championships and the NCAA women’s bowling championships will find those events on ESPNU next month. Maybe for someone somewhere that’s must-see TV.
Frost, whose team typically has one game televised each season, has been outspoken about the need for the sport to get more airtime.
“I’ve kind of given up the frustration a little bit on it,” he said this week. “We have more important things to worry about, and that’s not something I can control.”
Stecklein, who will have two years of college eligibility remaining after this tournament, remains optimistic about her sport’s long-term growth potential.
“I know it’s going to be a slow process, so it might not be on TV when I’m here,” she said. “But I hope sometime after I’m gone that it becomes the norm for a women’s championship game to be on TV.”
Joe Christensen • 612-673-7844
NCAA women’S frozen four
Friday, Sunday • U of M’s Ridder Arena
Gophers vs. Wisconsin, 5 p.m.
Boston College vs. Harvard, 8 p.m.