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Women’s world hockey championships flopped at the gate

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Plymouth — The United States Women’s National Team players believe their negotiations with USA Hockey over the past 18 months will spur greater promotion of their games.

They could have used it earlier this month.

Although Team USA won its first world championship on U.S. soil, only 20,034 fans attended 22 matches of the 2017 International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Women’s World Championships March 31-April 7 in USA Hockey Arena.

It is the second-lowest attendance in 21 years. The attendance for the final game in which the U.S. defeated Canada 3-2 in overtime was 3,917.

“It’s disappointing,” said Adam Steiss, a spokesman for the IIHF, in Zurich, Switzerland. “We topped out over 20,000, which is unusually low for a North American tournament.

“The numbers fluctuate a bit, but at Kamloops (in Canada, the 2016 Women’s World Championship), we had about 41,000 total, and topped out in 2007 at Winnipeg, when we had over 119,000,” Steiss said.

“You had 89,000 in Halifax in 2004. Mostly when we have it in Europe it’s about 28,000 to 30,000.”

The two tournaments previously played in the United States drew 28,605 in 2011 at Burlington, Vermont, and 21,847 in 2001 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The IIHF relies on the host national association, in this case USA Hockey, to market the men’s and women’s world championships, Steiss said.

“We don’t know the market,” he said. “We trust the member national association to understand the market that they have, and the onus is on them a little bit.

“The money from the ticket sales goes to the organizer. So in a way, that’s what’s supposed to push them to really promote the tournament and get fans through the doors.”

The IIHF had a slender staff at the 2017 Women’s World Championship, Steiss said, with many officials called for site visits and preparations in Korea for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

“But for us to go there in advance of the tournament to try do on-site marketing would be ineffectual,” Steiss said.

USA Hockey defended its marketing of the event, despite nearly empty houses for games not involving the United States or Canada, and complaints from some fans, players and their representatives that their games are not well-promoted.

“Obviously, you’d always want every game full,” said Dave Fischer, a spokesman for USA Hockey. “That’s what anyone who would host an event would want.

“I’m glad to see the final game (the championship game between the United States and Canada) was fun. Would you like to see most every game like that? Certainly, you would.

“That obviously did not happen.”

USA Hockey put part of the blame on the players, saying their boycott of a training camp set for the weeks before the tournament and well-publicized negotiations with USA Hockey put a crimp on ticket sales.

“The boycott had a significantly negative impact on ticket sales, with sales completely halted for a 2½-week period and numerous refunds to customers,” Fischer said.

Some of the players and their representatives said the publicity generated by the boycott provided more marketing for the U.S. Women’s National Team than ever in the past.

“You need a 12-to-14 week game plan that would really mirror what you see out of Red Bull or Monster Energy Drink for one of their events,” said Brant Feldman, managing partner of American Group Management, who represents some of the players and other Olympians.

“You need a street team that hits up all of the different hockey clubs in the community. You’ve got to talk to the rink managers and whoever runs the club and hockey programs, all of the way up to the high school level,” Feldman said.

“You need a team to go out and start selling the event. The other things you need to do is really lean on your partners.”

While Dunkin Donuts and Kroger helped sponsor the event with on-ice signage, there were no in-store promotions.

Fischer said “significant forces were expended” on email, social media and internet, along with fliers, and that there had been some broadcast spots on radio and cable television.

It hardly created a buzz.

A local tie-in with some girls and women’s national championship games also played under the auspices of USA Hockey failed to fully materialize. Many of the players and coaches simply might have been too involved in their own championships to take advantage of an opportunity to see the best women’s players in the world.

“I am not sure if we think as many of those teams took advantage of it as we thought,” Fischer said. “I thought it was a good concept.”

The specific language of the agreement between the players and USA Hockey that ended the boycott is not to be made public, according to the parties, including how it addresses marketing and promotion.

“It enhances what they’ve done, historically,” said Dee Spagnuolo, of Philadelphia, a lawyer representing the players.

“It’s a change, and we’ll have to make sure that we’re all satisfied with the direction of those changes.”

From the start of the talks between the players and USA Hockey, in late 2015, the three areas of concern for the women were compensation, increasing the number of games played and elevating the profile of the Women’s National Team, Spagnuolo said.