Supporting women’s athletics, not just paying lip service (Go Badger Women’s Hockey!)

I’m absolutely loving this column Val Ackerman is doing over at ESPNW where she is speaking to prominent male sports executives about the future of women’s sports. It’s at once fascinating, heartening and upsetting. Her most recent is with recent Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke. Burke is probably best known around these parts for his no bigotry stance – he’s one of the few high-level executives out there consistently saying all the right things about why skin color, sexual orientation and really anything other than your athletic ability shouldn’t matter on the playing field.

Ackerman talks to Burke about the rapid growth of women’s hockey. I’m a huge women’s hockey fan and supporter and this was the first I’d heard that Burke was, as well, so I’m always happy to hear that high level men’s execs are also behind the women. I started wanting to break down some of the things Burke says, but ultimately, this quote of his is really what it comes down to for me:

Don’t just say you support Title IX, don’t just say you support women’s athletics; buy a ticket, bring your family. Buy a sponsorship on a team, put some money behind this thing, help it grow. If you really believe in women’s sports, there’s an opportunity to show it in a very direct way. Fans vote with their feet. Show up at a game.

— Brian Burke

I can’t stress enough how important this is and I’m going to go ahead and call each and every one of your out. When was the last time you went to a women’s college or professional game? Do you donate to your local college’s scholarship programs? Buy season tickets? Go to a game? Even at the high school level? Do you support fund raisers or pay admission?

If you do, do you drag your friends along? Do you extol the virtues of your favorite game or team? Do you introduce your friends and family to a sport or team they’re not familiar with and get them as excited about it as you are? Do you take your sister or niece or grandkid to as many different sports as you can and foster their love in a way that we didn’t get when we were little?

Because I didn’t used to do that and this year I made a concerted effort to change that. I’ve always been a hugely vocal supporter of Wisconsin women’s hockey, but I’d never put my money where my mouth was before now.

Follow the jump for more on Badger women’s hockey, Team USA and $5 world class talent

The women’s hockey team at the University of Wisconsin has been one of – if not the – premier program in the country in the last decade. They won National Championship in 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2011 and were runners up in 2008 and 2012. In that time, four of their players won the Patty Kazmaier Award (the national MVP) – Sara Bauer in 2006, Jessie Vetter in 2009, Meghan Duggan in 2011 and Brianna Decker in 2012.

There are six Badgers currently playing at the World Championships in Ottawa – five on Team USA and one on Team Canada.

This is literally world class hockey. At $5 a ticket. Or $30 for season tickets.

They led the nation in average attendance at 2,689 people a year in 2011-12 (the last year I could find data on ).

Sadly, that’s a great number. North Dakota is second on the list at 1,485 fans a game. Minnesota draws 1,317, Minnesota-Duluth 1,181 and Cornell rounds out the top 5 with 902 fans. PER GAME!

This past year, they got their own arena. (Except, it’s really the men’s team’s practice arena where the women happen to play.) It holds 2,400 people and they sold it out maybe twice this season.

To say that people completely miss the boat on supporting and appreciating this team would be an understatement of epic proportions.

You want your daughters/nieces/sisters to see grace, poise, strength, intelligence and how to handle yourself as an athlete and student? Look to a women like Hilary Knight, who took her junior year off of college to play in the Olympics. In doing so, she likely forfeit any chance she might have had at being National MVP. She’s good enough to play with men. She’s well-spoken and beautiful and great in front of the camera. She graduated on time. As a senior she become the Badger hockey player with the most career points – she took the title from her coach, Mark Johnson (yes, that Miracle on Ice Mark Johnson). During the Olympics she was said to have probably the best shot in the world. At 20. She does it because she loves to play. There’s no money or future in it for her. She does it because she doesn’t know how not to. Passion. She won’t get a Nike contract like Abby Wambach, or a big paycheck like Britney Griner. She’ll just forever be a personal hero of mine – my favorite Badger in a way I can’t even explain to you. If I were to have kids – this is the kind of person I’d want my daughter to grow up to be.

The reason I like Burke’s quote so much is that while I’m a hugely vocal supporter of these women, I also put my (meager) money where my mouth is. As I said, season tickets are just $30. I bought two – because it’s $60 darned dollars to support the team! We went to maybe 5 games (it’s a 90 minute drive in each direction in Winter in Wisconsin).  That season ticket purchase guaranteed me seats to the building opener. It also gets me on all the mailing lists. And should make me a priority buyer when the Badgers look to host upcoming Frozen Fours. And I would have gladly spent twice the $30 for those honors. And to support this team.

I sometimes feel like I’m one of about 6 women’s hockey fans in the world. The Badger men’s team has not been very good of late, yet they have also led the country in attendance in recent years. And most of those people wouldn’t set foot in a women’s game if you gave them a free ticket. Apparently the lack of checking makes the game unwatchable – forget the literal world-class talent (there are three current Minnesota Gophers on the Team USA roster – that college team went undefeated and was one of the most beautiful teams I’ve ever watched. It kills me to admit that – I hate all things Minnesota – but anyone that missed watching Amanda Kessel and Megan Bozek on the front line and Noora Raty in goal seriously missed some of the most amazing hockey to ever grace the ice. When Wisconsin’s Brianna Decker was skating against them and Alex Rigsby was in goal, that was five current Worlds players on the ice at once.)

So, yeah – support women’s sports. Title IX is a great and wonderful thing and it meant that 4 year old CuteSports grew up playing soccer on boys teams in a way that her mom never could and it means that 4 year old girls now have their own teams to play on, but it’s not near enough. Those girls still need your support and your cheers and your money. They have the right to play, but that doesn’t mean anyone goes to see them play. And we know that sports give girls confidence and self-esteem in a way that few other things in their adolescence do. And that teamwork and team mentality helps little girls in a way that combats mean girls at playgrounds in a way nothing else can. They need fans – and they deserve them. When you can go watch world class athletes for $5, it should be criminal when you don’t. I promise you won’t regret it.

If you’re somewhere you can go watch Wisconsin or Minnesota or Minnesota-Duluth or BC or Mercyhurst or Team USA play hockey – do yourself a favor and do it. You won’t miss the checking or the 100 mph slap shots. You’ll be amazed by the gorgeous skating that comes from needing to finesse your way around opponents, instead of barreling through them.

If you truly hate it – let me know, I’ll gladly send you $5 and thank you for giving it a chance. Because really, I think you’ll be hooked – all these women need is a chance.

(But, ok, one little criticism of Burke – How can you not call out the networks and NCAA for not televising the women’s Frozen Four?! You talk about a need for exposure and you talk about how great the expansion into new markets is, but not every little girl gets to a Coyotes or Kings game. Beaming the amazing semifinal between Minnesota and North Dakota into homes where numerous little eyes could have seen it would have done eons more for women’s hockey than any numbers of men’s teams and clinics ever could have. It’s a shame and a travesty that a game played at 4pm on a Friday can’t find airtime. I know it’s March Madness – but if that’s the only hindrance – change weekends, or WHAT THE HECK IS THE NHL NETWORK FOR, DARNIT?)

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