The announcement of a partnership between the NWHL and Twitch was arguably the biggest news of the NWHL’s off-season. Twitch would not only be providing a free streaming platform for the league, but also the opportunity to grow a community amongst fans, broadcasters, and other league influencers. In what was a challenging summer for the league, this news was met with real positivity.

On Friday, the NWHL and Twitch released the viewership data from October. The data included total viewers, average views per game and total chat messages sent. It also included percentages of views per country and totaled the number of registered followers of the NWHL on Twitch. The numbers paint a very positive picture of the current state of the league. They also highlight a point that advocates of women’s hockey have been saying for years: making the sport accessible is absolutely key to helping it grow.

Nearly One Million People Tune in to the NWHL in October

The total viewers of the NWHL in October was 949,065. This averaged out at 67,790 per game, with Buffalo at Boston on October 12, drawing the biggest individual number at 145,172. There were also 5,752 registered followers of the NWHL on Twitch. These are really healthy numbers for the NWHL and are a positive start to the three-year deal with Twitch.

“These numbers are a solid start for the NWHL, proving that Twitch has been a remarkable partner in shining a bigger spotlight on our players and teams,” said Commissioner Dani Rylan on the NWHL website. “There’s no doubt that having all of our games on Twitch has helped the game of hockey reach new fans. Now it’s on all of us to continue to build our community and connect with the great fans of the NWHL.”

The viewership data also included a breakdown of the percentage of viewers by country. Unsurprisingly, the USA led the way with 60% of the viewers but there was somewhat of a surprise in second place. It was announced that the UK contributed 10% of the viewers, just edging out Canada who had 9%. This strong result in a “non-traditional” hockey market highlights Dani Rylan’s point that Twitch is helping bring women’s hockey to places it previously may not have reached.

Could the Friendship Series in Belfast Be Having an Impact on These Figures?

The NWHL tweeted out that they had received big viewing numbers in certain UK cities, and named Belfast as one of them. This was particularly interesting to me as I watch the majority of my live hockey in Belfast. The Belfast Giants organization and their owners, the Odyssey Trust, have been very active in their efforts to grow the sport of hockey throughout the whole island of Ireland. Their flagship event for this is the Friendship Four, which returns this month for its fifth year. Four NCAA men’s teams travel to Belfast every year to play a tournament, with the aim to establish links between hockey in the US and Belfast.

In January 2019, the first-ever Women’s Friendship Series took place. This was a two-game series between Clarkson and Northeastern’s women’s teams played at the SSE Arena in Belfast. They even received financial backing from Ulster University and this meant that entry was free for everyone attending. It will return in January 2020, with Quinnipiac and Merrimack making the trip to Belfast for another two-game series.

Now I’m not trying to suggest that these games are the sole reason for the NWHL’s strong numbers in Belfast. But I truly believe that this is a clear example of what can be achieved if the women’s game is marketed correctly and made accessible to prospective fans. It is not a coincidence that women’s hockey has pulled strong numbers in a “non-traditional” market some nine months after those fans got to watch high-quality women’s hockey in their own arena. Although this is an isolated example, it highlights the power of accessibility as a means of growing the fanbase of women’s hockey.

Clarkson vs Northeastern in Belfast, January 2019

Can the NWHL Build on These Early Results?

The NWHL will be greatly encouraged by these results, and rightly so. They will also know that the hard work must continue to keep this momentum going. It has been noticeable how active the players have been on social media this season, promoting sponsors and engaging fans in equal measure. Fan engagement is a massive focus for the league and will be a continual focus throughout the rest of the season. It will be interesting to keep an eye on the number of chat messages sent on Twitch, as this really gives us an idea as to how the fans are interacting. In October there were 24,538 chat messages sent.

Although the sport’s growth is the responsibility of all teams, players, and fans, the mainstream media need to do more to help the NWHL, and women’s hockey as a whole, continue to grow. Their coverage is still sporadic and often tends to focus on the negative stories. Regular coverage would allow new fans to familiarise themselves with the teams, players and storylines. Twitch then provides the perfect platform for a curious hockey fan to watch a game and that is how fans are made. More fans generate more revenue, and this, in turn, leads to sustainability and growth.

It sounds like a simple task. But long-time followers of women’s hockey will know there is plenty of work to be done for the sport to reach its goal of being sustainable. Thankfully there are plenty of people willing to do what it takes to get to get it there.

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Featured Image Credit: Aaron Coulter