At the end of the 2012-2013 WCHA hockey season nobody knew what to expect.
Wisconsin and Minnesota were leaving the Western Collegiate Hockey Conference and joining the brand new Big Ten hockey conference with four other teams — Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State.
Along with the announcement at the beginning of last season, the Big Ten rolled out a comprehensive marketing plan that included a number of different video advertisements to get fans excited about the Big Ten’s newest sport.
And yet things didn’t look so bright.
In an interview with The Badger Herald in April, Associate Athletic Director Justin Doherty confirmed an earlier report by the Wisconsin State Journal that the Athletic Department had budgeted for a $470,000 drop in ticket revenue in University of Wisconsin’s first Big Ten season this year.
Meanwhile the players thought differently. To them it seemed that exactly the opposite would occur.
“I’ve had some conversations with a couple of different guys in the past few weeks and I think some students aren’t really educated about hockey – they didn’t grow up with it – but they might be football or basketball people,” junior defenseman Jake McCabe said at the time.
“When they see the men’s hockey team is playing a two-game series versus Michigan or Ohio State, they know these teams and understand the rivalries from basketball and football and hopefully that carries over to hockey.”
Now just past the halfway mark, the Athletic Department’s prediction couldn’t seem more wrong, and McCabe and Co. are looking like geniuses.
Attendance isn’t dropping. Wisconsin’s average home attendance sits at just more than 9,498, which is very similar to last season at this point in the season (9,418). More importantly, as conference play truly gets underway over the next month, it seems that number will only get higher, not lower.
The best indication of this phenomenon: Jan. 11 against No. 8 Michigan.
After a resounding 5-2 victory the night before, Wisconsin was in position to sweep Michigan Saturday night. Not only did they do so, by a 3-1 margin, but they also drew in the largest crowd the Kohl Center has seen since 2010 at 14,273.
So what’s making things work out so unexpectedly well for the Badgers in the Big Ten season?
The first part to this equation, and one that certainly can’t be ignored, is the expectations surrounding this team when the season began.
They entered the season picked No. 3 in the USA Today and USCHO polls and No. 1 in the Big Ten Preseasons Coaches Poll.
There is much to be said about fans wanting to see a winning team, but there seems to be more going on than that so far this season.
For the first time, Wisconsin sports’ fans have a brand that they can identify with.
Against No. 8 Miami (Ohio) last season, the Kohl Center only managed to bring in 12,037 to the stadium.
This isn’t likely to be a random occurrence. Rather, Wisconsin fans who may be more familiar with Michigan basketball or Michigan football have more of an incentive to see it live — to put it simply, fans are more invested in Wisconsin hockey than they have ever been before.
Further building that branding, the Big Ten Network will play at least seven Wisconsin hockey games by the season’s conclusion, compared to only four games that it covered last season.
Big Ten Network is a regular destination for Big Ten sports making it much easier for fans to keep tabs on Wisconsin hockey. Previously UW’s hockey was largely found on Fox Sports Wisconsin+ — a little known channel that few would stumble upon unless they were already looking for the game.
At the very least the Big Ten branding has brought in a whole new set of fair weather fans that never existed before.
I have to admit, had I not covered the men’s hockey team last season, I wouldn’t have known what games or matchups to care about, let alone which teams were Wisconsin’s conference opponents.
The Big Ten gives Wisconsin hockey fans a frame of reference with which they can understand a sport that they may not have much experience with.
As that brand continues to grow and more Big Ten schools add programs, the momentum that the conference has built this season is unlikely to slow.
So let me echo what many Wisconsin hockey fans have already been saying this season: Long live Big Ten hockey!
It isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon.
Nick is a senior majoring in journalism and political science. Think Big Ten hockey just isn’t the same as the WCHA? Let him know at firstname.lastname@example.org or shoot him a tweet @np_daniels.