On an ice rink somewhere out there right now in North America, kids are practicing their shots, imagining as if only seconds remain in overtime in the biggest game of their lives, the fate resting in their hands. The lights shine brightly, the pretend sell-out crowd holds its collective breath and the puck sails toward the net. When the puck presses against the twine in the back of the cage, the children raise their hands over their heads and dream of the crowd bursting into celebration during the moment of a lifetime.
But this is just make-believe. The rink stands still, silent except for the child’s narration of the preceding play, and that moment remains a dream. Most people grow up, and this dream never materializes into something more than what it was on the rink when they were all alone. For the lucky handful of athletes playing at big enough schools in the revenue sports of football and men’s basketball, they will see their dreams through to reality.
But for those little girls growing up on the pond, even those who go on to play college hockey, their imagination was as real as it gets. They might have a special moment. They might be lucky enough to score a game-winning goal, but the crowds don’t flock to see them and they never get to bask in those once-in-a-lifetime moments, the full magnitude of which can’t even be captured by a child’s imagination.
It’s not just the fact that it’s women’s hockey because it’s hard enough to draw a large crowd in men’s hockey in the college world. Of the 59 programs on the men’s side this season, only three average more than 10,000 fans a game, those three being Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin. On the other side of the spectrum, over half of the programs, 31 to be exact, don’t even reach the 3,000 clip. This has something to do with the size of the programs and their arenas, but also the fact that hockey doesn’t generate as much buzz as say the football and basketball Goliaths at the college level.
Even with this in mind, there still exists a large disparity between attendance for a men’s game and the attendance for a women’s game. The select schools for women’s hockey, Minnesota, North Dakota, Minnesota-Duluth and Wisconsin can draw more than several men’s programs, but that’s not saying much. These are the elite programs of college hockey with facilities that can hold upwards of 10,000 spectators, yet are lucky to maybe get a quarter of that.
The Wisconsin women’s hockey program is one of the privileged few, managing to lead the nation in attendance six times in the last 10 years, but even that accomplishment does not tell the whole story. Wisconsin led the nation in attendance in the 2010-2011 season with the highest per game average in collegiate women’s hockey history with 2,768 fans. However, those numbers are from the reported attendances from each game and not how many people actually filled the stands on a given day.
If you would have gone to a game at the Kohl Center when the Badgers regularly played in the facility—as I did many times—you would realize that those reported attendance numbers don’t truly represent the crowds present, or rather lack thereof. In story from last February by the Cap Times, numbers from the UW Athletic Department showed that dating back to the 2006-2007 season, only 52 percent of the people who purchased tickets to women’s hockey games actually showed up at the games. This made for rather lackluster crowds in the 1,000-fan range that were hardly what the players had dreamed of as kids.
Hockey can be a tough draw, but in one of the best college hockey towns in the country, there are clearly other factors at work. Although some people might try to deny it, it’s no secret that many people don’t want to watch women’s sports in general, simply because they don’t compare to men’s sports. I’m not about to go on an equal rights tirade because there’s nothing I can say that is going to change how people feel about what sports they choose to enjoy.
However, that doesn’t change the fact that viewing sports this way is unfair to the athletes, women, non-revenue or otherwise, that put their best effort on the line.
Comparing men’s and women’s sports is like comparing me to my fraternal twin brother. We each have our strengths and we each have our weaknesses, but you can’t judge one based on the other—we stand alone. Sure, men’s revenue sports might seem more exciting in the context of our society, but that doesn’t make the others useless and not worth supporting.
Women’s sports may forever hide in the shadows of the men’s sports. But, this weekend at the Kohl Center, all the rules our society has dictated of how things should work in sport will be discarded for the fourth time in the history of the Wisconsin women’s hockey program with ‘Fill the Bowl’ event.
“Fill the Bowl” has gone from small beginnings of trying to break the NCAA record attendance of just more than 5,000 in 2008 to this year, where the goal is to pack all three levels of the Kohl Center in pursuit of a sellout of 15,239.
In an interview this week, head coach Mark Johnson bluntly answered that he never thought he’d see the day where he’d walk into a sold out Kohl Center and neither did senior goaltender Alex Rigsby.
“No, I had no idea,” Rigsby said, who will play in her third ‘Fill the Bowl’ Saturday night. “I went to plenty of games when I was younger and come and there would be a couple thousand people fans. When we played at the Kohl Center that’s how many fan’s there would be. They had ‘Fill the Bowl’ when I came in and so it was so exciting to come in and see…10,000 fans that night. [I would] just be like, wow they’re all coming out here to watch us.”
The stakes Saturday night couldn’t be higher, as No. 2 Wisconsin faces off with No. 1 Minnesota with first place on the line in the WCHA, not to mention the bragging rights in this huge rivalry.
In Johnson’s words, the stars have aligned. Those stars will shine brightly on 40 more players who will get a chance, at least for a night, to bring to life the memories born on the pond when they were kids.
“As you walk into the building, as you walk behind the bench, as you skate onto the ice, it puts a smile on your face. It just indicates how far women’s hockey has come and how respectful our community is of our sport,” Johnson said.
“The players that were here before laid the ground work and paved the way and the players now are reaping the benefits of not only a nice LaBahn Arena and a new locker room and certainly an experience Saturday night that they won’t forget for a long time.”
It’s safe to say all those involved Saturday won’t soon forget. Events of this magnitude for a non-revenue sport just don’t happen, so when a chance like this arises you have to seize it.
I have gone to over 50 Wisconsin women’s hockey games since 2005, and I’ve seen the nearly non-existent crowds on a Friday afternoon. So when I was at the ‘Fill the Bowl’ back in 2010, to look around and behold a two-thirds full Kohl Center for a women’s hockey game left me awestruck.
If the Kohl Center sells out Saturday, I can’t even begin to comprehend what that experience will be like. All I know is you won’t want to miss it.