By Chad Courrier
The Free Press
When Bruce McLeod, the commissioner of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, said last week, "We're betting on the Internet," one might think that such a statement would have been better proclaimed 15 years ago when there might have been some question about the technology.
But he and the league indeed appear to be on the cusp of latching onto something new, something that would be perfect for the WCHA as it heads into a new era full of so many questions.
No announcements or press releases came out of a meeting between presidents, athletic directors and other representatives of the WCHA's member schools last week in Bemidji. However, a proposal for a league-wide media package was presented to the group, one that would put all of the teams' games online for free every Friday and Saturday night.
The supposed high-definition, multi-platform (computer, tablet, handheld) broadcast deal, reportedly through a service of Fox Sports and the new network it will be unveiling later this summer, might be the perfect format for a conference seeking a new identity.
With the Big Ten schools now departed for that conference's new hockey league and the formation of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference by the WCHA's old guard and others, the WCHA is in need of a big boost for 2013-14. This potential package could do just that.
Both McLeod and Minnesota State athletic director Kevin Buisman said last week that the media deal would not necessarily be a big money-maker for the league. It sounds as if there will be opportunities to sell some commercial time, and they'll take advantage of that if they can. But that won't be the main objective.
Instead, using such a deal for exposure — to shine a light on the league and its teams and to give its fans (and others interested in college hockey) access to all games — is the right approach to take. Buisman called it a league "investment."
Would the league like to make big money on media? Of course.
The Big Ten Network is a cash cow for that conference, and having hockey now gives that channel even more live-event programming (even if some of those games will be played on nights other than Fridays and Saturdays when the WCHA traditionally has held its games).
The NCHC schools thought they, too, could get a money-making national TV deal once those power programs busted out of the WCHA and Central Collegiate Hockey Association. The NCHC got an 18-game deal with the CBS Sports Network, but it's unclear as to whether or not that will come with wheelbarrows of cash. I'm guessing not.
College hockey continues to be a regional, niche sport. It has pockets of great popularity with passionate fans, including here in Minnesota, and it can make some money and give exposure to the schools that host it. But is it going to be one that has major cable and satellite networks trying to outbid each other for broadcast rights? The National Hockey League can barely get a good deal.
"This is extremely important," McLeod said. "It's an indication as a group of how competitive we are. This group, we're going to compete. We're not rolling over in any shape or form. To do that, we need to have a media presence both regionally and nationally, and this is our opportunity."
There will never be a WCHA Network — or an NCHC Network, for that matter. Understanding that and still finding a way to get the product out to the people is the key.
This seems like a good bet.
Shane Frederick is a Free Press staff writer. Read his blog at mankatofreepresshockey.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter @puckato.