For years, the ACHA was just looked at as a fun club hockey league. So what changed?
I think it all starts with marketing. When you’re able to showcase your growing talent pool to more people it’s obviously going to attract more viewers & scouts.
Even with a solid base of data, information and video on the leagues and divisions, you still have to find away to recruit high-caliber kids. So what does the ACHA do? They build teams in non hockey markets. While the NCAA D3 continues to target small private schools with the money to fund athletic programs, the ACHA is strategically placed in dry hockey markets such as the Georgia’s, Kentucky’s, Utah’s and Texas. Most don’t rely on school funding, so every penny is stretched to give these student athletes the best experience possible, while trying to run a sustainable team.
How did it get so good so fast? There’s no magical formula the leagues used to grow at the rate they did. While the obvious answer would be the marketing of the league, I think word of mouth from high-caliber players who have played real Junior A is the big difference maker. When teams have third/fourth liners who’ve played in the SJHL, NAHL, NOJHL etc. people start to notice. These aren’t all teams full of pay to play junior kids who want the title of NCAA. Why would someone want to go play in Paxton MA or Hancock Michigan and play in front of empty seats on irrelevant programs, when they could go to Athens or Lexington and play in front of real college crowds at big known schools.
Now you would think it would be a no brainer to play ACHA over NCAA D3 from what I’m saying, but I’m realistic too. There’s horrible ACHA teams and towns, but once these leagues and teams decide to stop flooding the market with 50-60 teams in each division I think that’s when the product will succeed. It’s all about who’s willing to cut off the loose ends and start ditching the teams or moving them down a division. Imagine a 25 team ACHA D1. Let all of the divisions apply, choose the best ones based off location and gross income, then see the league flourish. Because if you’re pumping out a better product on the ice to the point where 4-5 players on each team are getting the chance to play pro compared to 1-2 you will see a world of difference on the ice and in the stands.
End of the day, I think the turning point for the ACHA’s recent success is the fact they’re challenging the untouchable at their own game and winning. So many ACHA D1 teams could be NCAA D3 powerhouses, but end of the day they’re holding out for the right opportunity (cough cough U of I) and right now the ACHA is providing that with national tournament coverage that’s second to none.
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