Q&A with ... New WCHA Commissioner Bill Robertson
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Bill Robertson was recently named commissioner of the WCHA, after a long career in sports, most notably with expansion teams like the Minnesota Wild and Anaheim Ducks. We talked to him about the challenges of running the WCHA now, after one season under a new paradigm.
CHN: What made you want this position?
Robertson: I've always been a great fan of college hockey, having worked with the WCHA and NCAA on many college hockey events in my past. I've coveted this potential opportunity, and watched from afar with how different conferences did their business. It's a perfect fit.
CHN: So you've always been a fan?
Robertson: I've been a fan of college hockey since I was a little. I grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, and followed the NHL — and the WHA in the old days. But also the Golden Gophers when Herb Brooks was the coach. I watched all that develop as well as all the high school tournaments in Minnesota. As a native of this state, you learn by osmosis about hockey in general. I'm a great fan of the people in the game that make it so special.
CHN: What was your favorite college hockey memory from growing up?
Robertson: In the '70s I started to watch it real closely, watching Neal Broten and the Michelettis play. Those type of names from the past, going to those games at the old arena. It was so hard to get a ticket. If you had a chance to go in person, it was an event. On TV, (Williams Arena at Minnesota) looked so big, but when you got in, it was so tiny. And the game moved so fast. There really wasn't a bad seat. It always felt like you were part of the action.
CHN: Was there a particular game you saw there that stands out?
Robertson: I remember them playing I believe Wisconsin — it was the first time I'd seen that rivalry in person. There were a lot of Wisconsin fans. I saw the passion that both sides have, and the respect they really do have for each other as programs. Then, I had the opportunity to watch them during the holidays when I was in college and I sat next to Jim Craig. He was playing with one of the national teams. He was in the stands, it wasn't sold out, and he plopped down right next to me. It was a surreal feeling to be talking about college hockey with him. We talked about the Olympics a bit.
CHN: What in your experiences prepares you for this role?
Robertson: Having worked for many teams in many different leagues, it doesn't change the way I'm going to do business. But especially working at the expansion level, you create things. I come in to the WCHA with a great foundation in place. My job is to lift it to higher levels. I know with my work in the promotional area, I hope it will help enhance those efforts.
CHN: What would be the hallmark of a great conference?
Robertson: Ultimately, team performance on the ice. Obviously I'm not playing, but I'll be rooting for all of them to do well. But having teams in the NCAAs is a benchmark. This year, we had two in the final 16, which is wonderful. Obviously to get to the Frozen Four would be great. So those are all goals. But then the business goals, we're looking at relocation of the offices to a destination that's good for the league and teams. We want to enhance revenue streams for the league. And we want to make the conference tournament really branded WCHA, and hopefully have more fans come to these games by providing more of an entertainment experience.
CHN: There's only so much you can do, of course, to affect on-ice performance. How does one (business efforts) feed into the other?
Robertson: I think they both need each other. Good team performance traditionally provides more fans that want to come watch and listen. At the same time, if it's a great entertainment experience for the fans, in a fun, safe environment, you have a lot more opportunities to generate excitement around events. It's all long term and I know it's going to be a lot of work. And with the tournament in St. Paul in 2015, I've worked with those people. So I see it as a great opportunity to tweak some things. I look at what's been done in the past. This day and age, you can't rely on just the teams coming. You have to do a lot of promotions around it.
CHN: What's the most important thing, or first thing, you'd like to do?
Robertson: On the business side, we want to relocate the office and get all the staff in one place. That may take some time. I need to find office space for the WCHA. I've started embnarking on that as we speak. Then I want to get to know all the conference schools and visit with the coaches and administrators and players and faculty reps, so I can have a key understanding of what their needs are in their markets and how the league can help. Then I'll look hard at digital streaming and content and how we can enhance it and have it be more of a revenue opportunity. And then sponsorship and (growing) it.
CHN: You mentioned expansion. Is that something you can actively make happen?
Robertson: What I want to do is, I want to keep my pulse on all of college hockey. And I'll be watching very closely to see what's going on with all developments. I don't think we're done with realignment. And there wil be opportunities that present themselves in the near future. And I want to have a keen eye on that. We'll certainly look at expansion in the future but it's not on the radar tomorrow to get done. But there's going to be a part of me that wants to look at that and see what opportunities looks like to expand on the WCHA. I have ideas.
CHN: What gives you the impression there will be realignment of teams?
Robertson: I see it as a travel commitment these teams are having to make that are not always ideal. So I want to keep an eye on that. But I certainly think there's a possibility you can have a WCHA East and West, and what that looks like, I don't know yet. I haven't drilled that deep into it. But I've had lots of conversations with College Hockey Inc. about that. And maybe there are some West Coast schools that are interested in making the (move to D-I).
CHN: But that is up to the individual schools.
Robertson: But if they're pushed or nudged and see that someone is really interested — it's a great opportunity to explore. I'm not saying anything is imminent. We're going to explore it.
CHN: I assume you know (College Hockey Inc. Executive Director) Mike Snee well.
Robertson: I hired him at the Wild. He's been a big supporter of mine and I've been of his. We worked together with the T-Wolves in the NBA. When I first met Mike, he worked in a sales capacity with the Wild. We'd talk over dinner and breakfasts, about how things could be better. It was a churning of ideas. He's got great ideas on how to grow the game. And I don't have all the answers. But workin in alignment with Mike and having us in the Twin Cities, maybe we can go at it together, making the games and the value for a fan to watch even better.
CHN: Do you have to temper expecations to some degree on what a commissioner can do given all the changes to the WCHA?
Robertson: Right, but it's an opportunity to educate the fan base. There's still a lot of fans out there that don't undertsand what teams are in these leagues. My job is to sell that. It will be different. Marketing and branding efforts are different from the other conferences. ... We're probably going to want to look at television and video streaming, which the league already does, but I want to want to explore a Game of the Week package with a major network. Maybe it's half a dozen games, maybe 12 or more. But I want to have those converastions with people I know in the broadcast world to see if there's an appetite for it.
CHN: Can you do what's best for the WCHA and still work together with the other conferences?
Robertson: Mistakes were made in realignment. Everyone was caught off guard and not working together. (Working together) is at the forefront. In my current role (at a strategic communications firm), the NCHC was an account. And I watched how that league started out. They played their conference championships at the Target Center. I helped them with marketing and promotions on the tournament to help them move the needle, because a lot of people didn't know those teams. So I have that background. I worked with their staff. And I hope that the WCHA going forward will have a relationship with the NCHC and have a scheduling format we can do together, similar to the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.