Earlier this week, the NWHL announced a partnership with hockey analytics company Stathletes, which will provide data for the league’s teams during the condensed 2021 season. The campaign will consist of 15 games beginning Jan. 23 and finish with the Isobel Cup final Feb. 5.
The NWHL is just the latest client to partner with Stathletes, which works with countless European pro leagues and NHL teams. The Hockey News caught up with Stathletes co-founder Meghan Chayka this week to discuss the NWHL partnership, Stathletes’ other ventures, her advocacy for women in sports and more.
THE HOCKEY NEWS: How did Stathletes strike up the partnership with the NWHL? Did one group approach the other or was there mutual interest between you and NWHL commissioner Tyler Tumminia?
MEGHAN CHAYKA: I actually met Ty through being on a baseball committee for diversity and inclusion and at a conference. We were on this committee for the past three years trying to get new people into baseball analytics that typically had been undeserved or constrained, whether it was by money or because they weren’t the traditional white men that work in baseball analytics. Our link was through another NHL team, and her husband (Ben Cherington) had worked for the Toronto Blue Jays. Now he’s GM of the Pittsburgh Pirates. So we had a lot of mutual overlaps. And I think she’s very much like me in terms of not being a traditional hockey person. She was managing in minor-league baseball and is just a woman who gets work done and knows how business goes.
So we had always connected over various things way before she took on this role as commissioner. I wasn’t surprised she pulled off a bubble in what is an iconic arena (Lake Placid’s Herb Brooks Arena). I’m super impressed and happy to see this go through and make an impression in terms of women’s hockey for this year.
THN: The NWHL deal attracts a lot of attention because it’s a league-encompassing partnership with a major North American hockey league. But it’s not the only league-wide deal Stathletes has made, right?
CHAYKA: We’ve been doing leagues for years, probably half a decade. The nice thing about Stathletes is that we’re B2B, so we don’t do a lot of marketing. The majority of our job is very nerdy (laughs), very data- and tech-driven and rightfully so. It doesn’t get that much press coverage (laughs). We like that. To be honest, I’ve operated in women’s hockey in various ways behind closed doors, too. And I was perfectly happy doing this not as a partnership or something that was published. I have an amount of women’s hockey work that I try to do. I set internal targets for myself each year, maybe in part because I am a woman, but I also think it’s the right thing to do.
I still feel like I face similar challenges as women athletes do. Especially during COVID. It’s really disproportionately impacted women in business, and I fear it will in sports as well. So it was about making an impact, and I know we’ve seen investors step up in soccer as well and in other women’s sports. It really has increased not only the fan base, but the interest in women’s sports.
THN: The NWHL’s press release talks about engaging fans. Does that mean all the data will be made public? I’m picturing the cool graphical renderings you often feature on your own Twitter account. Is that what we should be imagining? Is that the type of content that will be rolled out for NWHL fans?
CHAYKA: No, because it’s very hard to host and distribute. A lot of what I’ll be doing is supporting the league internally in terms of understanding what’s happening in the game, making sure it’s correct. Data integrity and accuracy is one of the most important things you can do in sports, and that’s where we hang our hat with a lot of leagues. For me, 99.9 percent of my time is working in men’s hockey. But this presents opportunities where I can understand the operations in a lot of detail and see the gaps from the women’s side. So I would say a lot of my time and resources for this very short tournament will go toward figuring out how to support the women’s game and this type of league in the best way I can.
As for some of the really fun social content, for sure we’ll do things like moving GIFs and things that give you more insights into how the women play. Because really, beyond some of the hits – there’s still a lot of contact in women’s hockey, which a lot of people don’t understand – it’s very similar to the men’s game. There are no definitions we have to change. There’s nothing we change in terms of tracking the women’s game. So I’ll take shared resources we’ve built over the last decade in men’s hockey and fit whatever makes sense in this very short format.
THN: So can those graphical renderings show the precision of execution of a given play, highlighting the quality of play that can be on par with men’s hockey?
CHAYKA: Yeah, absolutely. Unless you show up on a box score in women’s hockey, traditionally it’s lost. Even a lot of the game tape is hard to find. So there’s a lot of players who don’t have an understanding of their full play or their tournament or game that I think deserve a lot more spotlight – as the men’s game gets.
THN: That’s a great point. I’m picturing an NHLer like Rasmus Andersson, who’s a good defensive player and gets the respect he deserves thanks to analytics. But you don’t get to see the same level of appreciation for the unsung women’s players who do things other than score.
CHAYKA: Exactly. And a line I use that someone said about the WNBA: Without data, you don’t have history on these women. I always took that with me.
THN: From a sample-size perspective, does an abbreviated NWHL season present challenges for accurate data collection?
CHAYKA: There are definitely some events that don’t occur often in hockey, so those that have small sample sizes of the observations, it’s more difficult to do advanced models and have any statistical significance. But I would say, whether it’s passing or shooting, even in a single game I think the analysis is valuable. Definitely different than an 82-game season to say the least. And in women’s hockey, we don’t have a ton of continuity. I’ve worked the Olympics for CBC, I did the women’s side. I did the World Championship. I was also at the IIHF’s first coaching clinic they had at the Women’s World Championship. And just trying to get enough data on some of these women’s players as they move through different leagues, there hasn’t been too much consistency in terms of where they play and who they play against or with. So that’s a lot more challenging than with the traditional men’s leagues. But it presents opportunities for data to help explain it.
THN: When people see the news of the NWHL partnership, the natural question to ask is whether Stathletes hopes to strike a league-wide partnership with the NHL someday. We know you already work with many teams, but is an NHL deal on the horizon?
CHAYKA: I’m not allowed to disclose that, but I will say we have a lot of scale. The best way to put it would be that, I think, even in COVID, especially for leagues and drafting and scouting, data is that much more at a premium. So we’ve never been busier, and we were already busy pre-COVID. Understanding these players from a data perspective when teams can’t have scouts in the stands is going to be that much more important as we roll through this year. As much as I get praised for some of the women’s hockey work, we’ve done 10 times that in terms of the men’s side. Without being successful, I wouldn’t be able to have the resources to support women.
THN: Because you’re a consistently strong advocate not just for women’s sports but women in sports, is the NWHL partnership particularly close to your heart?
CHAYKA: Definitely. I see a lot of the reflections of the pushback women athlete’s get. It mirrors what I get, whether it’s in business or from fans. I see the marketing and positioning not only of women athletes but women in sport – that we can be powerful and not be put down and be assertive or be successful. Because the amount of time I’ve had other male-led companies basically say, “Step aside. Thanks for starting with this client. We’ll take over. It’s a men’s team.” The amount of that type of environment I’ve seen, women athletes feel that, too. Whenever money or sponsorships are involved, all of a sudden the men get interested.
That’s why I’ve always made a mandate that, no matter how or where I move through my career, whether I get anything back from it, I do believe in karma. By doing the right thing and being a good person, you’ll attract the right people both to your company and as clients. I really try to set those goal posts for myself. I have a lot of disappointment and people who have let me down, but I think you build stronger relationships that way.
For a 2019 Hockey News Story on Chayka and the creation of Stathletes, click here.