How the NHL can do a better job of welcoming women

Adam Proteau
Female fan (Derek Leung/Getty Images)
Female fan (Derek Leung/Getty Images)

Earlier this week, You Can Play Project co-founder and NHL director of player safety Patrick Burke tweeted an interesting thought:

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Burke’s question makes the point clear: pro sports could be doing a much better job of engaging with and cultivating female fans. But how? I’m not qualified to speak for them, so I solicited answers from female friends and women on social media. Here are some of the best responses:

1. Don’t market specifically to women. Market to hockey fans. This was by far the most popular answer and speaks largely to the fact women don’t want to feel singled out among the larger pool of hockey fans. It makes perfect sense, given that sports fandom is an exercise in tribalism; as soon as you start carving the tribe into sub-groups, the alienation process kicks in.

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Arriving at this end would mean doing away with promotions such as “Ladies’ Nights” and “Hockey and High Heels” initiatives, but in doing so, the league would strengthen its bond with women who already love and understand the game and aren’t turned off by a patronizing approach.

2. The color pink doesn’t define the female gender. The NHL’s decision to aggressively market pink and/or bedazzled versions of team jerseys doesn’t sit well with many women. They’d prefer to wear the colors of their actual team and not conform to tired gender-assigned hues.

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3. More variance and fairness in merchandising options. Speaking of jerseys, the lack of proper-fitting team wear for women is a real problem. So is the idea women should be charged more for clothing than men. That crap may fly in the hairstyling industry, but sports is supposed to be different. They don’t charge women different ticket prices than men and the same ought to go for things such as t-shirts.

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4. Hire more women. The NBA Players Association just hired its first female executive director. Major League Baseball’s New York Yankees hired a female assistant GM in 1997. But there are no women to be found in positions of prominence in NHL team management circles – and for that matter, there still aren’t enough women covering hockey in the media.

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There are two possible explanations for this – either there are no women who have insight on the game, or teams and news organizations aren’t doing enough to integrate one gender into the mix – and one is absolute nonsense. The sooner more is done to show women there’s a place for them in all corners of the game, the better off the sport will be.

5. No more ice girls/cheerleaders. The Florida Panthers recently discontinued their cheerleading squad, and that’s only going to help them in the eyes of women who see half-dressed females promoted and instantly feel objectified. Unless teams are willing to establish Chippendale teams of male cheerleaders, equality should rule – and cheerleaders/all-female ice crews should be a thing of the past.

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6. Basically, don’t do anything that makes women feel different, and do more to establish a culture of inclusion. That’s a simple enough message, right? Women aren’t The Other. They’re as varied in their background, experience and perspective as men are, and just as devoted to and passionate about hockey.

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If the NHL really wants to do more for its female consumers, removing as many labels as possible is the key. For the sport to continue growing, there has to be an improved sense of equality and stronger efforts to emphasize similarities between the genders. My friend – we’ll call her ‘C’ – encapsulated this mentality perfectly in this email:

I may be in the minority, especially of those you encounter on Twitter, but I look at the “marketing” a little differently than a lot of my peers on Twitter.

I’m not insulted by being called a “female fan.” I also have no problem with Hockey n’ Heels nights (though I wouldn’t go to one because it’s below my knowledge level, not because of the concept). I’m not offended by pink merchandise nor will I complain about the “cut” of a shirt or ice girls.

I just see it differently.

People spend so much time hating on each other. My saying these things must mean I’m not a “feminist” or I’m not as good of a “feminist” as someone who stands against all these things.

Neither of those are true. I simply believe that everyone is different. There are women who enjoy pink clothing (otherwise it wouldn’t sell), there are women who get a lot of benefit from the introductory information provided at hockey n’ heels style events and there are women who aspire to be ice girls. Either way it’s okay in my book.

The truth is marketing is a business. If people didn’t buy pink shirts they wouldn’t sell them. If women didn’t attend hockey n’ heels teams wouldn’t host it.

Instead of ripping on teams and the league for producing merchandise that sells or events that people attend maybe we as women should look back at ourselves and do a little less shaming of each other.

Instead of belittling the people who like these events or wear the t-shirts, saying they’re wrong or ignorant or not real fans or feminists, why not offer a culture of support and celebration?

Why not enjoy that people are enjoying the game?

Well said, C. When hockey gets to a point where men and women can enjoy the game without reminders of their chromosome makeup, it will have done all fans a tremendous service.