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How to sell hockey to women: Stop trying to sell hockey to women

Trying to market sports with "Girl's Nights" and other gimmicks is counterproductive.

Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week, the Buffalo Sabres tweeted out a promotion that predictably (to anyone but the Sabres marketing team, apparently) drew some ire on social media.

Girls Night Out, Sabres Style, they called it.

At best, this is a lazy and cheap marketing idea that will likely work for that one night. At worst, it’s insulting to women in that it seems to take women for a niche market that needs to be catered to with the help of discounts or giveaways from tanning and waxing salons.

To be honest, I’m not all that outraged by that specific promotion (is there such a thing as outrage fatigue?). I just think it’s... disappointing. It’s possible somebody on the marketing team was given an assignment and did the first thing that popped into his or her head that was also easy and didn’t cost much. I think that the women who were already going to go to that game will go to that game. I think some women who wouldn’t normally go are going to buy those tickets, have fun at the game, and then won’t be heard from again until next year’s "Girl’s Night." I bet the whole thing is going to be considered a success based on that. That’s what it seems like, anyway.

What I am outraged by is how hockey is marketed to women in general. Pink jerseys. Victoria’s Secret collections that would be cute if it weren’t for the silly, man-centric things written on them. Girl’s nights with lipstick posters. "Learn about hockey" nights geared towards women and sometimes promoted within the "impress your man" context. I think sports leagues have been going about it all wrong.

They need to stop marketing to women, and start marketing to people.

I think they need to stop marketing to women, and start marketing to people.

First of all, female sports fans are not a niche market. Depending on the sport, we make up a third or more of the fans. As a Twitter friend of mine pointed out, "women are not the untapped market sports think they are. Most sporting events I go to are not all that heavily male-skewed. It’s just that people seem to ASSUME that all those women are dragged there by their male counterparts."

I wish you could poll marketing executives at sports leagues and teams to find out what they think the percentage of women who watch games and buy merchandise that are doing it because their husbands, boyfriends, fathers, or brothers are making them is. I bet they think it’s huge, and I bet that in reality, it’s really small.

I wish you could follow that poll up by asking them if that’s why they seem to take the sizeable chunk of the fan base that is female for granted. Sometimes I wonder if they don’t bother to factor us into much of their regular marketing (and often have decidedly sexist advertising and promotion) because the men in our lives are going to bring us to games or subscribe to the channel or buy us the merchandise anyway.

That’s... not how it works.

Photo credit: Getty Images

There are any number of reasons you become a sports fan. Maybe you find a certain sport exciting. Maybe the strategy involved in certain sports appeals to you. Maybe you're into compelling storylines (Don't groan, you know who you are). Maybe analysing sports and being smarter than everyone about it turns you on, I don’t know. For whatever reason, you fall in love with a sport because of the sport itself.

Every sports fan’s story involves either going to games or watching games on TV and getting hooked. And I don't think that there’s anything wrong with falling in love with a game because your first exposure to it was when your boyfriend or brother took you to a game or whatever. Hey, that’s how I fell in love with the Habs.

But you don’t stay a fan because somebody else wants you to. You don’t stay a fan because you want to have something to talk about with someone you love. Either you don’t fall in love with the game and continue to go with your significant other, a couple of times a year, at most, in which case marketing to you is basically useless... or you’re sold on the sport and start buying tickets, shelling out for GameCenter Live, buying jerseys, etc... In which case, it’s up to the league to address the real problem.

Sports often feels like a boys club, with no place for women in it. And this appears to be particularly true when it comes to hockey.

On Friday, Puck Daddy posted a fantastic article about the institutional sexism of Ice Girls by Melissa Geschwind. More and more teams have been introducing teams of scantily-clad women to clear the ice as part of their in-game entertainment. Geschwind wrote:

"It’s a step backwards, and it again reinforces the idea that the NHL says it’s for everyone, but it’s not really for women – or at least, it’s not for women who are in it for the hockey. Ice girls look a lot like professional puck bunnies, and their presence undercuts the notion that teams value female fans as highly as male fans. [...] These things might sell, but they're also degrading – not necessarily to the women involved, who are actively choosing to fill this role in return for a paycheck, but to the ones who are supposed to grin and bear the fact that this is how their favorite NHL team views women."

This is how their favourite NHL team views women. As something to look at. Which is why the promotion of a girl’s night involves lipstick and tanning coupons or whatever.

It’s not just the NHL teams with ice girls. It’s institutional at every level, including broadcasting. Over at Silver Seven Sens, Amelia L wrote about the new Hockey Night In Canada broadcast team Rogers is introducing next season and its lack of diversity. The hosts Rogers have chosen are more than qualified, with impressive backgrounds in sports broadcasting. However, there are no people of colour, and there are no women. Women’s role in hockey broadcasting remains marginalized. From her post:

"Cassie Campbell-Pascall, the first woman to provide colour-commentary on HNIC, has been with the network for seven years. Though she is listed as an analyst, her opinions are only included with those of the other "experts" on panel discussions when a regular is missing and even then, sparingly so. Andi Petrillo has been a part of HNIC for three seasons and hosts the iDesk segment of the weekly broadcast. Many have noticed that Petrillo hosts the iDesk without an actual desk (a departure from when Jeff Marek and Scott Morrison were hosts of the segment); little comment on how this separates her from her colleagues. Undoubtedly, the decision was made to capitalize on her good looks. Stuck behind a desk, CBC couldn't utilize shots of her figure to full advantage. But on hockey intermission panels a seat at a desk gives a panelist authority, it cements the personality's stature as an expert. Standing off to the side from HNIC's main event, Petrillo's analysis and insight remain marginalized."

How many women are there in the front offices of sports teams in general, and the NHL in particular? How many women anchor NHL-related programming, or have major analyst roles? How many female reporters are there versus male reporters? How much female presence is there, really, in the sport?

There is a women’s hockey league in North America, but CWHL players do not get paid, and the league has an operating budget of around $1-million. For the entire league. For the entire season.

Women don’t even have equal opportunities on the ice. During the Olympics, much was made out of how entertaining the Canada-USA women’s games were, and how teams from other countries are getting better, but how the women’s game still has so far to go. One of the commonly identified problems is the lack of funding and of professional opportunities for women’s hockey.

Funding is hard to come by, and often women who play for their national teams don’t get the ice time and equipment they need to train, because the men’s teams are prioritized. There is a women’s hockey league in North America, but CWHL players do not get paid, and the league has an operating budget of around $1-million. For the entire league. For the entire season. Sometimes female hockey players end up playing in a professional men’s leagues in Europe, and just this weekend Shannon Szabados was impressive in her SPHL debut, but these cases are few and far between.

How can you expect to grow the game among women? Market the sport for its own sake. To everybody.

There are more professional on-ice opportunities for women who shovel ice in skin-tight, midriff-baring outfits than there are for women like Marie-Philip Poulin or Amanda Kessel.

On the ice, off the ice, in the broadcast booth, on television, in the front office, and in the game of hockey, women are not valued equally. And so, when you’re telling women on the one hand that they have no real place in the game except to look good, and then on the other hand you are asking women to spend money on your product by reinforcing that idea, how can you expect to grow the game among women?

In the short term, it’s pretty easy. Market the sport for its own sake. To everybody.

I've been talking about this ad nauseum for the last week with fellow fans, who put it better than I can. Flyers fan Amy Fetherolf said:

"Hockey teams don't need to hand out pink jerseys and lipstick to appeal to female hockey fans. It shouldn't be revolutionary to say this, but most women watch hockey for the same reason as most men do: because the sport is awesome. How often do we see ads geared toward women that play up how exciting the actual game is, compared with how often we see the lipstick and pink jersey kind of promotions?

Will Crist, Red Wings fan, was talking more generally about selling the sport, and he pointed out that romanticizing the game and creating storylines for its players is counterproductive.

"This sort of customizing can result in distorting the actual product being advertised (in this case, hockey) and, at times, insulting large groups of fans by relying on offensive stereotypes. Sports are supposed to be for everyone and if the way it’s marketed forces the message to be split up based on demographics, it’s time to find a new way to market it... Simple is almost always better and marketing a sport that features elite athletes doing amazing things is no different. Stop overthinking how to reach certain segments of fans. Let the sport speak for itself. If a person likes hockey, chances are he or she likes it for what it is: A fun way to spend 3 hours on a Wednesday night."

You don’t need gimmicks or ice girls or manufactured narratives to sell something if you can show people a Datsyuk dangle or a Stamkos snipe. You know, things that can be enjoyed equally, by everyone.

How about in the long term? Make the game more inclusive. Slowly watch that 30-45 per cent of the fan base that is female grow closer to half.

I don’t think "Girl’s Night" is a completely useless concept, for the time being, and until women have more of a presence in the sport. I just think it could be used more effectively. I would totally go to a "Girl’s Night." I would go to one where the "Girl’s Night" was just another hockey game or watch party but part of the proceeds went to providing more opportunities for women in the game.

For example, if an NHL team were to donate part of the proceeds from a game or event to a program that provides hockey equipment or ice time for young girls, or sponsors a women’s hockey league where the players actually get compensated for their work, or funds an internship for women who are trying to break into sports media or (GASP!) sports management, or... the list is too long. The list of things that we can do to make women an equal part of the game is just too long. Sports teams can start anywhere on that list, and hold girl’s nights in the name of increasing opportunities, not tan lines.

I know it seems too simple and so idealistic. And I know this isn’t how the world works. Everything is about this year’s bottom line and yielding immediate results and costing the least amount of money. I know that there is an established way to market these sports, and I know that thinking outside the box means thinking not too far outside the box. I know that people are resistant to change.

But if you’re going to spend money designing pink jerseys and if you’re going to spend money on focus groups regarding those jerseys or the fan experience or satisfaction with The [Sports League] Network, or whatever, then isn’t worth it to spend money to do some research on this, and find out if making women a bigger part of the game really would help sell the game to women?

It seems to me to be a hell of a lot more of an effective long-term marketing strategy than a poster with lipstick on it.