No big surprise: female fans love hockey for the same reasons that men do: the fast pace, the excitement, the passion, and yes - even the physicality of the game. Beyond that, female fans mentioned the "down to earth" nature and accessibility of the players, the sense of family, and - like martial arts - the skills learned from hockey that carry over to daily life.
When asked to discuss what they liked best about the game, less than 5% of the respondents mentioned hockey players' looks, and it was entirely in passing - i.e., "it doesn't hurt, but it's definitely not what I'm going to the game for." If anything, the women all discussed details about the game and what made it so exciting.
"It's the most exciting game around. Also, when I first got into hockey, it was not mainstream at all. I liked being one of a few people who knew anything about the sport. Even more, I like(d) being one of only a few females who could talk hockey and PLAY hockey. I kind of took ownership of the sport and haven't given it up yet." - Francesca
"I wish I could explain what I like most about hockey why I keep coming back to it, becuase then maybe I'd look a lot more sane than I do when I flail my arms around and try and explain it. The action, the skill level, the speed, it keeps my attention, draws me in. There's team work, there's loyalty and passion and fire. Everything that's great about sport all in one game." - Sasky
"It's fast-paced and physical. Goals aren't rare, but the scores don't usually end up 11-10 or something. I love the teamwork involved...the idea of sticking up for teammates if they are hit hard, of role players making a difference even if they are under the radar. My favorite plays are the huge hits." - Stephanie
"I love just about everything about the sport! I like how no two games are ever the same, even if the score winds up that way. I like how I can sit through sixty minutes of play, an hour worth of intermission reports, an OT and a shootout and somehow find myself more engaged the longer I spend sitting in front of the T.V! I like the players, I like the fans, I like the history, I like the tradition, I like the superstition, I like the excitement that looking at my calendar and seeing '[team] @ Hawks - 7PM CSN+' brings." - Meg
"I love that unlike all the other sports the best team will not necessarily win. There are so many factors can influence a game. The penalty kill is my favorite aspect of the game. I like the game holds players accountable for their actions and that it forces players to overcome adversity." - Kim
"The game itself is fast paced and exciting. It takes a lot of skill, some luck and good refereeing. Most players seem very down to earth, unlike some other sports. It is also a sport I love to be in person for or watch on TV (yes we subscribe to Versus! and the Hockey Channel). With both my husband playing and my son learning, I like that it is a household sport now. Even on local levels, the hockey clubs are very family oriented. A girl I knew from high school had her 12 year old son killed by a car (who was a goalie for his team) and their club held a fund raiser for the family. As heart-breaking as the whole situation was, the club was there to support them." - Renia
Boiled down: it's not that women don't appreciate seeing some eye candy, but let's face it: with all-over protective shields/padding, helmets and face guards, your average female fan isn't coming to games with drooling over the players as their first priority. The only thing clearly on display during a game is the player's skills and abilities.
What do women dislike about the same sport? The same things you'd hear complaints about from the men, of course - inconsistent refereeing; blind side hits; and dirty players. As for fighting, women tend to be split down the middle - some enjoy it and call it "part of the game", others call it "unnecessary".
Most women fans seem to think that the NHL is kind of missing the boat when it comes to understanding why the majority of female fans like the sport. When asked "How do you think the NHL's approach to female fans has improved over the past several years?", there was more than one response along the lines of, "Has the NHL done much to appeal to female fans specifically? Because if so, I missed it."
It is interesting that the Washington Capitals felt the need to make a distinction between the sexes for their fans, creating the Club Scarlet, a female fan club for the Caps. (Puck Daddy gently mocked the concept, asking, "Capitals all-female fan club: Isn't it time men were objectified?") Perhaps this kind of fan club can help ease newer female fans into the sport, but it certainly shouldn't be the blueprint for approaching all female fans.
There is no doubt that NHL marketing has improved in general over the last several years, especially post-lockout. Taking a page from their counterparts in the NFL and MLB, the sport has received a complete facelift. NHL fans are among the most net-savvy among professional sports teams; and combined with today's media-smart audiences, the NHL has been crafting a very fan-friendly internet presence, combined with in-game media which reflects each team's personality.
The demographics for the NHL show a rising interest in the sport from female fans. Ten years ago, female fans made up more than 41% of the fan base; it fell below 27%, and is now back to 35% and rising. The bulk of the NHL's fans are 24-54 (average age 44.1), with at least some college education, and more than 65% of the NHL fanbase earns over $60K/year. Women's spending power is on the rise as well, so between those two factors, you would expect the NHL to want to figure out how to better appeal to that share of the fan base.
Hockey never had a need for cheerleaders, but several years ago, hockey fans for several teams got introduced to their team's "Ice Crew" or "Ice Girls" - or whatever the team chose to peg the squad of scantily-clad women whose duties ranged from simply interacting with fans to going out and helping scoop clean the ice throughout the game.
Female fans opinons about these women range from the indifferent - "If a team needs Ice Girls in bikinis to put butts in the seats, they have bigger problems with the team" - to insulted. Those female fans whose teams do not have their own ice crews seemed the most indifferent. Others called them "unnecessary", "degrading", "insulting", and "ridiculous".
Women hockey fans can also definitely have a sense of humor about them, even as they dislike them - as one quipped in conversation, "Hey, I'm not against them - even bimbos need a job."
A couple of sample replies, hitting both ends of the spectrum:
"Honestly, I don't like [ice girls]. I think it gives girls that are interested in hockey a bad name. I don't feel like they're picked for beauty rather than brains, as well. Mostly, as a female hockey fan, I want to be respected for my hockey knowledge and dedication to the team, not looked at like an object and definitely not mistaken for a woman just there to pick up a hockey player. I'm not saying all the ice girls are shallow or anything (I've only met a few), but I don't think they leave people with the right impression of a girl interested in hockey. - Stephanie
"Eh. They’re chicks scooping up ice. People don’t want to watch old fat men do it, I guess. But my question is, if the NHL is willing to objectify women in tiny skirts, knee socks and half-shirts, then why can’t the women fans have a little eye candy as well? Maybe a few shirtless airhead dudes driving the Zambonis?" - Meg
It's obvious that the ice girls are meant to entertain the male portion of the demographics; the majority of ice girl uniforms have gotten progressively skimpier since they were first introduced. A couple of the ice crews wear form-fitting sports gear instead of "cheerleader gear", and one or two teams actually are co-ed.
But even the male fans acknowledge that ice girls are unnecessary - even if they get a kick out of drooling over watching them.
"I'm not paying to see them, but I'm not exactly objecting they're there, you know?" commented a male fan sitting next to me at one of the playoff games.
Speaking of clothing - which is a part of team marketing - women would like to see more variety in what's offered to women. Less than 3% of my respondents said they actually liked the pink or crystal-studded gear that the NHL has rolled out in the past few years, for example.
Every single one, however, noted some variant on two thoughts:
1. The desire to see more "women-sized" clothing - both gear that is better cut and designed to the female form in general, and more plus-sized women's choices. "Hey, I've got hips and boobs," one explained, "and I always have to buy a much larger size than I would prefer to, in order to get it to fit."
2. The desire to see more choices in styles in general, but in team colors. "I don't see why it's so difficult to create some more feminine styles that are in team colors," was a general opinion. A few pointed out the Alyssa Milano-designed items were "a move in the right direction".
Perhaps it is time for the shop.NHL.com to capitalize on on the kind of engine that Zazzle has: where the customer selects the graphic they like and then puts it on the shirt style and color they prefer, giving them a wide range of sizes from XS all the way up to 2-6X. This would benefit not only women, but male fans as well.
In general, most women felt that the NHL tends to miss the mark on reaching out to their female fans - although slowly improving, in a haphazard sort of manner. Serious female fans want to be seen as equals to their male counterparts in terms of dedication and knowledge, but they also want to be seen as women while still being treated with respect.
In a growing market that is seeing a larger share of female fans coming to the game than ever before, the NHL needs to make more effort to discover what makes female fans tick, and how to better reach out to them.
More on the "Women & Hockey" story line to follow this week!