Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The ongoing battle against sexism in sports

A couple months ago, I wrote a piece titled "Dear SI: Not all female hockey fans are puck bunnies" in response to a Sports Illustrated slideshow that showed a lot of female hockey fans, mostly with signs for specific players, and called it a "salute to puck bunnies", the suggestion being that all female hockey fans are puck bunnies.I didn't expect the piece to get so much attention. 6,600 hits and counting as of today (a little over 5,000 of those hits came in the first 3 days). And while I can't say it was my piece alone that got SI's notice - a couple other female hockey bloggers also wrote about the post - at least SI took down the slide show.

I got a lot of feedback via Twitter and my blog; the vast majority of it was very positive. As always, a few anonymous Internet trolls had to chip in with some variant of "get a life" or "get back in the kitchen".  But mostly, female hockey fans everywhere were adding their voices to the discussion, tired of the labels.

It's funny, in a way: growing up, I didn't think of myself as a "feminist". I guess it's because in the late '70s and early '80s, we kind of associated the word "feminist" with some image of a bra-burning rebel. Even as a kid, though, I knew that men and women weren't treated equally in the eyes of the world. I had goals growing up, and I wasn't going to let anyone stand in my way of achieving those - male or female.

Well, maybe I didn't meet all my dreams and goals. Not yet, anyway. And along the way, I became a strong, independent woman. And as I got older, I came to understand that being a "feminist" didn't mean I was burning my bra on the Capitol steps.

What being a feminist meant was that I wouldn't stand for gender inequality. That I wouldn't accept that being a woman meant being inferior.

We've spent an awful lot of time and effort in this country (and others) over the past few decades, demanding LGBT rights, fighting racism, etc. Ironically, our country has gone to war in other countries in an effort to "liberate" them from "outdated" ideals. How is a woman being forced to cover her face/wear a veil in public any more - or less - sexist than what goes on in this country every single day: unequal pay scales for the same job; our government trying to take women's health care rights away; etc? It's still sexism, and it's still designed to make women inferior. Yet they still want our votes and our money.

Amazing how our money and our votes are important and vital, but our opinions and our desires are not.

Recently, I have been very proud that the hockey community has embraced the You Can Play Project. Among all major sports, never before has so much effort been made to remind people that sports competition isn't about something you have no control over - your sexual identity. Before the You Can Play Project was the NHL's project, Hockey Is For Everyone, designed to bring more "children of all backgrounds" into the sport. The NHL is doing a lot to educate people that sport is about sport, and capacity to play.

Despite the ongoing push by hockey as a whole to fight back against homophobia and racism, there's been a lot less effort to fight against sexism, despite the fact that women make up 35-40% of the fan base. Two summers ago, female fans pushed back against the shop.NHL.com selections, demanding more variety than simply pink or rhinestone-studded versions of the male selections. Men's choices still far outnumber women's choices, but at least women's choices have greatly improved over the past couple seasons.

On Twitter and other forums, women have begun pushing back against the sexism, especially as a way to chirp. Whether it's the "Two sisters, no cup" T-shirts (in reference to the Sedin twins) or simply obviously sexist slurs, women are tired of their sex being used as an insult.

The comebacks are predictable. "But science has proven that women aren't as strong or as fast as men!"  Really? So that somehow makes it OK as an insult? "Get back in the kitchen and make me food!" Who are you, Eric Cartman? You have two arms and legs, go feed yourself.

Yes, women might not be as strong or as fast as men. But they are equally fierce competitors. They are equally passionate fans. And here's a few things you might not know about women:
Among all the professional major sports, perhaps none is more misogynistic than hockey, which might make you wonder why women love the sport so very much. Other pro sports have had women be assistant coaches. The number of women who've broken into the "inner circle" of elite hockey -- from physical trainers, to assistant coaches, scouts, and player development, all the way up GMs, assistant GMs, VPs, and CEOs -- are mighty few and far between. Even women's teams, at the pro and collegiate level, are predominantly coached by men! And although the majority of team owners are married, few Stanley Cup winners have ever acknowledged joint ownership of their teams by also having their wife's name included on the Cup. Women are starting to break into areas such as team physicians/medical staff, and can be found throughout community relations, corporate relations, and of course administrative staff; and are beginning to make their impact on marketing, business development, and media and public relations.

As a whole, however, hockey tends to have a lot of glass ceilings when it comes to women. Hockey is the ultimate "promote from within/old-boys-network", and uncommon are those who enter the upper echelons of the sport from outside. Of course, female players don't exist in the NHL, so that's already a strike against them from a "career advancement" standpoint.

Where do we most frequently see women in relation to hockey? Many teams have added "ice girls" to their ice cleanup crews - and for most of the teams that employ them, the women are scantily dressed. Let's just say that ice girls are not generally regarded for their hockey knowledge; however, many of the women who audition for these roles know the sport better than they are given credit for. Many fans assume these women are sleeping with the players - but teams generally hold ice girls to a contract that stipulates no fraternization with the hockey players.

Other pro sports have "female equivalent" leagues that get attention and press coverage - even if they're incredibly sexist, like the "Lingerie League" (football). There's also pro softball and pro soccer leagues, and of course, the WBA. Canada has the Women's Hockey League, but most hockey fans are barely even aware they exist, never mind most sports fans in general.

Perhaps nowhere else in hockey is the disparity between men and women seen more obviously than in media and broadcasting. There's still markets that do not even have a single woman who covers hockey - or for that matter, sports in general - whether it's in newspapers or on TV. Women who professionally cover hockey on TV are especially rare. As I noted in my post on "While the Men Watch" last week:

When it comes to media, it is only recently that women have begun moving from "token female" towards "accepted analyst or commentator". Oddly enough, the NHL Network has been more progressive than CBC for this. While Heidi Androl was on NHLN last season, she rarely took center stage; she was usually positioned off to the side, and not really called upon to "carry" the show. As noted above, Campbell on CBC doesn't really have a starring position for hockey coverage.
This season, Kathryn Tappen, formerly of NESN, has anchored NHL Tonight on NHLN. Tappen is a strong, smart woman who knows her hockey. She also happens to be an attractive blonde, which no doubt helps appeal to the male demographic, and she's one of two women who regularly appears on NHLN. (Deb Placey, who hosts Cisco NHL Live, is the other.)
Today's media landscape requires - demands - that women sports reporters have to be beautiful or at the very least, skinny and pretty. As hockey players would call them, "rockets". Guys have a lot more flexible. Don Cherry can be crabby and wear suits that look like they were made from your grandmother's couch. Think about how many male sports reporters - be they print or TV - that could easily be called "stocky", "chunky", or even flat-out fat. These would be cardinal sins for women in the same position.

It makes complete sense for sports analysts and broadcasters to have spent time playing the sport or involved in some way within the sport - be it hockey or otherwise - but some of the men who cover hockey these days are a bit outdated. If in doubt, take to Twitter while hockey is on, and watch the feedback for some of them, particularly Mike Milbury.

Women love hockey - and here's the "shocker", we love it for the exact same reasons that men do. It's a fast, exciting, thrilling game. There's rarely anything boring about hockey. We can appreciate the snipers, the physical d-men, the amazing goalies. We can talk about "dangle, snipe, and celly" with you. We understand the rules; we protest poor calls by the refs. We even celebrate all that is manly (i.e., playoff beards) about the sport.

Women also have to hide a part of themselves to be taken seriously in their opinions about sports in general. Women can't openly drool over an athlete, or their opinions are immediately dismissed - or she'll be labeled slutty. Meanwhile, men openly ogle attractive female athletes, and then will make innuendo-laden comments about the female athlete's skills; that's "socially acceptable". Being able to appreciate a player is good-looking doesn't mean we're unable to appreciate their true hockey skills.

A lot of male fans are ready to dismiss female fans as being serious about being sports fan, no matter what the sport of choice is. There's always a look of surprise on their face when they first see a woman arguing intelligently about sports, especially if she can whip statistics out of memory.

Perhaps it's because as kids, or in adult social leagues, we all play baseball and soccer and basketball together. A lot of women also enjoy playing a game of football out in the yard, too, or grew up with it in their local school. So men see women taking part in these sports from an early age; so there's never any doubt that they understand the sport or don't know how it's played. Until recently, girls didn't play hockey much, at least not in the U.S.. For a long time, the women's "equivalent" of hockey was considered to be field hockey, which, while it has "hockey" in the name, is nowhere near the same sport that ice hockey is.

The expensive cost of playing hockey has left it mainly as a male pursuit for many years, and thus the mentality is there that it's a "male sport". Since women aren't seen playing hockey, it leads to the assumption that they therefore don't know hockey.
Female fans also have an issue that male fans don't have to deal with: we're split amongst ourselves about what's a "real" female fan is. While many female fans rather wear team colors than pink versions (a fan is a fan.... why aren't male fans marketed with powder-blue gear?) and many don't want glaring "bling" (metallic paints, studs, or bejeweling) on their hockey gear, a woman wearing these items is readily dismissed as "not a real fan". Likewise, female fans are quick to be catty with one another about what other female fans are wearing. We've all been guilty of it at one time or another; but it sure doesn't help us. The only way to know if somebody is a "real" fan is to talk to them.

Yes, women and men handle their sports fandom differently. While pro sports leagues tend to walk the middle ground, there's still always that lean towards the male demographic. If more sports marketers understood women better, they could further increase the income for their teams. (Focus groups work!) Gary Bettman announced that the NHL's revenues this year were $3.3 billion, a new record for the league, and it continues to climb. That is far below the NFL's $11 billion, but closing in on the NBA's $3.8 billion. Think about that: if the NHL can avoid a lockout (a second one in seven years could be a staggering blow), and build more understanding of their current fanbase, they could pass the NBA for revenue. Such a thought seemed impossible up until now.

She-conomy website recently posted an article titled  "12 Mistakes Male Marketers Continue to Make When Marketing to Women With Social Media". The ones that particularly resonate with me as a female sports fan are these:
  • They are still trying to tell women what they want
  • They are not listening to what women are saying
  • If they do listen, they are still interpreting from the male perspective
  • They are trying to sell before connecting
  • They try to find ways around the time required to build relationships
  • They don’t know how to engage the female
As a reminder, women hold 85% of the brand buying power in the U.S. That's a huge slice of buying power. In light of that, you'd think that more brands - sports brands included - would be working to connect more to the female part of their demographic.

In the meantime, we as fans have to do our part, too -- especially those of us female fans. Consumers have more power than they think they do. Feedback is important. If an advertiser offends you, let them know - they'll want to make things right. You really like what the brand is doing? Compliment them on it, and spread the word. Brands take "buzz" seriously. If one person has something to say via the "feedback" button, you can bet there's a bunch of other people out there sharing your opinion. (You might not always be in the majority, but opinions matter.)

Yes, the NHL has a feedback button, too - use it! Take the time to connect with your team's marketing and media groups - every team website has a list of front office employees; if there's not an email given or a feedback button that you can find on their website, then do it the old-fashioned way, and send a letter. Some teams, like the Blackhawks, actively seek out fan feedback by having fan opinion stations at every game.

Women are deeply engaged and they emotionally connect with brands they trust. This definitely includes sports teams! The time is past for women to simply accept what they're being handed as fans and as consumers.