Thursday, August 7, 2014

Women fans want less sexism, more equality

Just because fans line up to throw money at your business doesn't mean that there aren't things that can be improved about what you do.

Ice girls (women) are clearly not meant to market towards female fans. They were first introduced by the New York Islanders 13 years ago, and were there for one big, obvious reason: as a method to help draw fans to the arena. (Sex sells! Shocker, I know.) Other teams with poor attendance took notice; and now the majority of teams (21) in the league employ women as ice girls, cheerleaders, or dancers. 

Not all the teams have ice girls; and some teams don't put women in skimpy outfits as part of the ice-clearing crew, but instead put them in skimpy outfits on "dance teams" or cheerleading squads who rally fans during the game without ever putting skate to ice. For example, until this season, the Florida Panthers had women who do a sort of Rockettes-type ice dance during intermissions; they have dropped them this season, probably due to the same financial reasons that saw them cut many positions within the team. The New York Rangers also used to have ice girls, and they disbanded them in 2007 after settling out of a sexual harassment lawsuit. 

While some teams have their girls in something like yoga pants and tight-fitting/midriff-baring jerseys, most of the female ice/cheer/dance uniforms have gotten shorter and skimpier over the years. The newest team to introduce an ice crew, the San Jose Sharks, have released pictures of their proposed uniforms; their women will be - at least at the ice crew's launch - closer to fully dressed (with bared midriffs, of course), while the men - yes, the team is co-ed - will wear something closer to a track suit. 

The Sharks' fans immediately protested the announcement, making it clear that they didn't feel it was necessary to add this kind of entertainment to their game day experience. With San Jose's attendance hovering at or near 100% since 2006-07, it's also obvious that the Sharks don't have any issues filling their building, which is lively and energetic for games. The team said they were looking to create a "co-ed, high-energy ice team that supports the San Jose Sharks," and said that their approach to their new ice crew would be "tasteful." Time will tell.

Hockey continues to grow its reach, and that fan base is becoming increasingly female - currently around the 40% mark, give or take 3% based on the team. That number gets bigger for other sports: 43% of NFL fans, 46.5% of MLB fans, and 47.2% of MLS fans. If hockey feels it needs cheerleaders in the stands, or pretty girls in tiny outfits as part of the ice-cleaning crews, it is clearly catering to the male demographic which currently makes up about 60% of their fans. 

Let's talk about the basic mathematics of demographics. In 2005, there were approximately 20 million NHL fans (based on attendance), and roughly 65% were male (13 million). By 2014, league attendance had risen to 22.25 million, and now it's "only" 60% male (13.35 million). While 350,000 new male fans were attracted to the game, that represents only a 2.7% growth rate among men. However, that also means the female fan base has grown from 7 million (2005) to 8.9 million. That would indicate the female part of the fan base grew at a significantly faster clip (27.1%) than the men - at 10 times the growth rate! In addition to that, growth among women actively participating in hockey (that is, playing in rec leagues) is outpacing men's growth by a 2-1 margin.

Why is that important? Because women control almost 80% of consumer spending in North America, and approximately 70% of consumer spending worldwide. Combine that with the fact that hockey fans tend to be the best-educated, have the highest income, and are most tech-savvy among all sports fans, and you have a lot of intelligent women spending their hard-earned money on things that mean a lot to them. Women's spending is particularly booming for big-ticket categories like computers and cars, financial services and banking - and yes, things like season tickets for sports they enjoy.

Think that's not important enough? According to's facts on women, "Women spent 80% of all sport apparel dollars, and controlled 60% of all money spent on men's clothing." So men are far, far away from controlling the majority of money spent on sports.

Women like to be educated about their spending choices. They are more likely to support brands that are environmentally-friendly, and those that are owned or operated by women. And let's make something clear here as well: these aren't women spending their men's money. Women now hold the majority (51%) of private wealth in the U.S., and that number continues to rise. 

Here's the kicker: most women (over 60%!) feel misunderstood by marketers. The figure varies depending on what kind of product is being sold, running as high as 91%, but the more technical or financially-related the product is, the greater the disconnect seems to be.

Women account for less than 15% of S&P 500's board of directors. Of those few companies who do have female representation on their boards, they have 53% higher returns on equity, 42% higher sales, and 66% higher ROI - something the NHL might want to consider as they look to continue growing their brand.

Female sports fans don't want team marketers to get stuck on the idea that everything must either be pink or sparkle to be appealing. While a portion of female fans like those designs, the majority of female fans simply want to wear well-fitting gear in their team's colors, with a good selection of choices across all sizes. Women get fed up having to size up into ill-fitting men's selections in order to have room for their curves. 

When it comes to sports, women don't want to be talked down to. Women know their sports. They're passionate about it, can discuss it in-depth, and can analyze it, too. While they might embrace it from a little different angle than men, at heart, we're all fans - and women want to feel they're on the same ground. 

Women - young and old alike - have increasing spending power, and as discussed, when they're passionate about something, they're willing to invest in it. So with all that spending power in women's hands, doesn't it make sense to NOT alienate that important part of your fan base?

Now, let's not entirely dismiss ice girls or dancers or cheerleaders based on looks (or outfits) alone. There isn't a team that employs them who wouldn't defend their use beyond eye candy, citing such points as helping build crowd enthusiasm, attracting and engaging with fans, running fan-participating events at games, and being the face of their franchise at various community events, including fundraisers for team charities. They have a role; they're considered an important part of building team brands and engaging with fans.

There's a famous quote that says "Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels." Ice girls are like that for hockey: they do the same job as the men do, but they're expected to do it in short skirts, while smiling and waving for the crowds. 

But as Mother Jones recently reported, there's a lot of inequality in balancing out the fun and exciting public faces of these ice/cheer crews versus what happens behind the scenes. The women who are on these various spirit teams shouldn't have to freeze their assets off, while the men are fully clothed and don't have to deal with the panting-with-lust fan enthusiasm that the women do. But if teams did sexualize their male ice crew/cheerleaders the way they did their female ones, women would be accused of just being interested in the male eye candy, and the men.... well, would the male fans care? Or would they get that sense of vague discomfort than women get when sexism is staring them in the face?

The common rule that says cheer crews should never mingle with players infers two things: 1) suggests that the women are potentially there just to meet the players; and 2) that the women's personal lives away from the rink are controlled by their teams, because if a player shows up to where they are, it is the woman's responsibility to leave. The rule absolves athletes of any responsibility, because it makes any social interaction - no matter how accidental - the women's fault, and ultimately, responsibility. Many workplaces discourage dating between co-workers, but not to this extent.

Few if any of the women who fill these spirit roles for hockey teams do it as a full-time job; they work between 10-30 hours a week in a wide variety of jobs, depending on the home game schedule and what team events they may be scheduled for. Those women may be nurses or administrative assistants or legal aides in their regular job; these women are not brainless bimbos. And the women who go out for these jobs do it because they love hockey and they love their local team, and they want to be part of that team environment. Take a look at the skates many of these women wear: most of them wear hockey skates, not ice skates; lots of ice girls play/have played recreational hockey, and they know their hockey.

Mark Purdy of the San Jose Mercury News noted that in Sochi at the Olympics, the co-ed ice crews were impressive because they all wore the same "sleek" sweat suits and performed their ice-cleaning duties at an impressive speed. He suggested that the NHL consider following in Sochi's footsteps, and finding a way to make it more appealing to sponsors than the currently-used sexist approach.

Sexism remains a major issue in all pro sports, but hockey fans have been increasingly protesting it in their arenas. Women are nearly non-existent in the most high-profile non-ice roles (play-by-play, color commentators, studio analysts). While women are increasingly visible as rink side reporters, there are only a few women who've held a solid, long-term role among major broadcast teams. Cassie Campbell is part of Hockey Night in Canada, and Kathryn Tappen has been with NHLN, and now NBCSN. 

During the Olympics, a number of experienced hockey women took on commentary/analysis roles, but it was almost exclusively for only the female hockey games. Despite showing competence on the international stage, women are not breaking into these same roles for the NHL. Despite fans complaining about some of the stale voices currently in broadcasting - former players who seem perpetually stuck in a rut encouraging fighting and unwilling to embrace advanced analytics (aka "fancy stats") - change is slow to come to the NHL, especially when it comes to broadcasting.

Women have to constantly fight for every inch of respect they're given in sports. The NHL - and hockey in general - remains a predominantly male echelon. A glance at the Stanley Cup can tell you how infrequently women are in the top-end roles that hockey teams deem engravement-worthy in their 52 allotted names when they win; just 12 women in the history of the NHL have their names etched in Stanley's silver.  

It doesn't stop with the professional level when it comes to lack of respect, either. Women active in the sports community online get harassed and even threatened by men.  It's unacceptable. Steps like putting male and female ice crew in the same neutral outfits, and trying to remove obvious sexism, help convey the message to fans that both male and female fans are equally important, equally valuable. 

Hockey has long been cited as a family sport, and it's said that it takes a village to raise a hockey player. With girls and women increasingly following the sport, and putting on blades and picking up sticks to play it themselves, it's time to raise the bar on how women are represented not just around the NHL, but pro leagues in general.

For example, the local NHL team here in Chicago, the Blackhawks, have an intermission game with fans called "Shoot the Puck". Three fans are chosen and get the opportunity to shoot for free travel with United Airlines, whose name graces the arena. On the Blackhawks' site, the FAQ page states that "Participants of Shoot the Puck are chosen at random before all Blackhawks home games." However, these fans are never entirely random. It's always a kid (almost always a boy); a guy in his 20s/low 30s who's usually decent-looking but clearly meant to be "the bad guy" out of the trio; and a hot young woman with long hair and high heels who's always dressed more to impress than sporting fan gear. It's so predictable that it's become a bad running joke among the fans.  

Aside from the blatant predictability of the supposedly "random" fans, what's worse about STP is that the Blackhawks' longtime team organist Frank Pellico trots out "The Stripper" theme during the woman's time to shoot the puck. (At best, the piece of music has a tenuous connection to hockey due to its use in the famous hockey striptease scene in Slap Shot - and it should be noted that it's a guy taking off his clothes in that scene, not a woman.) The choice of music, coupled with the particular female chosen in the STP event, makes a strong statement that women are only going to be allowed on the ice if they're beautiful - and once they're there, they're meant to be eye candy. (Wait, I'm confused - aren't the ice girls there to be the arena eye candy? So why does the woman chosen for STP have to be dolled up?) It's insulting to women, and yet this is nothing new; even some of the Chicago beat writers have actively protested the use of "The Stripper" during STP.

The Blackhawks would get positive publicity - and make a lot of fans happy - by banning Pellico from using "The Stripper" any more; but despite numerous, ongoing fan complaints, the teams has not removed the music from the STP repertoire.

Additionally, they could also genuinely randomly choose the STP participants -- whether it's by phone text entry or, as we discussed on Twitter a couple weeks ago, letting people buy tickets for a chance to STP, and having the ticket proceeds add to their charity efforts. Who knows - we could see three kids, or three women, or three grandparents out there on the ice, having fun. 

Hockey fans continue to voice their desire for changes across the league. Hockey fans have touted advanced analytics for years; now we know that teams not only use them, but have made hires this summer to improve themselves in utilizing them. Female fans demanded better selection among their choices from; change has been coming over the past few years, although there's still definitely room for improvement. 

Fans of both sexes have been protesting the more blatant sexism in the league, and perhaps we'll see more improvements in that area the same way that You Can Play has fought homophobia.

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Related reading:

The institutional sexism of NHL Ice Girls (PuckDaddy)


  1. It's interesting that the Blackhawks claim Shoot the Puck contestants are chosen randomly when they're clearly not. I have no doubt that they've got all their legal stuff in order, but per the Illinois Prizes and Gifts Act they're required to publicly disclose any eligibility requirements. Maybe someone should report them to the Attorney General :)

  2. I could care less about the ice girls. I'm there to see the hockey game.

  3. Excellent post! I have to agree with your points and the numbers don't lie. NHL team executives that use pathetic excuses and explanations for their blatant marketing of sex in hockey, should be ashamed of themselves.
    Bring back furry mascots for everyone !!

  4. I agree with you that fans of both sexes have been protesting the more blatant sexism in the league. I look forwards to see more improvements in that area of "You Can Play has fought homophobia".


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