The NHL’s Growth Problem (How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Non-Traditional Market Pt 2)

This particular article is a bit harder to write, because as a woman, I feel extremely passionate about female fans in sports, and just how underserved that demographic is. Every woman I’ve ever spoken to about sports has some sort of story about how her ‘worth’ as a fan has been questioned, usually by fellow male fans. There was an excellent research piece done by @phylliskessel13 over at Pension Plan Puppets studying the interaction between gender and sports fandom, and you should read it.

But that’s not what this article is about. This article is about marketing, the NHL, and why the NHL needs to specifically reach out to women to further its goals of “Growing the Game.”

If you missed Part 1, you can read it here.

Part 2: Marketing to Women Isn’t About Political Correctness, It’s About Making Money

Let’s talk about demographics. A lot of people, myself included, scoffed when Gary Bettman said that the NHL has one of the largest female fanbases (which he only brought up when attempting to dismiss the sexist Katy Perry chant during the playoffs), but it’s actually true. According to’s demographics from 2013, women make up 42% of NHL viewership, though most estimates, including puts it closer to 40%. At either number, though, that’s higher than the NBA, and gives both the NFL & MLB a run for their money.

At an average TV viewership of 332,000, that means advertisers are reaching about 133,000 women with every nationally broadcast game. At arenas, that means that 6,800 people in attendance are women. But so frequently, that significant portion of viewership is ignored because it’s not the “majority”. This means the NHL, the teams, and its advertising partners are leaving significant amounts of money on the table currently, and by not engaging this growing portion of income earners, will make less money in the future.

Once again, the Chicago Blackhawks are an excellent team to look at, if only because they’ve completely turned around the financial welfare of a once ailing team. And they credit it partly to their increasing female fanbase. In 2013, Danny Ecker wrote an article on engaging these Blackhawks fans.

Women now make up 38 percent of the Hawks faithful locally, up from 28 percent in 2008, according to New York-based Scarborough Research,

“The strategy remains to mainstream the Blackhawks brand,” said Blackhawks Executive Vice President Jay Blunk. “Our hope is for the continued development of a deeper connection to the Blackhawks brand if fans identify with the personalities of our players.”

And the players — in particular, forward Patrick Sharp — are doing their part.

Mr. Sharp, who was named to Chicago Magazine’s “50 most beautiful Chicagoans” list in 2011, is now in the fifth year of the “Sharp Attack” segment on WTMX-FM/101.9 The Mix’s female-friendly “Eric & Kathy” morning show.

It’s almost like ‘young’ and ‘good looking’ resonates with women as well as men.

Also, note the “female friendly” morning show. Because that’s important. Sports, and sports media, have been dominated by male voices for so long that teams seem hesitant to break relationships with outlets that have a history of sexist behavior.

Probably the most notable is Mark Madden out of Pittsburgh, who has publicly attacked female fans and female media members without apology or remorse, yet still continues to be a credible part of the Penguins media machine. Even my beloved Dallas Stars are not immune – I was very taken aback when listening to the Stars Sunday Podcast during the postseason and hearing one of the hosts compare Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Upton to goals scored (the logic being one is sexier than the other).

Casual sexism harms a brand because women feel they can’t trust it, or that they’re not understood by it. When your goal is making money, like it is for the NHL, this trust is paramount.

NBCSN only has one female NHL anchor/commentator, Kathryn Tappen, and Sportsnet’s 43 member broadcast team only includes 3 women. Very few teams include women as anchors for local broadcasts, with Shannon Hogan of the Islanders, Deb Placey of the Devils, and Chantal Desjardins for the Habs probably being the best known.

But that’s only 10% of the teams. The percentage of female beat writers is about the same, with most cities having 2 or fewer female PHWA members.

Remember, 40% of the viewership is female. But 10% of the media is. In a league where only men play, women still want to be represented. And women need to be represented because in an all-male media vacuum, sexism is allowed to thrive, and that alienates the 40% of viewers who already want to spend money on your product.

For teams and for the league as a whole to grow beyond their current reach, it’snot enough to just encourage diversity in the media, they must demand it.

And to generate that feeling of inclusion for your female fanbase, it’s not just enough to slap an Ice Girl on your advertisement and call it a day. Because of the prevalence of men in the sports industry – not just as players, but as CEOs, creative directors, advertising account managers, social media specialists, etc – the “default” view for most advertising is the male gaze. Even when teams are attempting to speak directly to women.

There are many problems with using Ice Girls as your sole link to female hockey fans, and there have been many articles on the subject, but they are currently a large part of most NHL Teams’ campaigns and thus, auditions are needed to keep the roster full. Here is an LA Kings ad attempting to convince women to try out for the Ice Crew.

The Ice Crew member is posed leaning forward, hands at chest level, with the camera shooting from above. Compare it to this Bank of America ad. The model is also attractive, but her head and smile are in the middle third of the creative, the place the eye is drawn to naturally. In the Kings’ ad, the Ice Crew member’s head is in the top third of the creative, and you guessed it, her chest is what’s highlighted in the middle third of the ad.

While the intent of the ad is to generate a response from women, it was framed entirely around the male gaze, which makes it ineffective. If this is the kind of marketing the NHL is expecting to grow the lucrative female fanbase, well, it’s no wonder they’re frustrated with the results.

Frequently, sports teams cross the line from embracing the feminine into being condescending. Probably one of the best examples of this are the heavy handed attempts at “Ladies Night” events, frequently labeled “Hockey & Heels” or something similar.

The issue isn’t that the events are being held. The issue is the baseline assumption that women will only be encouraged to like hockey because they’re offered discounts to tanning salons, or served wine instead of beer.

You know what stopped me from getting into sports for the longest time? Men. It’s hard to learn the ins & outs of sports, especially something like hockey which isn’t taught in most American elementary schools, when you’re condescended to instead of taught. If you want to get women into these kinds of events, stop acting like women are being dragged to sporting events kicking and screaming, and instead assume they’re curious.

Women want to know the rules. They want to know the players. They want to know what makes one player better than another. And yes, they will find some players attractive. This is a good thing.

And it makes marketing easier. How? Because explaining the game to a woman is the same as explaining the game to a man, and the NHL has been doing that for years.

Despite the name, probably one of the best examples of how a ladies night should be advertised is from my local AHL team, the Texas Stars. Their Hockey & Heels night this past December featured a Q&A with the head coach, a locker room tour, and slap shot lessons. Oh, and it was moderated by a local female DJ. Contrast this with the Islander’s recent attempts which included a ticket to a game and…a meet and greet with two actors from General Hospital???

Other ways to make a Ladies Night more effective is to make it a charity event to fundraise for a local girls’ team, or to court women-owned businesses for sponsorships. Per, support for women-owned businesses solidifies brand loyalty for 80% of women. EIGHTY PERCENT.

But all that loyalty goes to waste without convincing those women to spend money on hockey.

Did you know that women make more than 80% of all consumer purchasing decisions? Think about that when marketing season ticket plans. The Texas Stars (an AHL team in Texas, so…cheaper than a lot of teams) minimum price for season tickets is $550. That’s the price of a laptop. Even if the husband is the one dying for hockey tickets, you better believe his wife has some input on that major financial decision.

Women also account for 80% of all sport apparel dollars spent, and controlled 60% of the money spent on men’s clothing. And if we’re going to talk just about sports – women purchase 46% of official NFL merchandise. Per the site I quoted earlier, female NFL viewership is around 40% as well. But women are closer to half of all money spent on merchandise.

Yet, the NHL lags far behind in offering merchandise to women. Tumblr user Helen Orvana took a look at the availability of women’s shirseys vs men’s shirseys on

On average, the league offers only 31.36% of the individual players for women of what is available for men (that is, 68.64% fewer players), and 22.68% of total shirseys for women (that is, 77.32% fewer total shirseys).

Let’s do some quick math here. We already know that ~133,000 women watch nationally televised NHL events versus 199,000 men. Let’s assume that only 20% of these people want to buy shirseys, but only 40% of the “want to buy” fans end up purchasing a shirt because they find one they like (lots of assumptions, I know).

A Patrick Kane men’s shirsey costs $29.95, one for women costs $31.95, so those are the numbers I’ll be using for this exercise.

The amount of revenue the NHL is making off of men is this:

199,000 x 20% = 39,800

39,800 x 40% = 15,920

15,920 x $29.95 = $476,804

That’s ONE shirsey purchase per person.

The math for women looks quite different, though.

133,000 x 20% = 26,600

26,600 x 40% = 10,640

10,640 x 22.68% = 2413

2413 x $31.95 = $77,095

Why the extra step? Because women only have 23% of the same merchandise to available to purchase! If there are 100 shirseys available for men to comb through on a rack, there are only 23 for women. And this doesn’t even account for sizing. Several of the Blackhawks Stanley Cup Champions men’s tee-shirts go up to 3X and 4X. All of the women’s tees end at XXL – and that the XXL sizing for women is very different for that of men, with ~2.7 square feet less of fabric for a similar length tee-shirt.Men's Sizing

women's sizing
images captured at

If the NHL offered the same number of women’s options as men’s, their potential revenue in our word problem would be $339,948. It’s a big enough difference to hopefully be a wakeup call to NHL merchandising departments.

Another wakeup call? Stop acting like women need “pink” or “sparkly” merch instead of actual team merch. I think Buzzfeed lampooned this trend best with this article: This Is What Happens When Men Try On Women’s Football Apparel

Let me be clear, there’s nothing wrong with selling pink merch or sparkly merch, but frequently this is the ONLY kind of fan gear women can find. Women want to be treated like fans by their teams, not like an afterthought.

What can you do instead? Well, capitalize on fashion trends, like Bring Hockey Back did, by creating leggings in colors female fans want. The reaction on my twitter feed from woman hockey fans was, in a word, “WANT!!!!” I reached out to BHB for comment:

“Well we are a fan apparel site first and foremost. So everything we do is driven is by the fans. We know that women that love hockey are definitely underappreciated and underserved as far as making really cool gear, so we try and listen to them and produce apparel based on what they want to see. […] so we try and make gear that captures their fandom. The leggings were just another way to do that. And as far as how we sold, the Dallas market has always been really good to us. I think we are always surprised how well things sell in Texas every time we drop something new.”

(My pair is en route to my house right now.)

This article has already been about a million words, so I’ll stop there, even though I’ve barely included half my thoughts. The reality of the situation is that the NHL has a strong female fanbase despite not marketing to it because the product (i.e., the game) is that good.

Just imagine how much larger and more fervent it could be if the NHL actually tried.

Several stats cited come from


4 thoughts on “The NHL’s Growth Problem (How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Non-Traditional Market Pt 2)

  1. extremely well researched and interesting! You’ve served up such strong points here it’s up to them to listen now. The world is really waking up to sexism these days and it’s going to be a long time before we really see equality. Fingers crossed in 100 years they’ll say “I can’t believe that was acceptable!”


  2. Just read this piece. Can’t believe how well it dovetails with many of the issues being brought up as a result of the Kane investigation.
    From a business perspective only (and the NHL is a business), it also makes clear the Blackhawks’ problem – how can it continue its success in marketing to women when one of the “faces of the franchise” is being investigated for rape? If they thought the “feedback” about “Shoot the Puck” was loud …
    Demographic info that I would be interested to see but cannot seem to find – the economic and education levels of various female NHL fan categories – season ticketholders compared to single game; attendees compared to viewers and by age ranges.
    I’m a stats geek. There’s power in numbers!
    Well done!


    • I’m glad you liked the piece!

      The blackhawks are very much caught in a hard place right now, and honestly as a fan, I’m pretty disappointed that they and the rest of the NHL as a whole, are treading as lightly as they are about the allegations. I’ve made myself sick over this situation, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

      As for demographics, I haven’t seen any specifically about women that talk about economics or education levels, however the NHL in general has the most well-to-do fanbase of any of the major four. If you look into it, I’d love to see what you find!


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