Why Do Girls Like Hockey?

Hello, my name is Lauren and I’m a female hockey fan.

Last week, Danny Ecker of Crain’s Business wrote an article about the fact that 38 percent of Chicago Blackhawks fans are female, up from 28 percent five years ago. While I love to hear that the Blackhawks’ female fan base has grown, his surprise at the increase (“one of the most dramatic increases in the team’s fan base has come from a demographic you might not expect”) and his stereotypical and unresearched explanations rubbed me the wrong way.

Is it really that surprising that 38 percent of Blackhawks fans are female? Back in 2010, Scarborough Sports Research released demographic data for six major sport leagues, and women made up between 36.4 and 41.3 percent of the fan base for each.

Regardless of his surprise at the current figure, the numbers do show a big jump in the percentage of  female Blackhawks fans in a five-year period, and I agree that’s worthy of examination. Of course, just looking at the percentages can’t tell the entire story. I do not have access to the full Scarborough reports for the Chicago market, but I’d be interested to know what that increase looks like in terms of the number of female fans the Blackhawks gained over that timeframe, and how that compares to the number of male fans gained. Assuming Ecker has access to those reports, he would also be able to look at other information about those female fans, such as their age and media habits, which could have better informed the rest of his article.

So let’s talk about why the Blackhawks have so many new female fans, or at least why Ecker believes that they do.

Reason No. 1: Pinterest. Not only do the Blackhawks have a Pinterest page, they have the most Pinterest followers in the NHL at a staggering 7,100+ pinners. As Ecker points out, Pinterest’s user base is 80 percent female, so how brilliant is it that the Blackhawks are reaching new fans on this XX chromosome paradise of a social network?

I think it’s a fair assumption that the Blackhawks increased their female fan base by a lot more than 7,240 fans. Actually, presuming that only 80 percent of the team’s followers are women, that number is more like 5,792 (a quick scroll through the Blackhawks followers does show good amount of guys in the mix). Compare that to Facebook and Twitter, two social networks that also have more female users than male (52 and 50 percent, respectively).  On Facebook, the Blackhawks have 1.4 million likes. On Twitter, more than 450,000 fans follow the team. If we estimate that their social media fan base mimics the percentage of male-female fan in the Scarborough data, that means 532,000 women on Facebook and 171,000 on Twitter. Even if the team’s social followers skew more male, a significant window exists that makes it obvious that a lot more Blackhawks female fans follow the team on Facebook and Twitter than on Pinterest.

To me, the fact that the Blackhawks have a Pinterest page demonstrates that they are making an effort to stay connected to a subset of their existing female fan base. From looking at their social media pages, it’s clear that they do not put as much effort into posting on Pinterest to compared to Facebook and Twitter, with just a few new pins over the past several days. And why should they? The Blackhawks can reach a much larger audience, male and female, on the other social network sites, which are proven to bring results for sport teams. A recent Catalyst study on sport fan social media engagement did not even include Pinterest in their results.

Reason No. 2: Hot Guys. Okay, this was a sexist insinuation on Ecker’s part, but I’m not going to try to argue that it is completely unfounded. Are there women who are hockey fans because they think the players are hot? Sure, just like there are men who like women’s anything because of the attractive athletes. But not all women are fans of a sport solely because of how hot the players are.

My biggest issue with this statement, however, is this: How is this new? Were there not hot hockey players on the Blackhawks five years ago? Considering that the example of hotness that Ecker uses in his article is Patrick Sharp, it turns out that there was at least one good-looking player on the team way back in 2008: Patrick Sharp. Sharp has played for Chicago since the 2005-06 season. Unless he has undergone reconstructive surgery to improve his looks since that time, can we agree to rule him out as a reason for this increase in female fans?

Ecker does also point to Sharp’s participation on a women-friendly radio show, which is one of the more valid suggestions he makes. If the Blackhawks are using their players in the media to specifically target female audiences, that definitely could lead to an increase in female fans.

Reason No. 3: Young Hot Guys. Ecker points out that six of the Blackhawks’ star players are under the age of 25, which helps the team connect to a younger fan base. Which would be great if we were talking about the age of the Blackhawks fan base, but this an article about the team’s female fans, right?

Going back to my question earlier about what other stories the data can tell, I would be interested to know what the numbers say about the demographics of these female fans. If the increase in fans is coming significantly from the 18-24 age group, then maybe he has a point about the young players. Then again, maybe not. The 2013-14 Chicago Blackhawks have the seventh oldest roster in the NHL, at an average age of 28.79.  And just like with attractive hockey players, young hockey players are not a new phenomenon. The average age of an NHL player has actually increased slightly since 2008-09, and two of the players Ecker mentions were on the Chicago roster at that time. In fact, more than 20 players age 25 or younger dressed for the Blackhawks that season.

Reason No. 4: Higher Ticket Prices. While some of Ecker’s other comments came off as sexist, this one baffled me the most. He took a quote from Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz, which had originally appeared in a different article in a different context, and applied it to his own logic about why the Blackhawks have more female fans.

In the original story, Wirtz addresses the justification behind a jump in the team’s ticket prices, saying the Blackhawks had been one of the lower-priced tickets in the league and need to raise prices to succeed. He mentions that one result of raising prices has been eliminating the “brawlers,” saying:

As the tickets are more valuable, our fan behavior is becoming better. When the tickets didn’t have the same value or they didn’t look at the team as much, many times it would be an element of people who wanted to come to the United Center just to cause trouble and get in fights. We don’t have that.

Ecker took that quote and applied his own logic to determine that higher ticket prices lead to more female fans. Because the atmosphere at the United Center is more “family-friendly,”  obviously that must be a reason more women support the team. Because only women have families? Because dads don’t care if it’s safe for their kids? Because fewer women had an interest in hockey when there were fights in the stands?

Besides the sexism implied in equating “family-friendly” with “women-friendly,” I’d argue that higher ticket prices have made Blackhawks games less family-friendly. While a decrease in drunken brawls certainly contributes to a more kid-appropriate atmosphere, an increase in prices makes it harder for the average family to attend games (in 2010, the Fan Cost Index for a family of four to attend a Blackhawks game was $350.58, the sixth highest in the league, though the average ticket price ranked 15th in the league). Growing up in Pittsburgh, our family attended many more Pirates games, with $5 adult and $1 child general admission tickets, than any of the other local sport teams, despite being fans of them all, because they were more affordable.

As a former journalism student, I am disappointed in Ecker’s lack of facts and original reporting to back up his story. As a sports marketer, I am disappointed in the missed opportunity to present information that would have been interesting and useful to the readers of Crain’s Chicago Business, as well as to sports marketing departments across the country. By talking to the Blackhawks marketing team, a sport marketing professor from a local university or, I don’t know, even an actual female Blackhawks fan, Ecker could have provided some insight on the increase in women fans.

As a female hockey fan, I am disappointed in his stereotypical view of who I am. Yes, I have a Pinterest account with an embarrassing number of pins (5,377). Yes, I have had crushes on a variety of hockey players over the years (Paul Coffey, Aleksey Morozov, Jordan Staal). But my reasons for loving hockey are likely similar to many male hockey fans. I love the speed and intensity of the game. I love the mix of agility and power. Most of all, I love sitting on the edge of my seat, watching for that puck to cross the goal line.

I am a female hockey fan, and I know many others who are too. I know Blackhwaks fans and Penguins fans, Capitals fans and Sabres fans, Stars fans and Flyers fans. We are all unique and discovered the sport in different ways. No one article could explain how each of us became fans and what makes us love hockey. But none of us comes close to fitting in the picture that Ecker paints of us. Just like the guys, we just love the sport.


Working in Sport Marketing

I recently was interviewed by Brian Clapp of WorkInSports.com about what it takes to work in sport marketing. The interview covers my educational background, career path, advice for interns and thoughts on women in the sport industry.

Read the full article…