You Give Love A Bad Name: The CWHL, Marketing, And Me
I’ve spent a considerable amount of time trying to tease out my frustration with the CWHL. I am a supporter of the CWHL, both in the more nebulous blog-writing way and the more concrete “encourage people to contribute financially to it” way. But that doesn’t mean I think there’s no room for them to improve. They are, unfortunately, a league that has placed itself in the shadow of the NHL, without much actual support from said league.
The thing about marketing women’s sports is that from a historical standpoint, it hasn’t been easy. Since the early 1900s, when major league sports in North America really started becoming popular, women have been shut off the stage. You can advance various arguments for why this happened, but the end result is pretty undeniable: there’s still a very strong cultural impulse in North America to portray sports as inherently masculine and, as a consequence, women’s sports as inherently inferior.
In the past, fledgling women’s leagues attempted to appeal to the one market that can be fairly solidly relied on not to think women are inferior: little girls. That’s actually still the case – the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) both do significant outreach to communities of young women, especially young female athletes. But the NWSL and the WNBA have the advantage, over the CWHL, of having much higher-profile athletes. Women’s soccer has been on tons of people’s radar since the 90s, the days of Mia Hamm starring in a commercial with Michael Jordan. Women’s basketball benefits from both being sponsored/partially owned by the NBA, and from having such high-profile athletes as Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi. So while the WNBA and the NSWL do the traditional “role models, reaching out to young girls” type marketing, they also have some solid star power and highlight reels to brag about. Alex Morgan might not make as much as LeBron, but she’s also not exactly a nobody in the world of American sports.
Now, reeling it back to hockey. Women’s hockey has been growing in visibility, especially in Canada, where the women’s program is the best in the world. In America, players such as Hilary Knight have a fairly decent amount of name recognition – if not nearly so much as, say, Abby Wambach. But still, the CWHL has good players. Even if they’re not really famous, they’re still capable of producing entertaining hockey. Highlight reel plays happen in the CWHL – it might be difficult to negotiate the somewhat odd contrast between rec league setups and elite level players, but once you start watching the games, it’s kind of difficult to not find them entertaining, unless you actively dislike women’s hockey. So my question to the CWHL is: why don’t y’all market this stuff?
Brenda Andress was recently on a podcast to talk about the CWHL. It took until minute 12 for her to mention that going to a CWHL game means seeing elite, entertaining hockey. Before then she brought up that CWHL hockey is pure hockey, there’s no contact, it’s good, family entertainment, the players are leaders, and they’ve focused on attracting little girls. There’s nothing wrong with all of this, of course, but – honestly, it’s kind of boring. There’s a sort of sad masochism inherent in insisting that women’s hockey is pure hockey. Yeah, sure, you could go to a CWHL game during the NHL lockout and see women playing for Love Of The Game – but love of the game doesn’t pay bills. Love of the game won’t put your kids through college. And as for being role models for little girls, listen. I was a little girl. I had plenty of role models, from Alanna in the Tortall books to my third grade teacher. But I was not then and am not now interested in boring sports! Little girls care about having fun just as much as little boys do. Ironically, I think little girls of all people are more likely to appreciate the fun aspects of women’s hockey. The brass and pretty much everyone involved in promoting the product might insist it’s a sanitized product and push weird purity myths, but little girls know what’s up.
Here’s the thing about women’s sports: you are selling a product. And when you sell a product, you’re not always entering into a market that’s got an obvious void that only you can fill. When Facebook was founded, people mocked it, because MySpace already had 80 million users (which was a lot back then – the past!). Facebook succeeded by creating an air of exclusivity and cool. They made using the internet as a social tool something that smart, cool, popular people did. That was an implicit rebranding, and it worked. People wanted Facebook. In the long run, Facebook normalized using the internet to keep up with your grandparents and your high school friends who turned out kind of weird, but in the short term, it was all about directing, and then monetizing, a new way to be part of an exclusive group.
Am I saying the CWHL should become the next Facebook? No, of course not. But Facebook is an example of successful marketing in a market that was already saturated. Anyone who was around 10 years ago can tell you about MySpace, Xanga, LiveJournal…the list goes on. Facebook succeeded and became a behemoth because they knew how to make people want their service, specifically.
The simple fact is, you don’t sell a product by appealing to people’s senses of purity or sanitation. People are attracted to sports because they’re fun and inspiring, not because it’s as virtuous as a Southern Baptist sermon.
So no, the CWHL doesn’t have an Alex Morgan to hitch their star to. They don’t have a Brittney Griner. But in my opinion, that lack has more to do with a failure of marketing than anything else. Stop telling me about how going to a CWHL game is like a soothing bar of oatmeal soap for my sports feelings and start telling me about how cool the games are. It’s entertainment, so sell me on being entertained. By not even focusing on the sports aspect of your sports league, you are placing yourself in a losing position. I’ve read more thinkpieces on Is It Okay When Women’s Players Practice With The NHL and Should Women’s Players Try To Make It In The NHL and How Bad Should We Feel About Enjoying Fighting In National Team Exhibition Games than I’ve read short blog posts with highlight clips from games – CWHL, exhibition, Olympics, whatever. The Poulin goals that sealed the deal for Canada’s most recent gold medal were sick – but people talked about that less than they talked about Noora Räty maybe-retiring because she couldn’t get paid. The latter is important to talk about, of course. But part of why it’s even an issue is because we don’t talk about the former.
I’m tired of making a case for the women’s players being nice people who will make my hypothetical daughter feel like she can achieve anything (two weeks before she realizes none of these women make money playing the sport they love so, actually, she can’t). The fact that some knuckle-dragging trolls will always bleat about how women’s sports aren’t as good as men’s sports doesn’t mean we should just not talk about the sport entirely. Women’s hockey is cool because it’s good hockey that’s fast-paced, has complex plays, and has awesome goals. It’s cool because it’s the birth of something new and exciting. Sell me on that, CWHL brass. Stop promising me sainthood if I tune in. Promise me fun instead.
from You Give Love A Bad Name: The CWHL, Marketing, And Me