The Sad State of Women’s Hockey Coverage, and Some Suggestions for Change

(Image from: http://www.cbc.ca)

Yesterday I purchased The Hockey News’ recent special publication, The Best of Everything in Hockey. The magazine features 57 categories upon which a “panel of experts” voted. Categories include everything from “Best All-Around Player” and “Best Shooter” to “Best P.R. Team” and “Best Arena Food”. So, fans of the women’s game are no doubt asking, what do they have to say about the best of the best in women’s hockey?

The sad answer is: not much.

In fact, women are featured in only two of the 57 lists. The “Best Women’s Player” (as opposed to the “Best All-Around Player”, a category that is clearly assumed only to include men) is at least included, though not exactly prominently highlighted. The list is presented 39th out of 57, after such critical categories as “Best Grinder”, “Best Shootout Move”, and “Best Linesman”. Thankfully, the women’s hockey is featured more highly than “Best Mascot” or “Best Hockey Song”.

What’s the other list that features women, you ask? Why “Best Cheerleaders”, of course.

While this marginalization of the women’s game, not to mention women in general, is pathetic, I do need to make an acknowledgement: there is very little women’s hockey for The Hockey News and other hockey media to cover. Aside from the annual World Championships and 4 Nations tournament, and of course the quadrennial Winter Olympics, elite level women’s hockey in North America is limited to the six-team Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) and NCAA and CIS university competition. This leads to a chicken-and-egg argument, where media can cite lack of interest as the reason for ignoring women’s hockey; yet women’s cannot grow in popularity without adequate media exposure.

I find it hard to believe that powerful media entities like TSN, CBC, and The Hockey News – to say nothing of local and national newspapers – could not drum up significant interest in women’s hockey. After all, these are financially powerful tastemakers that have significant marketing clout. Giving exposure to incredible athletes such as Hayley Wickenheiser or Angela Ruggiero, and drumming up television and print interest in the CWHL, would lead to increased viewership of and exposure for women’s hockey and possibly allow a professional or semi-pro league structure to develop. If hockey became a legitimate career option for women, more of them would choose to stay in the sport after their NCAA or CIS careers and elite players could focus more extensively on their physical and skill training – both of which would significantly raise the quality of the game, and open up room for expanding the league beyond its current six teams.

But back to The Hockey News. The publication claims to “provid[e] the most comprehensive coverage of the world of hockey” – yet it is overwhelmingly focused on the NHL, and virtually ignores the existence of elite women’s hockey. Men’s junior hockey, and even retired players, get more coverage than the women players in the world.  And its atrocious coverage of females in The Best of Everything in Hockey confirms its marginalization of women’s hockey. Sadly, The Hockey News does not at all stand out from the crowd for its minimal female coverage, which is a phenomenon seen across major sports media outlets such as Sports Illustrated and ESPN. I suppose the fact that they included a “Best Women’s Player” category at all is a tiny sign of progress.

I intend to explore how and why women’s hockey is marginalized in much more detail on this blog, and with reference to the large bodies of sociological research on the ways in which men’s and women’s sports are socially constructed in particular ways. But for now, I simply wish to offer some of my own suggestions for advancing media coverage of and growth in women’s hockey:

  • Increase television coverage of women’s hockey. CBC seems like the best bet here, because as a public broadcaster it is accountable to the Canadian population – if a significant number of Canadians demanded more equitable sport coverage, it would have no choice but to listen. Furthermore, it is among the best in the world at producing hockey and could easily add women’s hockey programming to its usual Saturday Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts. CBC coverage would give a major shot in the arm to women’s hockey and would publicize it to a wider range of Canadians.
  • Expand the CWHL to more Canadian and American markets. Surely there are at least 12 cities that could support a women’s semi-pro team. If competition from NHL hockey is considered too challenging, consider mid-size cities with strong hockey traditions such as Halifax, Saskatoon, Duluth, or Rochester.
  • Create more opportunities for women to continue their hockey careers following the completion of university or college. The NCAA and CIS provide female hockey players a chance to compete at a high level, but without professional or semi-pro league structures in place many athletes will not continue in the sport.
  • Actively work against the representation of women’s sporting worth being tied to their physical appearance and their support of male’s athletic pursuits. Media cannot stop teams such as the Dallas Stars or Edmonton Oilers from employing cheerleaders. It can choose not to celebrate these roles, and to provide more representations of skilled, strong, and talented female athletes in its sport coverage.

Sadly, I am not expecting these suggestions to be implemented any time soon. However, I do think they are worthwhile ideas that need more frequently to be inserted into discussions of women’s hockey. The status quo does not represent the natural way of things – rather, it represents the ongoing historical development and normalization of particular values that become dominant at certain moments. This means that the status quo can change and that it is possible to successfully advocate for more equitable and just circumstances.

Hopefully a progressive renegotiation of the status quo of women’s hockey is successful in the near future.

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About markdavidnorman
Mark is a PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto, where he researches sociocultural issues in sport and physical cultures. He is also a life-long hockey fan, becoming obsessed with the sport at a young age and cheering for the Vancouver Canucks for over two (mostly futile) decades. In addition to his work at Hockey in Society, Mark has been active as a fan hockey blogger for over three years. Mark has worked as a Research Assistant at York University (Toronto, ON) and the Centre for Sport Policy Studies at the University of Toronto. He has presented his research at numerous academic conferences and been published in the Sociology of Sport Journal and Journal of Sport and Social Issues.

25 Responses to The Sad State of Women’s Hockey Coverage, and Some Suggestions for Change

  1. Pingback: Hockey Blog Beat – October 26, 2011. | Spectors Hockey

  2. J3ff says:

    Gambling. Popularity is proportional gambling.

  3. Nav says:

    Might want to change your font type to a pure black – the current font/color combo is difficult to read and I had to copy & paste your article into a Word doc to be able to read it.

    Other than that, interesting article!

  4. @J3ff – Thanks for commenting. I’m sorry, but I’m not sure I understand your comment. Can you please explain it a bit more?

  5. @Nav – Thanks for the feedback, and glad you enjoyed the article. I will see what I was do about the font colour so that it is more readable.

  6. Anonymous says:

    You may want to look farther down the totem pole at the PWHL and Midget group of ladies if you want to get some exposure as they are the ones heading off to CIS and NCAA>

  7. Don Simmons says:

    I think the attitude around the sport reporting world is that the level of hockey is just not at the level of that of the men’s game. That just demonstrates how dismissive and ignorant most people in the world of sports coverage are. It is a different game. But it is not a lesser game. I have followed women’s hockey in the GTA since 1999 and have seen a consistent growth in the quality of the game. But it has always been a game based on fundamentals as much or even more so than the men’s game. There is none of the mucking on the boards, but fluid continual flow.
    Those supposedly in the know about the game, really know nothing of the quality of the game. But worse, they do not know the passion of the players. These women train as hard as pro players, practice as hard, but they do this for no pay. In fact, at times, they pay to play. They are not coddled athletes who live in a dream world, but true lovers of the sport, who live for the sound of skates cutting into the ice, the loud slap of the puck as it hits the taped blade and the pop of the leather as the goalie makes a great glove save. It is a sport begging for coverage, to be noticed, to be celebrated.

  8. @[anonymous] – Thanks for the comment. To be honest, I am very ignorant about those lower levels of women’s hockey. I agree with you in principle, but given that the CHL is a fairly marginal (though still prominent) TV product in Canada, pragmatically I feel it is better to start by focusing on media exposure for elite adult women’s hockey.

  9. @Don Simmons – Thanks for the comment, and I commend you for your commitment to the women’s game. Sad truth: I have lived in GTA – which, correct me if I’m wrong, has the highest concentration of elite women’s hockey clubs in the world – and have never seen a women’s game. A big part of this, and something I wanted to (but didn’t) bring up as an example of the ambivalence toward women’s hockey, is that games are neither well-promoted or accessible for people who don’t drive (such as myself). Compare this to the easily transit accessible arenas of the Leafs or Marlies, or even some OHL teams. It is much, much more challenging to be a fan of the women’s game, period. And while the lack of media coverage does not help that fact, there are definitely many other reasons that this is the case.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Mark,

    Your article asssumes a sense of “fairness” in the world. Why does one person make $10 million a year and another lives on the streets?

    Why does the media not support womens sports? They do. There is no rule in the NHL, NFL, NBA, or MLB that says a woman can’t play. So all these leagues are gender neutral. And therefore all the media is gender neutral. Look at racing with Danica Patrick. Is she a woman?? Yes. Is she an elite driver?? Yes. Do millions watch her?? Yes. Why?? Because she is at the same elite level as her male counterparts.

    If it weren’t for gender specific events, how many female Olympians would there be? No Men’s 100 m or Women’s 100 m sprint. Just the 100 m sprint? The simple fact is that most females can’t compete against their male competitors.

    Oh… and the men’s team generate 20,000 at a game or more. Plus a TV audience in the millions. If the teams don’t, they fold! Darwinism at its purest! It’s all about the Benjamins!

    If you could convince 10,000 fans in 8 cities to spend $$$ on season tickets to the CWHL, then it would grow, TV would show the games, sponsors would come in and the sport would grow. But much like the CFL to the NFL, the womens hockey game is at a level below the NHL.

  11. @ [Anonymous 2] – Thanks for commenting, but I have to disagree with you on many of your points:

    - My article does not assume a sense of “fairness”, but rather points out a patent lack of unfairness. While unfairness certainly exists in our world, it would be a sad world indeed if human beings did not strive for more fair and equitable treatment of people who are disadvantaged in one way or another.

    - If you truly believe that the NHL and other professional leagues are “gender neutral”, I would encourage you to read one of the many excellent histories of these leagues. The NHL, for example, was formed by men, to govern men, at a time when men in North America held an almost exclusive grip on financial and political power – in fact, at the time of its founding, women could not vote in either Canada or the United States. In other words, the NHL was created by men, for men, and in a social/political context in which men completely dominated public affairs and held virtually all power in North American society. So I fail to see how the league is “gender neutral”.

    - Sadly, there are many examples in which females have attempted to compete – as Danica Patrick has done successfully – in boy’s or men’s leagues, only to be barred because males feared that they would “lose to a girl”. There are many people who feel that Women’s Ski Jumping was kept out of the 2010 Olympics because Ski Jumping is a sport in which women are at a physiological advantage – and that, given that there would not be time to build “women’s” jumps, men were afraid of having their distances bested by a female. In 2014, when Women’s Ski Jumping makes its debut, women will jump from smaller jumps than men, thus limiting their distance and ensuring that men will retain their distance records.

    - Many men’s sports and teams have been bailed out repeatedly by governments and rich owners when they are losing money – they certainly don’t fold simply because they lose money. If a fraction of that bailout money went to promoting women’s sports, instead of funding NHL arenas or CFL stadiums, perhaps a competitive and marketable women’s hockey league would already exist.

    - Finally, your comment that sports is “Darwinism at its purest” is, in the manner you present it, highly upsetting to me. What I take you to be saying is that physical domination trumps all; that those who are physically weak do not deserve and cannot earn success; and that the ability to make money is the ultimate validation of an individual’s worth. Please correct me if I’ve misinterpreted your statement. But if I have done so correctly, than I can say that I have absolutely no desire to live in the society you idealize, and that I will continue to advocate for those who are not necessarily the strongest or richest people – but who, in my worldview, are still of immense value as human beings.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Mark,

    Are you saying that women are disadvantaged?

    You make a very good point about the ski jumping. I do not follow skiing in any form and therefore cannot comment on it specifically. But I do agree with your argument. Men do not like to lose to women.

    As for the NHL being started by men… that’s a little simplistic. By that logic, Canada, USA, UK, and almost every country have, are, and will always be “Male” countries? Yes when the league started, it was men calling the shots in the world. But that hasn’t stopped women from competing. Look at Manon Rheaume. She wasn’t stopped from playing in the NHL. (Arguably a PR stunt by the Lightning.) Hayley Wickenheiser was invited to play in the ECHL before going to play in Sweden.

    On the officiating side of things, the NBA has added female officials to their ranks. And while there was some concern at the beginning, most of the players don’t care if a women refs the game.

    And yes “Physical domination trumps all”…. in sports! That is what sports is all about, physical domination. Should people be judged on their effort and not the results?? Should athletes be handicapped so that they are equal?

    I heard a great analogy in regards to basketball. That the basket should be adjusted to the player. For example, a 6’10″ player has to shoot at a basket 12′ high, a 6’0″ player at a 10′ basket and a 5’0″ player at an 8′ hoop. Why should a tall player get an advantage in basketball? Because the player has the physical attributes to make them better at that sport. The same reason horse jockeys are small and light!

    Having said that… the 6’10″ person (that doesn’t make millions of dollars in the NBA) has to spend more money on custom clothes (Sears doesn’t carry XXX-tall), bigger cars, and even an larger bed. So there is always an equalizer in life.

    I don’t idealize our society. But not because of the same reasons you do. I can’t comprehend why an athlete is paid $10,000,000 a year. But I don’t write an article or complain to the government. I simply spend my entertainment dollars elsewhere. I don’t go to watch the Leafs, Raptors, Jays or Argos. But I will go to my local rink to watch a team I’ve never seen, play a team I’ve never heard of. I do buy the (chocolate, wrapping paper, raffle tickets, etc.) from the kids who are raising money for their teams.

    Also I don’t go to the movies to watch the same tired actor tell the same lame joke for $15 a ticket. Take ownership for your actions. I can’t stop people from spending thousands to watch the Superbowl, but I don’t.

    As I said, if 10,000 fans left the NHL for the CWHL, then you would have the change you are looking for. But since you can barely get 2,000 hockey fans in Toronto to go to a Marlies game at $10 a ticket, I think you have a big hurdle in front of you.

  13. Barry Watson says:

    I think the only way to change “society” with respect to supporting our female athletes would be for the “females” of society to start supporting them. Most girls don’t grow up idolizing female athletes, they actually are unfortunately teased because they’re different.

    A 14 year old boy dreams of being an athlete or a rock star – it’s just not the same in the female world. I’ve heard of stories where top female athletes are embarassed by the fact they “play hockey” as many in society deem that in a negative light.

    Females actually support male athletics more than female athletics and until that changes nothing wrt to this issue will ever change.

    • Don Simmons says:

      There is a nail and you have hit it on the head. Women have to support the women’s game. But you also intimate that most girls don’t aspire to be athletes because they are seen in a negative light or even the athletes themselves seem themselves some how in a negative light, and I believe there is a lot of truth in that. But as girls and women start to realize that there are more opportunities for them to participate in sports, the mindset will change. It does seem however that the definition of femininity needs to change. Perhaps it is in some ways, but it will be a long process.

  14. @Anonymous and @Barry Watson – Thanks for your comments. I have decided to write a more in-depth post on this topic, in large part due to some of the exchanges I have had here in the comments as well as on Twitter and Facebook. At this point in responding, I’ve essentially written a post or two worth of material!

    This post was written as somewhat of a knee-jerk response to The Hockey News’ very brief of inclusion of women in its “Best of…” publication, and I didn’t really flesh out many of the ideas behind why this upsets me – so it reads more like moral outrage, than a well-reasoned argument. I definitely need to do a better job of explaining the reasons behind my stance, and doing so will take a fair bit of time to write in an appropriate manner. I will definitely get to this in the near future – probably not for a week or two, as I’m really busy right now and will be away next week – but I feel it is important to do so.

    I will definitely make an effort to address the points raised by both of you, as well as others in this comment thread and in my occasionally epic Twitter exchanges. I don’t see much point in writing this kind of piece if I’m not willing to put in the time to explain or defend my views, and to engage with people who have differing views. So please stay tuned and I will respond more fully to the points you raise.

    Thanks for reading and commenting, I do really appreciate the feedback and the spirited discussions.

  15. Bill Donoho says:

    Women can and do play great hockey!!!!!! It is up to us as the few enlightened to promote the game to anyone who will listen and drag them to a game.

  16. Fan says:

    MarkDavidNorman, you have the right idea but you need to do much more research about what is happening with the CWHL today and what has gone on in the past with the NWHL. Much has been tried previously and still left to be tried. The CW organizers have good ideas but really need to learn from the past. Getting to pro or semi-pro level is iffy at best but can’t be ruled out as other ideas are still out there. There are many dinosaurs out there prevent progress.

  17. @ Fan – Thanks for your comment. You are right, I do not know that much about the past efforts or current state of the CWHL – I was using it in this post because, as far as I understand, it is the highest level of competitive women’s hockey outside of national level competition. Sorry if I made misleading statements about the league, I should have clarified my understanding of it. Either way, I stand by my belief in the need for a strong women’s semi-pro/pro league, whether or not that ultimately is the CWHL. If I get the opportunity I will speak to the CWHL to learn more about their past and current efforts to promote women’s hockey.

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