Myth Busting, Part 1: “No one wants to watch women’s hockey”

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Sarah Nurse and Natalie Spooner of the former Toronto Furies. Photo by Courtney Szto.

Welcome to Part 1 of a 3-part series authored by Brett Pardy and myself, where we will bust three dominant myths associated with women’s hockey. We had planned this series before the CWHL announced its closure, and now these arguments become even more relevant. This first post will address the myth that the media only shows what the people deem worthy of watching. Part 2 will challenge the myth that every league follows the same linear progression to success; therefore, women’s hockey simply needs to “mature” into its market. Part 3 will look at investment and bust open the notion that the success/failure of a team/league is determined by its performance in the free market.

This series was inspired by some dudebros who challenged Anissa Gamble on Twitter after she tweeted this:

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Anyone who has tried to defend women’s hockey has likely come against the same set of “arguments” that were thrown at Gamble. For example, one response was, “Can’t fault the players for the money they make [in the NHL]. A Gucci shirt is 100x more than a Walmart shirt, doesn’t make it a better shirt. It’s a matter of brand value not equality.” This is not necessarily an incorrect statement but it is important to understand that value is not inherent, rather it is socially determined. We collectively decide value, which is why the value of gold, silver, oil, and money fluctuates based on what is happening politically, socially, and economically. Therefore, if we approach the value of women’s hockey as something that is malleable that leads us to a discussion of how we go about changing that landscape, as opposed to simply assuming that its value is pre-determined, fixed, and/or limited.

But let’s address this myth that TV cameras only show what is marketable; in other words, “no one watches women’s hockey, so why would we put it on TV?”

Before 2007, there was no overwhelming public demand for Kardashian family drama. A television executive saw “value” in the family dynamic and decided to write Keeping Up with the Kardashians into the E! network’s production budget. Now, for better or for worse, they are household names (Similarly, no one asked to watch people go on first dates while naked but hey, VH1 felt it had something and thus, Dating Naked was born). Does a product have to have marketability to stay on air for 15 seasons? Absolutely. There has to be something that draws viewers in order to get them coming back. But the main point is that someone gave the Kardashian family a television contract before anyone in Canada has offered professional women hockey players a similar opportunity. E! gave the Kardashians an opportunity to be seen with no guarantee of success.

I touched on the fact that media creates viewership in a post from October 2018 (now ironically titled “The Time for Women’s Hockey is Now”), but let’s do a deeper dive. First up, the World Junior tournament. Scott Stinson wrote a great piece in 2018 for the National Post about how the popularity of World Juniors was purely a media creation:

In the 25 years since TSN acquired the broadcast rights to the world juniors, it has evolved from a low-key curiosity to one of the biggest tentpole events in Canadian sports programming. In conversations with the various TSN people over a couple of days in Buffalo last week, the same phrase comes up again and again: they have created a monster…When TSN bought the rights to the world juniors before the 1991 tournament, it was the broadcasting equivalent of a speculative mining stock. Games at the world juniors had rarely been shown live…TSN started off showing just five games in the tournament…the crowds were at least dozens strong…By the end of that decade, TSN started to put its full might behind the tournament sending a much larger crew, making live world juniors content a big part of the daily news shows, and telling the stories of not just the Canadian team but the NHL prospects from different countries…Then it expanded into a promotional, marketing and business thing where really the whole network got involved.

This description of where the World Junior tournament was in the early 90s sounds eerily similar to women’s hockey today: not a lot of live television coverage, dozens of fans, a prospective stock. TSN reps admit that “You have to have a good product” but also, “TSN’s influence on the tournament’s growth cannot be denied.” In other words, TSN saw value in these young men and made the conscious choice to highlight them. They invested production value into a tournament that no one really cared about except the players themselves and, because of that investment, created something with exponentially more value. No one has attempted to do this for women’s hockey.

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Scott Blumstein, a Temple University graduate and Philadelphia resident, holds up the bracelet after winning the World Series of Poker main event, Sunday, July 23, 2017, in Las Vegas. Photo by John Locker/AP Photo.

Next, poker. Matt Maranz, a decorated television producer and founder of 441 Productions, pitched a poker documentary to ESPN executives multiple times around the year 2000 and the powers that be kept replying, “Who’s ever going to watch poker on TV?” Even the poker competitors themselves didn’t think that poker would ever have a television audience:

I was very stiff in my assessment that nobody would ever want to watch poker on television. I just couldn’t imagine that watching a bunch of people play poker would grab anybody’s interest. ~ Annie Duke, finished 47th in the 2003 World Series of Poker

Poker had been televised prior to 2003 but that year was a watershed moment for the game. Despite the company’s previous hesitation, ESPN took a leap of faith and aired the World Series Poker tournament with a seven episode series that was crafted by Maranz’s production team months after it took place. Those seven episodes transformed “the event into a pop-culture phenomenon…Poker went from a game understood by few and played in smokey backrooms to a television staple.” What Matt Maranz did was not just show poker on television, he provided poker with a showcase. He injected a narrative arc into what was previously conceived of as simply a card game. Maranz highlighted the players and their personalities; he “buil[t] arcs and story lines.” He also added production value with new camera angles (including the hole card camera) so that viewers at home could see the player’s cards.

Chris Moneymaker came out of nowhere to win $2.5 million in that 2003 tournament and ESPN replayed that coverage to the point where it became “an iconic event.” It only took 2 years for ESPN to transform poker into mainstream sports entertainment. Before ESPN’s 2003 coverage, the poker industry was estimated at $82 million. By 2005, competitive poker grew into a $2.4 billion industry.

Again, here we have this niche event without a lot of mainstream media appeal. Someone took the opportunity to turn a relative nothing into something significant. The growth of competitive poker was catalyzed by a little media coverage that had a vision that involved challenging the status quo.

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Bhupinder Hundal and Randip Janda reporting on location from Hometown Hockey Surrey in 2017. Photo by Courtney Szto

Let’s return to hockey for the third example. The growth of the Hockey Night Punjabi broadcast is another example of how media executives can create legitimacy, and I think it’s actually the best comparison to the state of women’s hockey in 2019. The Hockey Night Punjabi broadcast started as a sideshow, literally shot on a hand-held camcorder, in a small room. It had limited resources and therefore limited capabilities. Still, the community loved it and that’s what mattered (much like the community of women’s hockey fans). In my interactions with the broadcast team, they identified two CBC executives, Joel Darling and Kelly Hrudey, as advocates who helped elevate the show to what it has become today — a sustainable part of Canadian hockey culture and broadcasting. These men saw value in the broadcast when no one else did. Ten/eleven years in, the Punjabi broadcast is now nationally aired on OMNI every Saturday night (it moved from CBC to OMNI – a Rogers subsidiary – after the Hockey Night in Canada rights were bought in 2013) with a double-header, shot in HD, in a proper television studio, with a full broadcast team. In the early days, they would throw to the English broadcast for intermission coverage but with increased resources they can now produce original content to fill those intermission spots. Viewership is estimated at approximately 200,000+ for an average broadcast (estimates as of 2017).

The 2019 Clarkson Cup brought in 175,000 viewers on March 24th for a mid-day game, while the NWHL reported over 1 million viewers for its 2019 All-Star weekend. There are far fewer Punjabi speakers in Canada than women, yet the Punjabi broadcast managed to get backed for consistent coverage because a couple of people believed in the idea. It was also the right thing to do. There was community demand and it aligns with the national ethos of multiculturalism. I have no idea what the financials for the Punjabi broadcast look like but I assume it is neither a cash cow nor is it haemorrhaging money. I see no reason why women’s hockey can’t be given this same opportunity to create a meaningful space that adds to the existing hockey narrative and experience.

Women’s hockey likely won’t ever draw 2-3 million viewers in Canada on a consistent basis. That being said, it’s also not impossible given the fact that 4.8 million folks tuned in to watch the gold medal game in Pyeongchang, which ended past 2am EST. You might be thinking, “But the Clarkson Cup is the final, you won’t get that kind of viewership for a regular season game.” Sure, championship games obviously draw more attention than regular season games but we also have to acknowledge that the Clarkson Cup was one of three games shown on Sportsnet this past season that received any concerted advertising effort. And even then, it was scheduled mid-day with virtually no regular season games leading up to that point. Imagine if the Stanley Cup final only aired two regular season games before the big day. Of course your viewership is going to be low because there is no build up; there’s no existing relationship from which to draw. Thus, within that context the Clarkson Cup numbers are actually pretty good. The bottom line is that we are more willing to air a boy’s bantam game on regional television than we are women’s professional hockey and that needs to change.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s say women’s hockey would only be able to average around 100,000 viewers nationwide if it received a TV deal. That still doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of screen time. Here are examples of sports events that have been aired on TSN and Sportsnet with similar (or lower) viewership than the 2019 Clarkson Cup (stats from Jan 2016, Nov 2016):

  • Curling, Tour Challenge late draw, Friday, Sportsnet: 191,000
  • Curling, Tour Challenge evening draw, Friday, Sportsnet: 185,500
  • Curling, Tour Challenge men’s quarters, Saturday, Sportsnet One: 185,300
  • Curling, Tour Challenge men’s final, Sunday, Sportsnet: 174,000
  • World junior, U.S. vs. Czech Republic, Saturday, TSN: 172,000
  • Soccer, Tottenham at Everton, Sunday, TSN: 166,000
  • Soccer, Swansea at Manchester United, Saturday, Sportsnet: 150,000
  • NCAA, Liberty Bowl: Kansas State vs. Arkansas, Saturday, TSN: 143,000
  • NCAA, Sugar Bowl: Oklahoma State vs. Ole Miss, Friday, TSN: 140,000
  • MMA, UFC 195 preliminaries, Saturday, TSN: 133,000
  • Soccer, Chelsea at Crystal Palace, Sunday, TSN: 130,000

All of these examples ranked inside the top 25 for Nielsen overnight ratings, meaning that there were/are plenty of programs with lower ratings than 130,000 viewers.

Women’s hockey has come a long way with respect to equality of opportunity, more girls and women are playing the game today than ever before. However, when it comes to equality of conditions, they are 💩 (yes, that’s a poo emoji). The conditions within the system are grossly inequitable and we need media coverage to help close some of that gap. Consistent television coverage provides sustainability for leagues because it increases revenue generation; it’s not revenue generation that draws media coverage (or it’s not the only direction in which that works).

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Les Canadiennes de Montreal vs. Calgary Inferno, October 2018. Photo by Courtney Szto

And, because hockey is Canada’s national winter pastime, there is an argument to be made that hockey needs to available on free-to-air networks (like the CBC) because it represents access to cultural citizenship (a point I alluded to this past week on CBC’s The Current). That is to say, citizenship involves more than just being able to participate in the national culture, you also have to be able to co-author part of that narrative. Women’s hockey has been part of Canadian history essentially as long as men’s hockey, but we’ve never been allowed to write onto that story in the same way. As Scherer and Whitson (2009) explain, in the new era of subscription television and Internet streaming, the CBC as a “public broadcaster is being challenged to redefine its role,” and hockey has always made up a significant portion of the network’s duty to show Canadian content. Women’s hockey seems like an ideal way to provide original Canadian content that is both marketable and culturally relevant. Scherer and Whitson continue:

NHL hockey is a cultural tradition that has brought many Canadians together over the years, and that access to it on free-to-air television contributed mightily to the popular experience of Canada’s national community in the post-war years. One of the “promises” of television, indeed, was free access to popular entertainment and to coverage of national events, and we have noted above that CBC television built national audiences for NHL hockey over the last half of the 20th century. (emphasis added, p.223).

The opinion that women’s hockey doesn’t deserve television coverage because it doesn’t have enough of a fan base is exactly that – an opinion. We put plenty of things on television that have either zero existing fan base or a relatively small fan base and we just see what happens. We already know it’s a good product because when effort is put into advertising women’s hockey we get viewership like we do for the Olympics, the Rivalry Series, and the current World Championships (I hear some of you saying, “ya but that’s best-on-best.” I’ve got news for you: CWHL hockey was more competitive than international competition [save for USA vs. Canada] because you had Decker and Jenner vs. Poulin and Knight. The depth of league hockey was/is still better than most international competition at this point). Television itself is advertising and that’s exactly what women’s hockey needs to create a larger and more consistent fan base. I repeat: media creates viewership. The whole point of advertising is to sell you on an idea. For some reason, no mainstream media outlet has been willing to tango with the idea that women’s hockey is worth showing up for in between the Olympic Games. We don’t watch women’s hockey for the simple reason that we can’t watch women’s hockey.

If we believe that women are equal citizens of Canada then their hockey deserves relatively equal representation. If we believe that women are equal citizens of Canada then their hockey need not be compared to men’s hockey because it stands alone as valuable in and of itself. It’s time that women’s hockey be given an opportunity to tell its own story and be built up in the same way that men’s hockey has been built in this country.

It is the dawn of a new day for women’s hockey in Canada, so which executive out there is willing to stand on the right side of history?

Check out the rest of the myth busting series:

Works Cited

Scherer, J. & Whitson, D. (2009). Public broadcasting, sport, and cultural citizenship: The future of sport on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation? International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 44(2-3), 213-229.

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2 thoughts on “Myth Busting, Part 1: “No one wants to watch women’s hockey”

  1. Pingback: Myth Busting, Part 2: Time is All You Need | Hockey in Society

  2. Pingback: Myth Busting, Part 3: “You get what you deserve” | Hockey in Society

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