Every four years, hockey fans in Canada and the United States gather around their televisions and in bars to cheer on this generation’s best rivalry on ice: the US women’s national ice hockey team versus the Canadian national women’s team. The Pyeongchang final drew almost 3 million viewers (for a midnight start) in the United States and another 4.8 million in Canada. The women’s gold medal game in Sochi 2014 drew five million viewers in the United States (mid-day start time) and a whopping 13 million Canadian eyes. People like watching women’s hockey — we know this. The question is why don’t they watch those same women play in between Olympic years?
The Olympics is an anomaly in the world of sports because it is one of the few sporting events where men and women compete side-by-side. As Frank Bruni wrote for the New York Times in a lead up to the London 2012 games:
There’s much to savor in the quadrennial spectacle of the Olympics…perhaps nothing more exhilarating than the way it showcases and celebrates the athleticism of women almost as much as it does the athleticism of men.
Not only are women present at the Olympics but there are lots of them! The London Games were the first in US Olympic team history where more women (269) were included on the roster than men (261). Bruni continued, “At the Olympics we liberate [women] from the straitjackets of convention and conformity that we too often ask them to wear. We acknowledge that female glory takes many forms.”
The same television crews that capture the men’s competitions also capture the women’s competitions. That means the women receive the same number of cameras, the same quality of technology, the same access to replays and analytics, and the same (or similar) access to commentators and journalists. All of that equality plays out well for the advertisers, sponsors, and television stations because the Olympics is able to capture one of the most comprehensive markets that exists.
So then what is the difference between cheering for Brianna Decker when she is wearing a Team USA jersey versus a Calgary Inferno jersey?
And, nationalism is intimately intertwined with the formation, negotiation, and expression of masculinity (more often than not, a toxic form of masculinity). As women were increasingly pushed out of physical cultures in the latter half of the 19th century, Western societies began creating this idea that sport would be an ideal vehicle for moulding boys into men. As Patrick McDevitt (2004) points out in his book, “May the Best Man Win”: Sport, masculinity, and nationalism in Great Britain and the empire, 1880-1935, “while it often seems axiomatic that sport and manhood are inherently connected, this is not a universal truth but rather is the product of a specific historical moment in the development of Western society” (p. 3). Hence, sport became one of the most valued spaces where masculinity could be formed, and eventually one of the last so-called bastions of masculinity.
International sporting competition continues to facilitate expressions of (toxic) masculinity and serves as a peaceful analog for war because, as much as it is about my team beating your team, it is, at a deeper level, also about one nation’s men defeating another nation’s men. For example, a significant reason why China wanted to host the 2008 Olympics was because they felt that a demonstration of Chinese athletic excellence would help enhance Western perceptions of Chinese masculinity. In turn, strength on the playing field would be perceived as national strength in international relations and business. According to Susan Brownell (2005), “For a century, the goal of erasing the ‘sick man’ [of East Asia] label has been hailed as the justification for the quest for international sporting success” (p. 1180). Ralitsa Muharska (2012) further explains the masculinized roots of nationalism:
the theory and practice of international relations produces and maintains male identities and male rivalries. In international politics it is the interaction between hegemonic masculinity on one hand and other, inferior, subaltern, feminized masculinities on the other…In international sport the nation that wins affirms the supremacy of its masculinity / its men over those of other nations: it beats them without killing them. (p. 84-85)
While women can temporarily contribute to nation-building at the Olympics, any defeats and/or victories are still registered as slights against or emboldening of national masculinity:
As Cynthia Enloe noted in her well known book Bananas, Beaches and Bases, “nationalism in the typical case is born from masculinized memory, masculinized humiliation and masculinized hope”, while women are allotted the (often symbolic) role of national icon, an object of exaltation and protection — of the spoils of battle, subjected to humiliation and dishonouring, while in both cases it is men who are the actors, the defenders of their freedom, their honour and their women. (as cited in Muharska, 2012, p. 84)
Therefore, under this interpretation of masculinity and nationalism, to wear a Team Canada jersey and cheer for the Canadian women on the Olympic stage is not so much a show of feminism as it is an exercise of masculinity (although it can certainly be a show of feminism for some men). It is a way to support the dominance of the nation (something for which boys/men have arguably been groomed) and women just happen to live within those boundaries — incidental inclusion, if you will. Think of it as a hierarchy within a hierarchy. When we raise the whole nation everyone comes along for the ride (#GoodForWomen), but within that national construct men still occupy the top rungs (#NotGreatForWomen). Conversely, to show up at a Toronto Furies game wearing a Spooner jersey is a completely different ask of men. It is asking them to genuinely support women irrespective of the male psyche and gender relations. It’s asking men to support women as women. Full stop. Not Canadian women, just women. The antagonism between these two types of masculinity is (to a large extent) what makes it difficult to sell women’s club hockey.
And this problem isn’t specific to hockey, it is a patterned difference in all of women’s team sports. The US Women’s National Soccer Team is further along than women’s hockey but faces the same battle. Ashlyn Harris recently explained this chasm to The Player’s Tribune:
Reality is trying to get people in the seats. The reality is when we play with the national team we play in front of 60,000 people, and when we play in the NWSL we play in front of 3,000 people on a good day. When you think of women’s soccer, you only think about it on the international stage. And that’s a problem. When you think of men’s soccer you think of the Liverpools and the Chelseas and all these great club teams.
Harris’ example applies to hockey as well. If you are asked to name a men’s hockey team you’ll likely name any NHL team before a men’s Olympic team. Local club teams offer an opportunity to exercise one’s masculinity on a daily basis, and international competition is really just a bonus. Men’s sports serve as the universal and objective standard of sports — men’s sports is sports. Therefore, everyone and their dog are invited to like (men’s) sports; the market is literally everyone. Women’s sports, on the other hand, is presumed to be only palatable for women and that’s how it is usually marketed.
Women make up 45% of the National Football League’s fanbase, 75% of the WNBA’s, 45% of Major League Baseball, and 40% of NASCAR fans. Women show up for all sports. The same cannot be said of most men who consider themselves sports fans. The women who play are the same women. It’s the men in the stands and in the board rooms who are different when we move from a national stage to a regional one. I’m not saying that women don’t have some responsibility in supporting women’s sports, they absolutely do; but, when we are trying to figure out why there is such a huge disparity between the support that national teams receive versus local club teams, a big part of the answer lies with masculinity and the men in power. Girls and women help make men’s sports successful and, while it is technically possible to create success by only tapping into half the population, there is a lot more potential to be had when we engage an entire market.
Consequently, when we talk about growing women’s hockey the task at hand is not only about increased visibility of and access to women’s club teams but it’s also about making it acceptable for men to view women as valuable athletes independent of men’s competition. This is work that, in many ways, only men can do. It also isn’t something that advertising can tackle by itself; it will require a wholesale cultural shift. One of the less acknowledged benefits of creating sustainable women’s hockey at a professional level may be that, as vital as it is for little girls to dream big, it is equally important for boys and men to see women as whole beings who are deserving of time, space, and attention. When men have grown up watching nothing but men’s hockey, they see women’s hockey as women’s hockey. When little kids grow up watching women’s hockey they just know it as hockey. What both the Dream Gap Tour and the NWHL illustrate are that it is easier to raise empathic boys around strong women than it is to nag apathetic men about equality. As Claire Cain Miller argues for the New York Times, “women’s roles can’t expand until men’s do, too.”
Brownell, S. (2005). Challenged America: China and and America – women and sport, past, present and future. International Journal of the History of Sport, 22(6), 1173-1193.
Muharska, R. (2012). Mug masculinity and sport. In K. Slavova & K. Daskalova (eds.), Gendering popular culture: Perspectives from Eastern Europe and the West (pp. 78-94). Sofia, Bulgaria: Polis.