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The NHL, TikToking Past the Graveyard
Is the NHL's big culture shift about inclusion, survival, or something else?
In some ways, the NBA’s reputation as America’s progressive sport is unearned, or at least exaggerated. The league has shifted its marketing further away from politics in recent years, and its main fixation is now on getting players to fully participate in relatively meaningless regular-season games.
You take a look at the National Hockey League, however, and you see a league completely obsessed with the fashionable ideologies of the era. Not only is the NHL obsessed with issues of race, gender and sexual orientation, but it is visibly uncomfortable with those who are typically obsessed with its sport.
The NBA has its issues, but at least doesn’t seem to feel horrible about the demography of its playing ranks or of its fans. The NHL, by contrast, craves new workers and a new clientele, desperately. The league has held press conferences about this, and hired executives to make it happen. The NHL even enlisted 13-to-18-year-olds as volunteer marketing consultants, having its CMO host biweekly meetings with literal children, and taking actionable items from the talks.
What’s it all about? Overall, it’s about the future. And as sports leagues look to that future, we return to that big, underexamined question of our age: Is this a moral crusade or a business strategy?
The NHL’s Culture War
The NHL, theoretically a staid sport that appeals to those in the harshest climates, is, currently, the big-time league most regularly involved in some bizarre cultural controversy. The sport is in the news a lot, and not necessarily for hockey. They try to have a Pride Night in Philadelphia, but get derailed by the reality of a Russian defenseman opting out. They try to exclude White people from participation in a Florida job fair, only to run into Ron DeSantis. They try to do another Pride Night, this time in New York, only for the Rangers to renege and enrage sports writers. The official NHL account grabs headlines by informing hockey fans, “Trans women are women. Trans men are men. Nonbinary identity is real,” to some measure of backlash.
The NHL was not so aimed at the zeitgeist a generation ago, back when a San Diegan like myself would hear about hockey only if Wayne Gretzky himself moved to Los Angeles. Hockey was fun for those who knew it and kind of boring to outsiders, save for the fistfights. But even when players dropped the gloves, it was all part of a traditionalist ritual, excitement tethered to history, rules and the unspoken agreement that one sacrifices for a brotherhood. Whatever hot passions the sport inspired were tempered, funneled into the formal customs of frigid regions where survival once depended on getting along.
So, the old, provincial ways will not do. Indeed, they must be extravagantly rejected in a bid for the future, a path Kim Davis, Executive Vice President, Social Impact, Growth Initiatives & Legislative Affairs, seeks to chart.
A New Day in the NHL
In sports leagues, the Board of Governors meeting is typically where important policy decisions get hammered out. Such an occasion brings all the owners together, typically in a hotel meeting room, like one big mafia sitdown. From these conversations, the future of the league gets set. After they happen, the league commissioner addresses the media on the sport’s recent changes.
This is where you’d typically hear nuts-and-bolts recapitulations of a new direction on the draft, scheduling, TV rights agreements, and salary cap details. In 2021, however, the NHL opted to hand the media session over to one woman, an individual who had, by her own admission, known nothing about hockey before taking this job.
From Sports Net Canada, in an article titled, “NHL takes first meaningful steps towards necessary culture shift,” comes this background:
(Commissioner) Gary Bettman and (deputy commissioner) Bill Daly, who typically dominate post-meeting media availability, instead spent close to 40 minutes listening to senior executive vice president of social impact, growth initiative, and legislative affairs Kim Davis give a top-down summary of her extensive plan, which in Bettman’s words was “unanimously endorsed” by the governors. They sat and nodded their heads as Davis fielded the bulk of questions asked by reporters in attendance, and they only briefly touched on the other topics covered in the meeting.
“Tomorrow,” Bettman said, and repeated, when he was asked about anything other Davis’s presentation, and that felt appropriate. That the NHL’s senior leadership realized no other subject should distract from this all-important initiative was a small step in the right direction.
So here you had Kim Davis, as Executive Vice President, Social Impact, Growth Initiatives & Legislative Affairs, running a show that’s always under the commissioner’s command and doing so upon getting unanimous endorsement of her plans. There was no new commissioner per se, but the floor had been ceded on vast swaths of policy-making, and the NHL wanted you to understand that this had occurred.
The NHL hired Davis back in 2017, after an already long career in Corporate Social Responsibility, mostly spent at JP Morgan Chase. As some of you reading know from your own work experience, “Corporate Social Responsibility” isn’t just some random quirky department at one particularly big bank. “CSR” is now massive movement within multinationals, and has been for decades.
The idea of corporations having a social responsibility might be old, but CSR was officially coined in postwar America by economist Howard Bowen in his 1953 book, Social Responsibilities of the Businessman. After Bowen’s book, this concept of socially conscious commerce gained popularity as it merged with the other idealistic movements of the 1960s. The end of that decade coincided with the beginning of CSR’s bureaucratic implementation in massive companies, in the manner we see today.
Quoting the Association of Corporate Citizenship Professionals:
CSR truly began to take hold in the U.S. in the 1970s, when the concept of the “social contract” between business and society was declared by the Committee for Economic Development in 1971. The social contract is based on the idea that business functions because of public “consent,” therefore business has an obligation to constructively serve the needs of society.
By the 2000s, nearly every major American corporation subscribed to the CSR model, or at least wanted to be seen as doing so. While CSR has been a fairly consistent feature of big business for decades, its shape adjusts to the era’s fixations. In the 1970s, back when the most prominent companies were making actual physical products, pollution was a prevalent concern. Since then, environmental consideration has shifted to the climate change issue. And of course, “inclusion” has taken center stage of late.
The NHL press release on Kim Davis’ hiring indicate early bonafides on the inclusion front, with “Ms. Davis' passion for equity and leadership led her to build the first women of color affinity group at Chase Manhattan Bank.” After JP Morgan, she ran Corporate Responsibility and Inclusive Leadership practice at Teneo, wherein Davis advised the NHL. Eventually, the league decided that she was the person to lead them out of this problem of their established, traditional “culture.”
Back in October 2022, the NHL engaged in an odd bit of performed self-flagellation, with Davis again shown as the lead. The league held a press conference, featuring Bettman and Davis, all to address the insufficiently diverse composition of its employees.
Few outsiders thought it a scandal that the NHL workforce was 84 percent White because the sport had always been, for obvious reasons, more popular in freezing Northern regions, i.e. places that tended to be pretty pale. Whatever the cause, the NHL was here to tell us that the status quo wouldn’t do.
The first step? A 38-page “workforce study.” Davis:
The whole purpose behind doing a workforce study is to provide a baseline: a fact-based baseline so that you can begin to develop very intentional and specific strategies around where you need to hire, how you need to hire, how you need to improve your brand.
Unlike some of the younger DEI officers rising within organizations of late, Davis usually, and blessedly, stays away from moralizing. Even if much of the hockey media believes the sport’s racial composition to be a moral concern, Davis officially talks in terms of “brand.”
That issue of “brand” prompts a question, though: Why must the NHL worry so much about its demography? Why is this enough of a concern that the league feels the need to tell everyone about this particular organizational insecurity? There are many answers that lead to the same place: The future.
The biggest story in sports might simply be a contagious kind of apathy. It’s a quiet threat, but one that’s building, specifically among the young. While the danger to sports leagues might not yet qualify as “existential,” the results could, eventually, be cataclysmic to these established institutions.
A Morning Consult article titled “Gen Z Keeps Sports Executives Up at Night. Here’s What They’re Doing About It” depicts an entire industry on edge. It’s not a front-and-center issue to the average consumer, but youth flight might be the number one focus of sports executives. Gen Z did not warm up to sports as previous generations did, and those younger than Z are even more sports-apathetic. Gen Zers, according to survey results, are “half as likely as millennials to watch live sports regularly and twice as likely to never watch.” This trend appears to be only accelerating. According to the Sports Business Journal, surveys suggest that only 15 percent of Generation Alpha, the incoming cohort of teens, enjoys watching sports.
Kids these days prefer other activities, in a seemingly endless entertainment landscape. Meanwhile, in recent decades, the sports business has been heavily subsidized by non-fans through cable-bundle subscriptions — a once-abundant resource that’s quickly drying up. Given this state, the sports industry has developed an acute generational anxiety, especially among the leagues that appeal more to older people.
When the NHL, a sport with many right-leaning fans, recently rattled conservative cages with the aforementioned “Trans women are women” tweet, some publications on the right lamented that “the NHL’s gone full woke.”
Perhaps, but that doesn’t explain the why of what’s happening. To understand how hockey arrived at messaging you couldn’t differentiate from Teen Vogue, you should know that it consults with kids to develop its brand. If the sport’s messaging now sounds alien to many older adults, that might in part be a function of the vast chasm between modern teen attitudes and those of the older generations.
Kid and Play
In a SportsPro article titled “‘We want to keep the conversation going’: The NHL’s guide to engaging with Gen Z” we get a sense of just how desperate this sport is to ingratiate itself with the young.
The piece features the NHL’s chief marketing officer Heidi Browning bragging about the league’s “Power Players Youth Advisory Board,” which is made up of 27 teens, aged 13-18, with a roughly 50/50 gender split. The teenage board meets with the league every two weeks to offer feedback on marketing, fan engagement and social content.
The entire project was inspired by a league meeting with an 11-year old:
Browning hails the project as a “gift that keeps on giving,” revealing that the idea was born out of a letter she received from an 11-year old girl and keen NHL fan, Sabrina Solomon, soon after being appointed as chief marketing officer five years ago. Impressed by her creativity, Browning invited Solomon to present some of her ideas to the league.
Browning says, per such feedback from minors, that inclusivity is “at the forefront of the minds” of Gen Z, explaining:
We know from a lot of generational studies that this generation actually votes with their time and their wallet with brands that align with their own values. So it’s really important that we are connected to and expressing our commitment to diversity and inclusion.
Out with the old values, in with the new values, and “inclusion” is paramount today. I reached out to Browning to get a sense of how the Power Players meetings go, but received no word back. Failing that, I asked a few of the teens who participated. All had pronouns in their social media bios, as is increasingly the custom for young people on the college track, and all were polite, helpful and informative regarding the Power Players experience.
One such Power Player, named Saad, was especially insightful, conveying that the meetings started out feeling like a gimmick, but that they eventually grew into a real part of the sport’s marketing:
Honestly, we actually do make an impact. If we see things that they do that we're critical of, and it's not well-done, they go so far as to take down posts, change up entire strategies, and they tend to use us for a lot of things like TikTok.
In my conversations, the teens convey a sense that their role is to lead this ossified, benighted league into the light, both on ethical and technological issues. From my outsider’s perspective, it appears that the teens had some good advice on social media strategy for these absolutely clueless older executives. Or at least, it sounds plausible that they would.
Browning is ever-present in these proceedings, spending a lot of time meeting with kids ages 13-18. Saad:
Heidi is in every single meeting. Considering she's the CMO, I'm surprised she has time, but she's involved in everything, all the meetings. She's the main point of contact. Hockey has the second-oldest fanbase behind baseball, and Heidi always has a message that we are here to be more than just business. We're here to create a movement within the youth.
And yes, the social justice tone struck by the NHL of late is likely informed by its uncommon level of contact with these youth representatives. Saad:
Our gender ratio's 50/50. I think that was their goal. And then we have a lot of different backgrounds and LGBT people in our group. When it comes to social issues, we have a very diverse range of voices and we will give them very critical advice sometimes, but advice that they need to know because hockey tends to be behind in social issues. So, we want to make sure that they're doing the right thing and that our voices are heard when it comes to that as well.
“Behind” is the key word here, because so much of what’s happening is predicated on the assumption of where it’s going. The youth are even less conservative than past generations, and millennials aren’t aging into conservatism. The people in power at the NHL and other institutions are highly deferential to a culture they perceive as inevitable, even if they might find its customs strange.
One way the sport’s public-facing culture gets set is via team and league social media accounts, whose hires skew younger and more female, a cohort combination that tilts leftward, generally. These roles are, typically, not well-paid, but they do provide some institutional power for those with the conviction to seize it and tweet on behalf of the company. This is where you might see some validation for Richard Hanania’s “liberals care more” thesis of one side’s recent culture-war dominance. A woman making, say, $40K is willing to risk her job to advance a message she believes righteous, daring employers to do something about it. You can say the output is crazy or outside the sport’s remit, but it’s also what happens when young, confident people wrench power from their older, diffident superiors. In short, they kind of earned this, even if they’re easy to mock as entitled and sanctimonious.
One of Browning’s social media likes is of a podcast that featured a woman who once ran the Colorado Avalanche team account. The woman, who quickly ascended from Starbucks barista to voice of an organization valued at nearly a billion dollars, found herself “snapping back” at fans who took issue with the social justice rhetoric on offer:
There’s no room for that, in hockey, when you want to say that it’s for everyone. And that’s a stance that I really want to believe in and buy into. Part of making it for everyone is actually doing the work to get there.
Towards the end of the episode, the woman says of her co-hosts, to delighted affirmations:
I think your voices as, like, the generation that’s growing into loving hockey more is going to be louder than maybe that of the old White man.
From their perspective, the plan all makes sense, beyond being morally justified. The future is less straight, less white, even less male. Get inclusive with the ascendent categories and growth will ensue.
The issue is that nobody appears to be growing, at least not in major sports. The NBA was frequently brought up as a positive model in Power Players meetings, but, as has been documented here and other places, that league has suffered major audience dropoff. The overall youth rejection of sports, combined with their propensity for avoiding cable packages, seems to massively outweigh any other factor.
Paradoxically, this established apathy just makes the youth demo that much more tantalizing to leagues. Whoever’s first to woo them will own the future. The ascendent non-customer is held in higher regard than the dying core customer.
Meanwhile, on January 31st, Mark Burns reported that NHL television viewership is in a nosedive.
Of course, these numbers don’t include hockey-crazed Canada, which could be experiencing a different trend. Given its relative viewership opacity, it’s difficult to know.
In America, though, the sport appears to be losing. Unlike a lot of other media members, I’m fairly accepting of the idea that fans can be repelled by extreme cultural signaling, so that could be a factor. That said, the NHL is likely bleeding for many reasons, reasons that are impacting all the sports leagues.
The Diversity Report
So then the question is, can hockey’s grand culture shift strategy make a dent in this particular problem? After reading the NHL’s self-touted 38-page report, titled Accelerating Diversity and Inclusion: NHL Report on Strategies, Initiatives and Progress, I’m going to conclude … no.
I’ll start off by saying that the NHL can, theoretically, increase its popularity outside of traditional core demos. Anyone who’s traveled around Canada has likely noticed that puck fans hail from many backgrounds. Hockey fandom should, almost inevitably, get more diverse, because Canada and the U.S. are getting more diverse. All it really takes are good games and good marketing.
But “good games and good marketing” are not the focus of Accelerating Diversity and Inclusion: NHL Report on Strategies, Initiatives and Progress. Instead, it’s how the jargon of our era might unlock untold riches. Here’s a representative sentence (sort of):
Advance supplier and vendor relationships to further engage BIPOC and female-owned businesses, and shift business partner relationships to collaborate on initiatives focused on BIPOC and female audiences.
The acronym BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) is used twenty-seven times. For perspective, the word “team” is used only 11 times. Kim Davis’ report is wholly obsessed with these BIPOCs, a category that means “nonwhite” but with extra steps to highlight certain demos. As an aside, the listing of two groups at the beginning, followed by a generalized mass, reminds of Reverend Lovejoy saying, “Be they Christian, Jew, or ... miscellaneous.”
What’s the problem with a marketing strategy that revolves around BIPOCs, you might ask? Mostly that, despite the term’s current fashionability within major institutions, this is not a real thing. There is no such person as a “BIPOC.” A farmer from Afghanistan doesn’t have some automatic, intrinsic connection to a third-generation Hispanic bank teller in New Mexico. “BIPOC” is just an umbrella word for the vast majority of earth’s population, meaning that it describes a people that effectively share nothing beyond their own common humanity. That common humanity, by the way, is something they also share with White people. So again, what’s even the point of this exercise when you could just be cranking out charismatic hockey-based marketing that appeals to all?
Instead, the document cites a lot of equity agenda examples that, whatever one thinks of them, seem pretty far from the game itself:
The parent company of the New Jersey Devils, Harris Blitzer Sports and Entertainment, pledged $10 million to fight systemic racism and hired a Chief Diversity and Impact Officer in 2020. As part of that commitment, the New Jersey Devils developed the Devils Buy Black Program, which promotes local Black-owned businesses and provides marketing consultation, advertising value, educational opportunities, and additional tools.
Even many of the people who support these programs probably get that the New Jersey Devils aren’t creating hockey fans by the hundreds of thousands with them. Even if you believe that such signaling resonates, all the other major sports and corporations hit on these themes now. Is hockey, of all endeavors, really going to differentiate itself as more progressive on race, amid all the noise? People watch hockey, usually, because they live in a cold climate and it’s a sport that enlivens that sort of atmosphere. I’ve yet to meet the individual who watches a team due to its charitable donations or instructions that you buy from a particular ethnicity.
There could be a better case to be made for the fan impact of hiring different kinds of people in forward-facing roles. The NHL, based on the document and public statements, seems highly invested in recruiting more BIPOCs, women and LGTQ+ individuals to power positions.
The NHL developed a new, best-in-class Workforce Demographic Study to understand the diversity of full-time League and Club employees and accelerate inclusive hiring.
Ethics and potential negative externalities of census-based hiring aside, this push could have a plausible effect of bringing in new fans who now see themselves in a workforce. I return to my, “representationism is trickle down economics for liberals” rule, though. Diverse hiring doesn’t magically alter a core customer base, especially in a world where every big company is attempting to hire similarly.
To be fair, the document also includes on the ground instructions for spreading the sport’s gospel within communities that typically aren’t targets (Black and “Latinx,” by the report’s framing). This effort is based on market research that indicates a connection between playing hockey as a kid and watching it as an adult. And I’ll note, it’s not insane to suggest that creating new hockey players, in new places, will lead to more customers. From the report:
The NHL has collaborated with business partners and sponsors (including Discover, Scotiabank, and MassMutual) to launch projects that cover ice time in diverse communities; donate hockey scholarships to underrepresented players; provide free hockey equipment; and spotlight diversity in the game.
There’s a possibility that the next great hockey star emerges from a place like Chicago’s South Side due to such a program. That would be an incredible story, though I have no way of setting the odds on it happening.
But here we revisit the “moral crusade or a business strategy?” question and perhaps arrive at a muddled answer. On the one hand, it’s easy to see hockey’s big culture shift as purely motivated by greed. The NHL craves new customers and is doing whatever it can to court them.
On the other hand, the reigning morality informs institutional perspectives on which customers to chase. As in, the moral crusade tends to bend the business strategy to its will.
Let me explain. I read through this document and see so much money and bureaucratic focus behind spreading hockey to places that might have trouble sustaining the sport. I’m not making this claim; the document itself is. The report notes how certain communities struggle to fund participation in a sport that’s long on equipment usage and time spent in arenas not everyone has access to.
Okay. Well, I live in the suburbs, where parents with disposable income are always looking for some new activity for their kids. Right now, jiu-jitsu is hot, and don’t ask me for too many details on how it managed to catch on like this. All I know is that children grapple at a nearby studio. Parents love it because it seems novel and the kids get their aggression channeled somewhere, similar to the value proposition of hockey.
Merits of Brazilian martial arts aside, what’s the ROI on marketing hockey in the burbs vs. trying to do so elsewhere? Is anybody in the hockey industry allowed to even ask? I suspect that, whatever the financial incentives, it’s deeply unfashionable to pipe up at the meeting and say, “We must build rinks in affluent suburbs. These rich parents will buy the equipment and sustain renewed participation in the sport.”
It should be noted that America’s suburbs are, like much of the country, increasingly diverse — just perhaps not as much as the places the league deems more worthy of direct attention. But why do the latter spots require more attention? Again, is this a moral crusade or a business strategy? And is anyone respectable even allowed to ask anymore?
It seems implausible that “anti-racism” or any other activist cause unleashes massive profits. Sure, there are some instances and pockets where it can happen, but nothing is ever that easy. I suspect that we increasingly see this conflation of cause and commodity because it obscures how clueless certain leaders are, given that it’s harder to question idealistically freighted business tactics. Gary Bettman does not have a great reputation, but he can perhaps buy himself some time and cover by selling his league as newly woke.
You can see a similar dynamic in recruiting young fans. By focusing so heavily on the future, you can absolve yourself of present failures. Sure, the viewership is crashing right now, but social media engagement is up! That means kids are TikToking, which will one day pay dividends, so please keep paying executives between now and that day.
In the meantime, Bettman, age 70, doesn’t seem to be in charge, even if he’s hiring. That job has been left to Kim Davis, who dominates the mic after the Board of Governors. That job has also been delegated to those teenage Power Players.
It’s easier to assume that someone else, outside your orbit, has all the answers that keep eluding you, just as unfriendly market forces bear down on your industry. And hey, maybe. Perhaps Davis’ vision is realized and hockey becomes equal parts diverse and popular. Perhaps Browning’s vision is realized and kids unlock the secret of how to make hockey cool for all eternity.
Perhaps to all of it, but such delegations seem like a tell, a concession that you are lost and lack the vision to forge a new path. Absent a way to see out of this mess, the NHL opts for ears. Predictably, it hears every fashionable cliché of the age, and likely nothing that allows the league to transcend its current station. In this way, hockey is a lot like the other sports, only more so. It’s losing confidence in itself, when looking at a future of almost certainly becoming less so.