On October 5, The New York Riveters of the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) and the New Jersey Devils of the National Hockey League (NHL) announced a partnership. While the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) has made several of these cross-league partnerships with the NHL in the last few years (Montreal Canadiennes – Montreal Canadians, Toronto Furies – Toronto Maple Leafs, Calgary Inferno – Calgary Flames), this is the first such partnership for a team in the NWHL. In recent years, there have been suggestions that the two women’s leagues need to build partnerships with the NHL and its affiliated teams in order to gain legitimacy and maintain a stable league. From that perspective, this partnership is a step in the right direction and, at face value, is a huge asset to the Riveters, because it provides them with increased marketing and promotional resources and reach, a state of the art facility, and support for local grassroots programming for girls and women’s hockey. Despite these benefits, there are also reasons to be concerned about the NHL being associated with and having a say in the development of professional women’s hockey.
At quick glance, this deal is great for the NWHL and the newly rebranded Metropolitan Riveters. It adds staff, resources, and skill and knowledge bases that the team otherwise could not afford. A major aspect of the partnership “includes marketing & cross promotion on digital and social media channels and on game broadcasts”. This will dramatically increase the visibility of the franchise and league. The Devils Twitter account has 605,000 followers compared to the 12,700 of the Riveters (as of October 10, 2017). Combined with in-game promotions, this immediately opens the Riveters up to increased exposure to those in the hockey community. This increased visibility could help bring in new fans and sponsors.
The partnership also gives the Riveters access to a state of the art facility, rent free. The Riveters home ice will be the Barnabas Health Hockey House, the Devils practice rink. This means they are guaranteed good quality ice, in an arena that likely has lighting and camera positions already in place to facilitate the broadcasting of their games. The Riveters will also play at least one double header with the Devils at the Prudential Center, the Devils home game facility. Season ticket holders of both teams will have access to both games. A final beneficial aspect to this partnership is an agreement to collaborate on efforts to continue the development of girls’ hockey in the surrounding area. Growing the game has always been an aspect of the NWHL’s mission. This partnership also appears to have a plethora of assets aimed at leveraging the Riveters brand to benefit the Devils’ market.
Despite these advantages, there are reasons for concern. One notable concern is that the NHL tends to cater to cisgender, heterosexual, white men, while the NWHL is focused on women and understands that some of their players and fans are part of the LGBTQ community. Despite the NHL’s recent efforts at catering to diversity through their You Can Play Project and Declaration of Principles initiatives, their actions tend to disenfranchise fans outside of this demographic. With the continued use of Patrick Kane as a poster boy despite multiple rape allegations, along with weak punishments and non-apologies for other athletes who are accused of sexual assault, or caught on national TV using sexist, racist, and homophobic slurs, many women and members of the LGBTQ community feel like the NHL does not care about them as much as they purport to. We need to question if money provided by a league that has not historically privileged inclusion will be “clean” or if it comes from clubs that have protected (and may continue to protect) those who have assaulted women or used misogynistic or homophobic language. Considering the players, and a not-insignificant portion of the fan base of the NWHL, are not only women but also identify within the LGBTQ community, NHL acceptance of these behaviors stands in stark contrast with supporting the NWHL.
While it is great that marketing and promotion resources are being given to the Riveters, there are reasons to think critically about marketing initiatives provided by a men’s team for a women’s sport. Women’s sports require different marketing strategies, due to different target markets than the traditional straight, white, male demographics of men’s hockey. Women’s sports draw different fan bases, and including, but not limited to, the “family/young female player” demographic. Often women’s sports are only marketed to girls and the parents that would bring them. While getting young girls excited about a sport is great, they are generally not the ones buying season tickets, and only focusing on this demographic leaves out adult women (and men) that could be a more consistent fan base if they are marketed to. If traditional NHL marketing techniques and demographics or the “family” demographic for women’s sports are the only tactics used, many potential fans could be left out. Hopefully the Devils will listen to the marketing ideas and target markets that the Riveters have built over the last two years and not take over with their perceptions of how women’s sport should be marketed. For instance, the Queer community is a big demographic for women’s sports, which the WNBA has recently embraced, and which the NWHL has been reaching out too. The Riveters have Harrison Browne, who came out as a transgender man while playing for the Buffalo Beauts last season. The league has worked with and promoted him since his coming out. This season, Browne announced his plan to work with local LGBT youth groups. The NWHL has player and fan demographics that deserve more than the lip-service that is often given by the NHL diversity initiatives.
Beyond this, there is reason for skepticism about the amount of marketing and publicity on their social media channels and on game broadcasts that will occur. When the partnership was announced, there was only one tweet on the Devils account announcing it. This tweet linked the press release, which was the only post on their main website regarding the deal. The only mention of the girls’ hockey event on the Devils main account occurred the following day, and it was a retweet from the president of the Devils Alumni Association. If a focal point of this deal is cross-promotion, the Devils need to step up their game if it is actually going to have the impact one would expect from the press release.
A final consideration is related to brand equity. The last two seasons, the Riveters have sported a very patriotic Red, White, and Blue color scheme to match their Rosie the Riveter logo. With this partnership, however, they announced a change in colors to the Devils Red and Black along with the name change from New York to Metropolitan. This is not the first time a women’s team has altered their brand when they partnered with an NHL Team. The CWHL team in Montreal changed their name from the Stars to the Canadiennes to align with the Montreal Canadiens brand. The Toronto Furies changed their logo to appear more like that of the Maple Leafs. While these alterations help the women’s teams visually associate with the local NHL teams and make the alignment between the two teams more evident, they may lose some of the brand equity and brand identity that they have spent several years building for themselves. It also runs the potential risk of brand conflation if the NHL team does something that is not acceptable to the women’s hockey community. This relates back to the first point of concern around the NHL and its teams not having the best track record in terms of diversity and inclusion. It begs the question of if the Devils were to make a problematic ethical decision, would fans who subsequently have problems supporting the Devils also struggle to support the Riveters.
From my perspective, until the NHL and their affiliate teams become better at truly supporting women and members of the LGBTQ community with their actions, not just their words, a partnership between an NWHL team and an NHL team will be problematic. As someone who wants to see the NWHL succeed and become a stable, paying league for female athletes with a strong fanbase, the concept of an NHL team partnership is theoretically great. NHL teams have the money, staff, and visibility that the NWHL needs. It inserts resources, lends cultural legitimacy, and increases visibility that the league otherwise does not have easy access to. However, the history of the NHL’s treatment of women and members of the LGBTQ community raises concerns about whether this partnership will be beneficial for women’s hockey in the long term rather than just a quick injection of resources that could hurt the brand in the long run. Only time will tell how a deal with the Devil(s) will turn out.
Erin Morris (@Morrsport) is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at SUNY Cortland. Her research focuses on girls and women’s participation in non-traditional sports and women’s sport development. Her recent work has focused on women’s hockey.