I’ve been a Colorado Avalanche fan since the Denver Grizzlies came to town to test the hockey market. In fact, the second it was announced Colorado was getting a team, I was a fan.
Two seasons ago, my friend and I attended opening night against the Anaheim Ducks. We were there to see #1 overall Nathan MacKinnon‘s debut. We were there more to see Patrick Roy‘s debut as head coach — we still loved him for all he’d done for the team.
We were not there to see a group of women wearing little more than bikinis bounce around the ice. Yet that’s exactly what we were confronted with during every TV break. I can say honestly, that spectacle took some of the pleasure out of our evening.
I’m not going to stop going to Colorado hockey games just because of the Avalanche Ice Girls, of course. However, the fact that that’s even a question means that Avalanche marketing is doing the direct opposite of what it’s meant. Sports marketing is supposed to entice more fans to come to games, not offend and marginalize part of the target audience.
Sexiness in Hockey
One of the counterarguments about the sexy display ice girl squads put on is that many women find hockey players attractive. I confess that there are a few players in the NHL that I consider good-looking.
However, consider for a moment what an NHL player wears during the course of a game. There are 50-pounds or so worth of padding under a boxy jersey and, let’s face it, weird thermal shorts. They also wear loose knit tights and bulky gloves. Then there’s the matter of their helmets and, for most players, visors. None of this is conducive to our enjoying their appearance.
For example, Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog is accounted one of the most attractive men in hockey. He’s classically handsome with blonde hair, blue eyes and chiseled features, not to mention an athlete’s body. Many female fans swoon over him, and even male fans admit he is a good-looking man. During a game, though, here’s what we all see:
Mar 23, 2015; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Colorado Avalanche left wing Gabriel Landeskog (92) skates against the Calgary Flames during the first period at Scotiabank Saddledome. Calgary Flames won 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
If not for the numbers and name on his back, you couldn’t tell Gabriel Landeskog from any other player on the team. A picture like this is eye candy because it shows our captain being the power forward that benefits our team — not because he’s classically handsome.
On the flip side, during a game, this is how the Avalanche Ice girls represent:
Jan 8, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Colorado Avalanche ice girls clear the ice in the first period against the Ottawa Senators at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Hair bouncing, cleavage thrust forward, lots of skin gratuitously on display — is there any aspect of this performance that’s not about sexiness? More to the point — this display is about what men find sexy. They might as well be wearing French maid costumes as they clean up after the dirty, dirty boys.
Perception of Avalanche Ice Girls
As noted above, these are very pretty young ladies being flaunted as a superfluous display of sexiness. This is sending a message that the game is there for men to enjoy. The show is only for men. That’s downright offensive.
Kate Cimini, editor of Bleedin’ Blue, took some time to explain her perception of ice girl squads:
"“I’m not a fan of Ice Girls as they are perpetuated at the moment. These women are tremendous athletes, and hard workers who deserve the opportunity to showcase their talents. However, the outfits they are provided by the teams and the way Ice Girls are promoted – as hot pieces of ass for hockey fans to watch while there’s no ‘real’ action happening on the ice – shows that teams still think men are their target audience and that these women don’t really matter as people.”"
The ice girl squads are presented as “hot pieces of ass” — those are some strong words. However, that is exactly what is being presented to the audience. Here’s an example from Anaheim:
Mar 20, 2015; Anaheim, CA, USA; The Anaheim Ducks ice girls clean the ice during the third period against the Colorado Avalanche at Honda Center. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
Tell me this is exactly the same way the male hockey players are being presented by the team. (Hint: it’s not.)
As Kate points out, this kind of display sends a clear message to the women in the audience — we’re not welcome unless we take on one of two roles — skantily-dressed female fan or what Kate calls “Scandalized Mother Who Disapproves of These Ladies’ Choices™.”
I guess we have a third option — good-natured pretense that yes, those girls are hot pieces of ass, and we’re cool with the display.
As Kate observes, we do have one more choice: “Why not be the woman who disapproves of the franchise’s choices?”
In fact, the introduction last season of Ice Girls to the San Jose Sharks was met with great disapproval by the fan base. Christy Kondo of Other Half Sports made this astute observation of the implementation of skantily-clad ice crews:
"“The mere fact that their physical appearance is a factor in whether or not they remain employed is hugely problematic. To specifically have a position where a woman must fit a certain physical mold to even be considered for the job makes the statement that the marker of monetary value for a woman is her attractiveness. By placing on public display the fact that women are treated in this manner while men are not, businesses and organizations who perpetuate this kind of behavior continue to place women in a subordinate role to men.”"
Our NHL teams are essentially marketing the ideal of female subordination. This practice marginalizes and offends a whole segment of the audience — women. In a world in which women control not only their own budgets but often the family budget, is that really a sound marketing strategy?
Marketing and Hockey
March 12 2013; Denver, CO, USA; Colorado Avalanche fans dance during the third period of the game against the Edmonton Oilers at the Pepsi Center. The Oilers defeated the Avalanche 4-0. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
The NHL wants more fans to attend games, and the league brands itself as family-oriented. Therefore, the institution of skantily-clad girls whose only clear reason for appearing in front of the crowd is sex appeal directly counters the aim of the NHL. In fact, the Avalanche Ice Girls — or any all-female ice crew around the league — sends the message that NHL hockey is mostly for men to enjoy.
I commented about that fact on Ken Campbell’s excellent Hockey News post. The response from a male hockey fan was, “Why is it wrong to appeal to 60% of the crowd?”
It’s not wrong — it’s just ineffectual marketing.
As Ken Campbell outlines, the New York Islanders are responsible for introducing the ice girl squads as a desperate measure to bolster lagging sales. However, that was 14 years ago, and that was before the purchasing power of women was fully realized. Except for big-ticket items such as cars, women tend to make the majority of the household budget decisions, including for entertainment.
"“[Women] are the ones who purchase the majority of clothing in the world, both for ourselves and our families, meaning that we are statistically likely to be the ones buying, gifting and wearing team jerseys.”"
Kate has a further point to make about marketing in the NHL:
"“Women are the fastest-growing audience in hockey. At this point, estimates of the proportion of women hockey fans following the NHL range between 40 and 50%. Assuming half your audience isn’t women is, at this point, foolish.”"
There’s one team that has noticed the emergence of female hockey fans — the Chicago Blackhawks. According to an article in Chicago Business, the team purposely geared a portion of its marketing to women. The result was that their female fanbase increased from 28 to 38 percent of the overall fanbase.
Now you could point out that 38 percent is still the minority, or that a team that’s won the Stanley Cup three times in the last six years hardly has to market at all anymore. That’s not the point.
The point is how can the Colorado Avalanche use this idea to their advantage?
Imagine if the team actually courted women. We might bring the whole family along. We might grab a few gal pals and attend the game. We might not buy quite as much beer as our male counterparts (though we might!), but we’d certainly make up for it at the fan gear store. We’d talk about our hockey team on social media and with all our friends because, hey, studies have shown that women communicate three times more than men do.
In short, we would not only give money to the team, we’d promote the team of our own accord. Hell, we’d pay to promote the team by outfitting ourselves and our families in cute Colorado Avalanche gear.
Conversely, when casual female fans of hockey are confronted with a spectacle such as the barely-dressed ice girls, it could remind them that sports has always been the purview of men. Perhaps they don’t want their daughters trying to emulate the inherently sexist institution of ice girl squads. It’s obvious they’re not the target audience of this spectacle — perhaps not of any part of the show.
Kevin Marland, a writer at Stars and Sticks, was kind enough to share his perspective from a male point of view:
"“It’s totally dumb how the NHL has paraded [ice girl squads] as ‘entertainment.’ I take my wife to games, and we always have an awkward laugh about it, but it does work contrary to the NHL’s marketing scheme. I want her to like hockey, and that’s not helping.”"
Marginalizing up to 50% of the fan base is not going to increase ticket sales. Therefore, Avalanche Ice Girls are an ineffectual manner for increasing the fan base for the Colorado Avalanche.
Suggested Evolution of the Ice Girls
I spoke with Gwen De Young of Octopus Thrower. She certainly brings up a good point:
"“I don’t hate Ice girls, but I also don’t really like them. In fact I don’t really care that they are out there. I pay triple digit dollars for tickets to go watch hockey and the players not them. I think they are a cute little add-on to the hockey experience for fans. Yet, if you took them away and just replaced them with other people, I really wouldn’t care. Like I said before, I pay a ton of money to go watch my team play.”"
She’s right that the presence of Ice Girls isn’t going to stop hardcore female fans from attending games. (The presence of Avalanche Ice Girls irritates me, yet I bought a 20-game partial plan just so I can attend the Stadium Series Game this year.) However, we’re not the target here — sports marketing is meant to encourage casual observers to become fans like us.
Ice Girls and other all-female crews pushing snow around in skimpy outfits isn’t going to do that for the fast-growing market of women sports fans. Therefore, these squads need an image make over.
The usual suggestions for the Ice Girl issue is to have them dressed in less revealing costumes or to include males in the crew. Or both. These suggestions are often met with resistance — mainly that the people making these suggestions are being spoilsports.
I’m going to suggest something novel that I don’t think has been considered. Turn the Ice Girls into a performance act. If cheerleaders can dance and lead cheers while being hot young women, why can’t the Ice Girls?
Imagine this: A family goes to a Colorado Avalanche game together. During a break in the action, a few attractive young women mingle with the crowd to lead the whole family in a cheer for the team. During a TV timeout, some Avalanche Ice Girls perform a little ice dance while the others quickly sweep the snow away. At intermission, the whole squad puts on a choreographed performance.
In this scenario, the crew can include men, but it doesn’t have to — cheerleaders are typically women. The Avalanche Ice Girls can be dressed more modestly, but that’s not necessary either. Cheerleaders and figure skaters notoriously show a lot of skin. The difference is that the young ladies have to be performers.
By turning the Ice Girls into a performance act, the institution becomes something everyone can enjoy. No longer are we sitting there looking at beautiful young women whose only job is to be alluring. Now we’re looking at beautiful young women who are adding to the entertainment value for the whole crowd. Men, women and even children can enjoy the art of the dance or the camaraderie of being led in a cheer.
Doesn’t that sound like a scenario that furthers the marketing of a team that wants fans in the seats — regardless of age or gender? The Colorado Avalanche should be the leaders in this movement by transforming their Ice Girl squad into performance-based entertainment.
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