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Wicked Angles: PHF, teams need to turn their eyes toward an overlooked market in women’s hockey

While the league has pushed a family-friendly image overall, the adults in the room have a lot to offer, especially the younger ones.

Teams and fans during the 2020 NWHL All Star Skills Competition in Boston, MA on Feb. 08, 2020.
Michelle Jay

When I first started covering the professional league we now know as the PHF, I was in my mid-20s and optimistic for what was to come. So many possibilities for a league that’s able to pay its players, as well as cater to a market largely consisting of people like me — millenials, maybe even the beginnings of Gen Z, excited to witness history in the making.

Seven years later, while the demographics have shifted, in so many ways the marketing hasn’t. We’re still zeroed in on the kids in the stands, who provide an important foundation for the professionals yet to come; however, lost in the shuffle are the adults in the room, those who could be 18-30 or older still, who possess the passion, the mobility to get to and from games, and (perhaps even more importantly) the disposable income to keep the PHF and its six teams afloat.

That the league overlooks adult hockey fans is not really a secret. So many of the events surrounding the PHF are family-friendly and focused on providing inspiration to young girls looking to be like Taylor Accursi or Amanda Leveille one day. And that’s great, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that — but with that comes the indifference bordering on disdain that some of my older male friends have experienced at games when they come by themselves, emotions that aren’t mirrored at men’s hockey games. With that comes the knowledge that if you’re this tall to ride, you probably won’t fit in the league’s desired target range. And with it comes the fact that there is a glaring hole in the marketing tapestry where the grownups are concerned, a hole that some at least seem to acknowledge, if not be willing to patch up.

After some crowdsourcing and examination of my own feelings as a fan, here are some things the league can do to make this a more well-rounded experience for the adult viewer.

College nights

Sure, it sounds a bit counter-productive to start this list by appealing to some of the least financially mobile fans in the community, but this is about more than money — it’s about guaranteeing your seats get filled and your crowds are loud every home game. Offering discounts with a valid college ID can appeal to fans from non-PHF cities as well who might be looking for something to do, or to meet other people who love the sport they enjoy. Lastly, the social media influence would be huge — creating hashtags, selfie contests, and maybe even a school vs. school battle with club hockey teams could be really beneficial when it comes to getting the word out about the teams who host them.

Speaking of which...

Invite adult rec and beer leagues, or partner with them in the offseason.

I remember when the Five Holes were a pretty consistent presence at Beauts games way back when, and I’m thinking we could use their humor and energy again heading into Year Eight. Moreover, there are women’s adult leagues who could have a lot of fun doing scrimmages, appearances, even some exhibitions with PHF teams and players. Imagine how cool a summer tourney would be featuring some of the best in the league against a local rec team in each PHF city and potentially beyond. COVID restrictions are still things, and they would obviously have to be careful, but that could be a prime opportunity to get more adult eyes on the sport — and think of just how cool the merch and marketing for a barnstorming tour could be.

Adult learn-to-play clinics

So many of my peers have taken up hockey in their 20s and 30s, and I myself am interested in learning how to skate better at the tender age of 31. And yet there are far fewer adult hockey clinics, which is something the PHF could really hone in on and make a thing for us older novices. After all, some of us Olds would still be a little starstruck if we got to have Jillian Dempsey teach us how to shoot.

Adults-only meet and greets or watch parties — both dry and not

Many of us want to be able to watch our favorite sport in a social setting without having to worry about the young-uns in the crowd, and this would be a great time to cater to them. Perhaps a watch party for a road game where some of the guests are former PHFers or maybe even healthy scratched players. Maybe even a “Road Warrior” convoy in a nearby or rival city. Or a live Q-and-A, or even just a photo and autograph line at a trendy spot. And let’s face it, not everyone drinks, so being able to diversify your venues is a must — maybe a hot coffeeshop, or the home rink, as well as local bars/breweries, would be ideal.

Live podcast and sports show tapings featuring PHF players

The kids in the room aren’t the ones discussing trades, playing in fantasy leagues, or analyzing lines. Being able to do that in a live setting, along with interviewing some of the league’s most popular players and getting some of their insight, helps expand the discussion beyond the four walls many of us are confined to. Think Open Ice, but at a cool venue with an interactive audience. Could be pretty sweet, no? (And yeah, some of this is self-serving — I want to be able to do one of those cool podcast tapings, okay?)

Galas and event nights

I remember when Ryan Miller used to do Catwalk for Charity, or the Islanders did Casino Night, and that’s what I’m envisioning here — a chance for young or more mature professionals to dress up, mingle, and meet their favorite players. The league could look at it as a way to drum up not just revenue but also buzz, as well as partner with not-for-profits like Black Girl Hockey Club, Athlete Ally, or the Women’s Sports Foundation to make it for a good cause.

Age up themed nights, such as Pride Night

Rainbow jerseys are a ton of fun, but so is including local organizations that help the LGBTQIA+ community. So is involving drag performers at puck drop or intermission (have you ever seen an ice skating drag queen? They’re magic). So is playing music for and by the queer community. Having fans and players alike share their experiences growing up knowing they might be different. The possibilities are endless, not just for this, but for other themed nights as well. You can make it personal, special, and so much more than just Pride Tape.

Collaborations with popular brands that cater to a younger adult market

Bring Hockey Back, Gongshow Gear, Bauer — I could go on and on about the lifestyle brands out there who have done some cool stuff with women’s hockey, and hockey in general. Having exclusive apparel that’s stylish and unique can really appeal to a younger audience, and with the newfound empowerment PHF players have to brand themselves and their own image, places like PWRFWD are also built to give fans a direct connection to their favorite stars.

This is by no means an exhaustive list; as a matter of fact, I’m sure there are plenty of ideas I’m leaving on the proverbial cutting room floor. But that’s exactly my point. If you want more engagement with social media, or with fans like the K-Vink Mafia or adult rec teams, you have to ask us what we want too. There are so many older people out there who want to support the PHF but feel ever so slightly out of place, as the league has leant so heavily for years on the idea of playing for the little kids in the stands. That image has always been there, and it’s always been beautiful, but sooner or later that little kid is going to grow up and want something else. And not only that, but maybe their parents want something for themselves right now too — they’re only human, after all.

So hold focus groups, talk to fans from all age groups, and start thinking about that gap in the base that feels like something is missing from the fan experience. Continued focus on the youth means you’re going to have constant turnover; we’re children for far, far less time than we are adults, and interests change as we age. The PHF is aiming for longevity with its latest investments, and I want to see it break Year Eight and beyond — but they’re going to have to get with the times, and do it quick.