NHL looks to broaden diversity endeavors
NHL looks to broaden diversity endeavors
With its efforts and message reorganized, the league is engaging fans, teams and grassroots hockey to attract a new generation of followers to the sport.
Ian Thomas, SportsBusiness Journal
Oct. 1, 2018
In early August, author William Frey took the stage at the Paley Center for Media in New York City to talk about his book, “Diversity Explosion: How Racial Demographics are Remaking America.” The discussion might not have been unusual for the oft-cited demographer and sociologist, but it was for the event’s organizer: the NHL.
Frey’s appearance was the brainchild of Kim Davis, hired by the NHL last year as executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs. While her position — new to the league — may be broad, her intent is clearly focused: grow the NHL, its fan base and the sport of hockey by making it more inclusive and diverse.
“When you look at the millennial and Gen Z population, a majority of that population is non-white; that’s a fact,” said Davis, the first African-American to serve in a senior leadership position at the NHL, and one of only a few women as well. “If we don’t start to understand how to engage these new audiences in their own unique and cultural ways, we aren’t going to be successful in our business.”
Hockey is one of the most internationally diverse sports, but it is well behind the other major sports leagues in North America in terms of its racial diversity, an issue often pegged to the sport’s geographic and economic hurdles. That has bubbled up to the NHL, which in 1958 was the last of the major leagues to be integrated. While there has been improvement, the progress has been slow. With the start of the 2018-19 season, there are no minority coaches across the 31 teams, only one black on-ice official out of the 68 who currently work in the NHL, and likely to be around 30 players of color in the league this season — less than 5 percent of the entire player pool. Across team front offices, there is also a dearth of minority executives, as well as a general lack of female leadership.
That lack of diversity could give the perception that hockey is not welcoming to those who aren’t already a part of what is a largely white fan base. That feeling perhaps has not been helped by some incidents on the ice as well. Last February, Washington Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly, who is black, was racially taunted by four fans during a game versus the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center while he sat in the penalty box. Those fans were subsequently removed and barred from the arena, and the NHL and the Blackhawks instantly condemned their actions.
William Douglas, who chronicles diversity in the NHL on his blog, The Color of Hockey, recalls what it was like as an African-American hockey fan growing up in the Philadelphia area. “I remember starting to go to games with friends in the early 1970s, and we used to play a game that essentially was, can we count all the black people in the arena? It took about eight years to start to get to a second hand.”
The NHL has long made efforts to welcome new fans into the fold, launching its Hockey Is For Everyone program in 1998, which celebrates diversity of race, gender and sexuality in the sport throughout the month of February with leaguewide events. Its Learn to Play program, launched in 2016, provides free ice time and equipment and aims to reach lower income and inner-city communities, which are often more diverse but are also areas where hockey typically does not thrive due to the sport’s high cost of entry and lack of community rinks. Programs like Ice Hockey in Harlem, the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation and the Fort Dupont Ice Arena in Washington, D.C., the latter of which operates the oldest minority youth hockey program in North America, have received strong financial and promotional support from the league.
Last year, the league, in conjunction with several governing bodies across hockey — including USA Hockey, Hockey Canada and the IIHF — launched the Declaration of Principles, issuing a slate of best practices for those in the sport, many of which center around better welcoming fans and players, regardless of background, into the hockey community.
“Many will say, you guys are just jumping into this diversity work, and that’s just not true,” Davis said. “We probably haven’t amplified our commitment, and the substance of our work in building this every day — that’s not by way of excusing.”
Being ‘intentional’ about diversity
Before joining the league last November, Davis was a senior managing director at advisory firm Teneo. While there she ran and built its corporate responsibility and inclusive leadership practice, advising CEOs and Fortune 500 companies on those issues.
One of those clients was the NHL, which brought her on as a consultant in early 2017 to help review the league’s community and social efforts, as well as to find ways it could be more effective in those areas. Davis helped map out a plan with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and created a job listing for an executive to roll it out, at which point Bettman asked Davis if she’d be interested in taking on the role herself.
“We think using sport for good and using the value of sport to instill good values in society is the best thing we can do,” Bettman said. “This is something that has always been important to us, but Kim has reorganized our efforts, and our attempt is to make them more efficient and more effective.”
Now the NHL and Davis are aiming to ensure the league’s position on diversity — and its message that hockey is for everyone — is being heard.
“Organizations have a culture and a leadership mindset, and often they just assume it’s being displayed, as opposed to needing to be very intentional about organizing and applying it,” Davis said. “I think that’s been the case with hockey, which has a culture of being a very quiet and humble sport, and which has not played to our strength of commitment in these areas. We need to be much more intentional about this.”
In what may be its most important and most visible move, the NHL will vastly enhance its Hockey Is For Everyone campaign. The league plans to take it from that single-month celebration in February to a year-round program with designs on constant storytelling and integration throughout its messaging and public relations, thereby notably increasing the level of fan engagement it provides.
“These are not flavor-of-the-month initiatives for us, but something that needs to be integrated into the mainstream,” Davis said. “We want to signal to the marketplace that our commitment to this work is not episodic, it’s not event driven, but about the DNA and culture of the league.”
By shifting it to a year-round program, it will also allow the league to dive deeper into nationally recognized cultural months, such as Black History Month in February or Women’s History Month in March, with additional storytelling and programming.
The NHL also will continue the thought leadership and lecture series at which Frey spoke this past August, something the league is aiming to bring across the country, though details have not yet been announced.
“I’m pleased the NHL is interested in learning more about this and is thinking a lot about the diversity of the younger generation,” said Frey, who noted that while he’s spoken on this topic with countless numbers of political consultants, chambers of commerce, businesses and cultural institutions, he has never made a presentation to a sports league before. “These are topics that need to be considered if they’re going to want to make their product accessible to younger fans — they need to be proactive about this.”
There will be a more concerted effort to also have the league’s 31 teams be more involved in diversity and inclusion events. The NHL is developing hyperlocal pilot programs with the Buffalo Sabres and the Detroit Red Wings, working with each team to better reach and engage new audiences through social impact programs, such as improving infrastructure in local parks and partnering with city governments on programs.
“With only three public rinks available to residents, we are working with both the NHL and NHLPA to explore some traditional and nontraditional methods to bring the sport to more Detroit families,” said Kevin Brown, Red Wings director of community relations. “Over the last few months, we’ve been working on creating tailor-made programming and experiences for residents within the city, so that we can work with the children and parents on how best to revitalize Detroit’s youth hockey ecosystem.”
Davis said the league recognizes that in order for these diversity efforts to trickle down beyond NHL arenas and programs to small community rinks across North America, it will need to take on a deeper leadership role in these areas.
“We have to understand that the NHL is really the north star for the sport,” Davis said. “We can have the best intentions in the world, but if we aren’t using our power to touch the end user and influencing all of those partners and stakeholders that ultimately touch the fans, the families and those that surround the culture of hockey, we aren’t going to see real change.”
For example, the NHL is helping to install cultural competency training for the board that governs USA Hockey, an organization that had 646,120 registered members last year, including 562,145 players and 58,645 coaches.
“We’re having conversations with USA Hockey about how we can help their board and volunteers understand the changing landscape, and how to deal, in a much better way, with diverse audiences,” Davis said. “If volunteers aren’t being equipped with these tools or the knowledge of how to de-escalate certain situations, we can have all the campaigns and programs we want, but we’re not going to be getting at the core of these issues and we aren’t going to see an impact.”
Not about politics
Hockey diversity blogger Douglas said that his hope is that the NHL’s efforts to engage fans and stakeholders on topics surrounding diversity and inclusion helps to foster more conversation throughout hockey, as well as more understanding.
“Players of color in the league now are more open to speaking up and speaking out on issues related to race, diversity and things that the league and sport need to do to improve,” Douglas said. “During the playoffs, [NBC broadcaster] Doc Emrick pointed out a black player in a game and gave it context, providing a history of African-American players in the NHL. I’ve never heard that before, and it was refreshing and also important. People are curious about who these players are, and now hockey is open to discuss it and have a conversation about all groups becoming part of the hockey fabric.”
Davis said the league will work with stakeholder groups and teams to build a pipeline that would allow more diverse voices to advance to the front-office ranks, as well as in coaching, officiating and broadcasting.
The NHL also is establishing a diversity and inclusion-focused senior leadership council, a first for the league, which will be chaired by Bettman and Buffalo Sabres owner and President Kim Pegula.
“Any time you have different genders, different generations, different backgrounds, you get a blend of voices and thinking that can advance your business — there is undisputed evidence to that fact,” Davis said.
But as has been seen in other leagues when players, teams and even leagues themselves take on social issues, often that can be construed as a political message or be the cause of backlash from fans — something that both Bettman and Davis said is not the case.
“This is not about politics; it’s about making the right decision and doing the right things,” Bettman said. Asked if that would put the league under a harsher microscope if a situation like the one that happened to Smith-Pelly occurs this season, Bettman said, “It’s about creating an environment where things like that don’t happen, and if they do, making sure we do the right thing.”
Davis doubled down, saying the NHL was “not political, we’re being business-minded. We lead from a position of facts and data, not from a position of emotion,” she said. “I will tell you that coming from the outside, we will take a very proactive position on certain things that maybe five years ago, we wouldn’t have.
“I have talked to people who have had experiences both positive and negative in being different, whether it’s racial or sexual orientation, and not felt welcome. No one should have that experience. We should not be in a position of alienating, particularly if we want our business and our sport to grow.”