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Growing the Game: Is the NHL’s TikTok hire really the “Voice of the Fans”?

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The NHL’s TikTok hire is meant to grow the game — but is that the best way for the NHL to appeal to fans?

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman prepares for the first round of the 2020 National Hockey League Draft at the NHL Network Studio on October 06, 2020 in Secaucus, New Jersey. Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

On June 30, the NHL hired 19-year-old TikToker Josh Richards to a one-year, special advisor role with the purpose of expanding the NHL’s youth fanbase as part of a larger initiative to grow the game. The NHL went even further, dubbing him as the “voice of the fans.”

If you had no idea who Josh Richards was, or that the NHL was interested in working with him before this, then you’re not alone. If you’re not ‘up’ on the GenZ TikTok-trends, here’s a primer; He’s a Canadian social media influencer and TikTok content creator, who has endeared himself to the NHL presumably through his TikTok dances in various NHL jerseys. He was chosen because he apparently “shares the league’s vision to engage young hockey fans” and “related to our players and fans.”

Um, okay.

Growing the game theoretically means expanding the consumer basis for the NHL. We know that the NHL’s biggest consumers are male, White, and between the ages of 18 and 24. Richards is young, but he’s a member of the NHL’s largest consumers in age, plus Richards is both white and male. Why appeal to your largest captive audience? It makes more economic sense to instead identify the demographics in which the NHL has the least foothold in, and then work to develop relationships with those groups in order to actually grow the game.

That’s not to say that Josh Richards can’t do a good job, or that I’m rooting for him to fail — I would love to see him succeed and champion diversity, inclusion and accessibility in actionable and impactful ways. The problem doesn’t necessarily lie with him (although there are ethical concerns with Josh Richards when it comes to his podcast with Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy). It’s about the effective and more economically sound strategies the NHL could grow the game that are being disregarded in place of the NHL’s TikTok hire.

There’s social responsibility with growing the game. Sports culture is a parallel to our social environment. The attitudes, behaviors and expectations that exist in our everyday life are exemplified in sports culture, which means inclusion, diversity and accessibility in sports is huge, and has far-reaching effects on our communities.

At the end of the day, investing in the communities that have largely been ignored by the NHL, such as the Black community and communities of color, Indigenous communities, the disabled community, the LGBTQIA+ community and women, is a good idea, because it’s a good thing to do.

Alongside that, there are real, economic benefits for the NHL to expand their consumer bases (i.e. “grow the game”) in these communities, which would both have a lasting socio-cultural impact, and increase their current and long-term economic potential.

Let’s first look at the less-than-stellar relationship the NHL has with its female audience. If the Logan Mailloux signing didn’t surprise you, then you’re probably already aware of the NHL’s track record when it comes to women in hockey and female fans (and survivors in general, regardless of gender identity).

The NHL also has little in the way of a formal relationship with women’s professional hockey.

Licensed sports merchandise is projected to reach over $15B in North America by 2023, and women direct 83 percent of consumption through buying influence and power. And, if the NHL is particularly interested in accessing a younger fanbase through Richards, then they should focus their efforts on appealing to young women and girls specifically — GenZ holds approximately $44B in discretionary spending per year.

A great way to empower and appeal to young women and girls and secure them as a consumer is to invest in their role models, like the NWHL and PWHPA. Just a thought.

The NHL also needs to engage more completely with the Black community, communities of color and Indigenous communities with both actionable diversity and inclusion initiatives, and anti-racist initiatives. One way the NHL could do this is by hiring more women of color, persons of color and Indigenous people into visible positions of power on all levels of the hockey industry.

At the very least each NHL team could sign the damn Black Girls Hockey Club ‘Get Uncomfortable’ pledge. At this point, it’s just embarrassing.

The NHL has also let the majority of their LGBTQIA+ inclusion initiatives be buoyed by fun social media posts and Pride Tape instead of undertaking additional direct actions, such as partnering with local LGBT+ recreational hockey organizations.

The LGBT+ community holds approximately $1T purchasing power in the United States alone. Seems to me that the NHL is losing out on significant potential revenue in this community alone by not expanding their repertoire beyond Pride Nights.

Building upon the theme of ignored fanbases, the NHL has yet to invest a greater amount of time, money and energy promoting Sledge hockey leagues and athletes, among other forms of Para ice hockey.

Accessibility in hockey itself is a huge conversation. For some fans, games and fan experiences are still inaccessible. Investing in enhanced viewing experiences and accommodating fans with mobility challenges and sight and/or hearing impairments during in-game experiences are all actionable approaches to actively grow the game.

At the very least, the NHL should have created a diverse team of people to collaborate on actionable, distinctive strategies to grow the game. If the NHL wants to elect a “voice of the fans,” then shouldn’t they create a group of people in order to accurately represent their fanbase?