Commoditization of Sports: Hockey as a Good

As the popularity of a sport begins to grow, and when it peaks as one of the four major national professional sports leagues, the role it plays in the construction of national and local identities slowly becomes evident. The idea of a sporting match as an event with sponsors that must compete for the attention and money of the consumer has become increasingly pervasive throughout the discourse of sports as commodities. As John Nauright argues, “the process of displaying a culture in the lead-up to an event and during the event itself has had to focus on ready-made markets, thus reinforcing stereotypes about a place and its people” (1325). The increasingly globalized and commoditized nature it has taken on is representative of the sport-media-economic complex by which it is characterized it in its reproduction to other nations, such as the United States. Having found is basis for expansion in these pre-existing markets, ice hockey is then able to successfully extend its reach across nations as a good to be consumed. As such, the modern, predominantly western, consumption of hockey is primarily a result of profit-driving motivations of many prominent stakeholders that has intensely gendered, racialized, and violent origins.

Similar to the National Football League (NFL) and Major League Baseball (MLB), hockey is not gender marked by a female or women’s counterpart, like the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA). Yet, many women still enjoy consuming this sport in their own ways. The article, “Constructing the Preferred Spectator: Arena Design and Operation and the Consumption of Hockey in 1930s Toronto” by Russell Field, helps to set the stage in which women were first introduced to the sport of ice hockey. Through this author’s close analysis of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ stadium, he is able to show how the consumption of ice hockey has been systematically gendered for an extremely long time. Conn Smythe, one of the executives of Maple Leaf Gardens, designed the venue with the particular goal of transforming the sport into a respectable pastime. The time period in which the stadium was being built saw several reforms that focused on the use of public spaces to convey messages about Christian, middle-class society; sports fell under these reforms as muscular Christianity, and organizations like the YMCA, exemplify (652). This reorganization of social space saw the movement of the arena to an area that was dominated by stores targeted toward women, shopping, and consumerism. Field cites a line from the New York Chronicle which stated: “‘the presence of an assemblage of ladies purifies the moral atmosphere’ and suppresses ‘the outburst of intemperate language which the excitement of the contest so frequently induces’” (655). Despite the reforms that were taking place, this overriding notion of women as gentle, soft presences remained firm. Ultimately these means would be achieved through the introduction of women into the arena and the various roles they would end up playing, keeping males in check by accompanying them to the game or attending to them as ushers. Through the introduction of a different gender, and the intentional classing of spectators in attendance, it was expected that the profits would increase dramatically. Interestingly enough, the majority of hockey fans that I am aware of back home are all female. Their loyalty to the San Jose Sharks organization and sport of ice hockey as a whole is as passionate as their male counterparts, who do not seem to be as visible to me. (While these male fans do exist, probably to a greater extent than female ones, most of them have a more intimate connection the sport, having grown up playing or watching hockey from a young age.) Although it seems as though that gender dynamic of female consumerism as positively influencing the sport during the Smythe-Maple Leaf era would be long gone, it is still very much a factor in the selling of the sport today. There are entire merchandise sections devoted to female apparel and goods. Rather than just taking the male versions of t-shirts and making it in a more fitted style, the Sharks online store also features extremely feminized products. Some of the items targeted specifically toward women are charm bracelets, panties, footwear, and tumblers—all with pink accents. Furthermore, through new digital cookie tracking systems, advertisers are better able to target female consumers through avenues such as Facebook. I have often seen “Suggested Posts” that market sweatshirts depicting thumbs pointing up that say “This Girl Loves Her Sharks”. The notion that a feminizing force will balance out the hypermasculine environment of an ice hockey arena still persists, and each hockey organization and the NHL as a whole continues to capitalize on it.

Furthermore, as a sport that constructs and reproduces nation while it spreads, it is worthwhile discussing what exactly those standards for nationality are. Because there are so few black players in the National Hockey League, arguably the biggest North American association of professional hockey players, it begs the question as to how this specific demographic factors into how nation is produced. In ““Goodbye to the Gangstas”: The NBA Dress Code, Ray Emery, and the Policing of Blackness in Basketball and Hockey”, by Stacy L. Lorenz and Rod Murray, it is argued that “cultural representations of Blackness in […] the National Hockey League” relate “to contemporary forms of racism in North American society” (23). One of the main issues surrounding Ray Emery was his decision to customize his helmet to include a depiction of Mike Tyson, a controversial figure because of his association to crimes of sexual assault. While the Senators’ general manager John Muckler did not explicitly ask him to replace the helmet, they “had a discussion about what was right and what was wrong”, Muckler claiming he only had Emery’s best interests in mind (38). Helping Emery keep with this “professional” image, a common trope in the NBA dress code debate, was less about guiding him in the direction that would advance his career and more about policing forms of Black expression in the sport. Lorenz and Murray argue that if the NHL were so concerned with its public image and desire to stay away from topics like sexual assault, they would also be concerned with the language used by players in the locker room. They cite the work of another author, which “describes the hockey locker room as a “rape culture,” a place “where females are referred to as ‘groupies,’ ‘puck bunnies,’ ‘pucks,’ and ‘dirties’”” (38).

While there are individuals like Muckler who claim to only have the best interests of each individual player at heart, there are instances like the ones involving white hockey players with arrests for assault that do not get quite the same amount of media attention or press coverage. Semyon Varlamov, a goalie for the Colorado Avalanche, was arrested at the end of October of last year for kidnapping and assault of his girlfriend. This incident failed to spark the same degree of outrage and backlash surrounding events involving Ray Emery, who conduct was on par with league guidelines but only outfitted with the visage of a black boxer. Despite how recent the altercation and arrest were, it has almost been forgotten in Denver and the NHL. He was released and the case was dismissed on the grounds of lack of evidence and that they could not prove anything beyond a reasonable doubt. Raquel Villanueva of USA Today Sports reports that, “Jean Martineau, the vice president of communications and business operations for the Colorado Avalanche, told KUSA-TV: ‘From the start the organization as well as his teammates supported him. And with today’s DA’s decision, this file comes to an end.’” Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo! Sports referred to the “incident [becoming] an international one due to Varlamov’s status as expected starter for the Russian national team at the Sochi Olympics. A Russian official accused the U.S. of trumping up the charge to weaken his nation’s team at the Winter Games.” The main point of contention in his whole case (domestic violence, his quick release, and his subsequent return to the team) was completely overshadowed by suggestions that it was a ploy by an international rival so close to the Olympic stage.

The inherent problem with this is that “[w]hen an athlete of color commits a rape or another assault against a woman, especially if his body is inscribed with ghetto signifiers such as gold teeth and tattoos, the average suburban White fan can dismiss him as belonging to an alien culture with questionable values” (40). This “other” that Emery embodies, through his representation of Tyson, clashes directly with the specific presentation of the nation and national values on a bigger, more global scale. As a good for consumption, ice hockey is supposed to adhere to standard norms of Whiteness, or the “we” against which Emery’s “otherness” or “Blackness” conflicts. There was nothing exceptional about how he grew up, having been born and raised in Canada to a middle-class family, except for his race. Since dominant discourses claim that North America lives in a post-racial world where race no longer exists, “his “Blackness” is always present—but it is framed as “attitude” or “style”” (36). This way, it is easier for such methods of control to slip by largely undetected. By regulating this deviant behavior, they are able to maintain that standard of nationality they rely on when selling the game to the American, or western, public. Divergence from this conventional depiction of whiteness would have the same effect as the embracing of hip hop culture by NBA players, which eventually turned away fans of the sport for being “too black”. In order to maintain the popularity, and more importantly ticket sales, for the sport, his behavior was restrained. This is not only an example of how the NHL serves to police “the other” in the league, but also how commoditization, racism, and nationalism intersect and continue to reproduce one another through the spread of popularity of the sport.

Given that the violence exhibited in Semyon Varlamov’s case of assault is what many scholars cite as stemming from the violence nature of ice hockey itself, and as one of the major stereotypes surrounding hockey, it is crucial to examine how violence is consumed as a form of entertainment in this site of production. “Blood Sports and Cherry Pie: Some Economics of Violence in the National Hockey League” by J. C. H. Jones, D. G. Ferguson, and K. G. Stewart, examines the ways in which violence is consumed and how it does or does not drive ticket sales, interest, and attendance of hockey games. They highlight a notable clash between the NHL, which sanctions violence to a certain extent in order to entertain audiences, and the courts, which have failed to adequately address the issue (64). They focus their work on the testing of “the ‘blood sport’ hypothesis that there is a positive relationship between NHL team violence and game attendance, and second, to test the sub-hypothesis that violence is positively associated with American, not Canadian, spectators” (65). It is interesting to note one of their other minor arguments is that hockey was sold to America on the basis of violence, since potential audiences would react more positively to that than the other intricacies of the game that they might not be able to fully understand. Through the use of an empirical model, they were able to conclude that the relationship between violence and attendance was positive. However, the more extreme forms of violence saw a spike in American attendance and, thus, the ‘blood sport’ phenomenon they mention is predominantly American (66). It seems that the main attraction for large audiences, therefore, is the capitalization of the media on certain rivalries and the notion of the NHL as a large corporation in the entertainment business. Consequently, the regulation of violence in the game would be largely counterproductive, especially if it were set forth by the NHL rather than by government intervention. It would shrink ticket sales and attendance and negatively impact a model that has relied on violence as a key element of the sport for decades. Based on my previous media analysis of this stereotype at play, it can easily be seen that this form of physical altercation takes place primarily among Caucasians, rather than black people or other people of color. Based on the assumptions made earlier about aggressive athletes of color being more impressionable in negative ways on white, suburban audiences, line brawls among black people would not have the same impact. Because they are all white, their fighting is legitimized as the nature of the sport and not the nature of the race. Audience consumption of this entertainment factor would not be nearly as high if the race roles were inverted.

 

Sources:

Benavides, O. Hugo. “Football and the Nation: Producing American Culture.” Oppositional Conversations 1. 2012. Web.

Field, Russell. “Constructing the Preferred Spectator: Arena Design and Operation and the Consumption of Hockey in 1930s Toronto.” The International Journal of the History of Sport 25.6 (2008): 649-77. T and F Online, 8 Apr. 2008. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3487636&gt;.

Jones, J. S. C. H., D. G. Ferguson, and K. G. Stewart. “Blood Sports and Cherry Pie: Some Economics of Violence in the National Hockey League.” The American Journal of Economics and Sociology 52.1 (1993): 63-78. JSTOR. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3487636&gt;.

Lorenz, Stacy L., and Rod Murray. “”Goodbye to the Gangstas”: The NBA Dress Code, Ray Emery, and the Policing of Blackness in Basketball and Hockey.” Journal of Sport and Social Issues 38.23 (2014): 23-50. SAGE Publications. Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society, 17 June 2013. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3993813&gt;.

Nauright, John. “Global Games: Culture, Political Economy and Sport in the Globalised World of the 21st Century.” Third World Quarterly, Going Global: The Promises and Pitfalls of Hosting Global Games 25.7 (2004): 1325-336. JSTOR. Taylor & Francis, Ltd. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3993813&gt;.

Villanueva, Raquel. “Avalanche Goalie Semyon Varlamov’s Assault Case Dismissed.” USA Today. Gannett, 22 Dec. 2013. Web. <http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nhl/avalanche/2013/12/20/semyon-varlamov-assault-case-dismissed-evgenia-vavrinyuk/4146735/&gt;.

Wyshynski, Greg. “Semyon Varlamov’s Assault Charges Dismissed Due to ‘reasonable Doubt’.” Yahoo! Sports. NBC Sports Network, Stats LLC, Opta., 20 Dec. 2013. Web. <http://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/nhl-puck-daddy/semyon-varlamov-assault-charges-dropped-due-reasonable-doubt-212437932–nhl.html&gt;.

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