Frozen Out: Audiences, Affect and Women’s Hockey
thesisposted on 22.05.2021, 16:20 by Donna Gall
Every four years, millions of Canadians watch women play hockey during the Olympics. Yet when it comes to regularly scheduled professional games, that audience dramatically decreases. In 2019, low audience numbers led to the closure of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and put the future of professional women’s hockey in jeopardy. As with many women’s sports, broadcasters argue the cost of production is too great, the value of airtime minutes too high to take the financial risk of televising the women’s game without guaranteeing viewers for advertisers. Activists and athletes argue that the audience must be built through broadcaster investment. While scholars have examined hockey for its representational power to define national and gendered identities, there has been shockingly little research into the hockey audience. This mixed method audience reception study seeks to explore the viewing inconsistencies of the audience for women’s hockey. Quantitative results from an online survey (n =685) provided data about viewing habits, perceptions and knowledge. This data informed qualitative focus groups (n = 25) that in turn provided contextualization and reasoning for the quantitative data. Mixed method analysis intersected grounded theory with audience reception, sport media, feminist studies and affect theory to identify a persistent discursive strategy framing women’s hockey as “pure” for resisting the crass commercialization, incessant violence and individualistic star system of professional men’s hockey. I argue that women’s hockey becomes the manifestation of the Canadian myth of hockey; men’s hockey as it used to be. As a nostalgic placeholder devoid of context, contemporary women’s hockey functions within a double bind; virtuous and elevated yet non-viable as a commercial enterprise. This ensures that the sport remains precarious at best. “Pure” women’s hockey also functions as a postfeminist essentializing discourse that solves the gender risk of hockey’s hypermasculinity while disavowing women’s physically aggressive play and sport media’s affective currency. Whereas Olympic women’s hockey relies on patriotic pride for audience affective engagement, professional women’s hockey is framed by cognitive contradictions, “pure” but commercial, gender normative but transgressive. Confused and disconnected from the game and players, audiences are left unaffected.