The Real Score: Busy Times for Hockey Fans, New Fans and PWHL Boston

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Published: 01-18-2024 5:21 PM

Hockey fans — are you ready for a busy few months? The Bruins sit in first place in the Eastern Conference. UMass continues its quest for a top seed in Hockey East – plus a spot in Springfield’s NCAA DI Men’s Ice Hockey Regional. And PWHL Boston continues its inaugural season in the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL).

The PWHL is the newest iteration of professional women’s hockey in the United States. Only two weeks into the season, the PWHL is setting records, generating excitement, and building the foundation for a successful league. In Ottawa, 8,318 fans broke the all-time professional women’s hockey attendance record. Roughly 630,000 fans viewed PWHL games on YouTube, and the PWHL earned an estimated 260 million impressions on social media.

Such success is consistent with the growth of women’s sports in the current sports landscape. When women’s sports are available to watch, when they are covered by the media, when content is accessible, and when fans have a chance to develop an interest in the players and teams, women’s sports thrive. Whether it’s the 1.7 million people who watched the women’s college volleyball championship or the 10 million who watched the women’s college basketball championship game, the demand for women’s sports is strong.

PWHL Boston emerges within this growth period while facing the challenges of being a new team. Building a fan base for a new team is a substantial challenge. Creating new fans is hard without a shared history, established fan traditions, and limited awareness among the general population. For new teams, one key factor is a fan’s social connections with other fans. In a study on a newly formed college football team, fans’ relationships with other fans often drove their support of the team.

Sports fans rarely consume alone. How often do you watch a game entirely by yourself without being next to someone else watching, texting a friend, or interacting with others on social media? Throughout my research on sports fans, the social nature of being a fan has been a consistent finding. Fans interact with other fans. Fans develop meaningful relationships with other fans. And their behaviors as fans — whether watching games or arguing about potential trades — become embedded in their fan-to-fan relationships. 

As a Bruins fan, imagine you wake up to hear they traded David Pastrnak. What would you do next? You could call your friend, a Bruins fan, and complain about the trade. Or turn to a group text with your family, also Bruins fans, to give your opinion. You could visit a fan forum or social media site to understand the deal. It would be difficult to experience such a fan moment alone because part of being a sports fan is interacting with other fans. For PWHL Boston, creating fan-to-fan relationships is among the most significant challenges.

These fan-to-fan relationships matter. In one study, my colleagues and I found the size and composition of a fan’s network — characteristics of the “other” people with whom someone attended games — were the strongest predictors of whether that fan repurchased season tickets. Finding those “other” people can be challenging for PWHL fans — something we found in a study of WNBA fans.

When my colleagues and I asked WNBA fans with whom they discussed WNBA matters or watched WNBA games, 28% said, “No One.” Such fans, whom we titled “IsoFans,” are thus forced to consume alone. To follow alone. To be a sports fan alone. That is hard to do! When we compared the behaviors of IsoFans to the “Social Fans” who had fan-to-fan ties, Social Fans attended more games, watched more games, and felt a stronger connection to the team. 

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Which brings me back to PWHL Boston — as the team searches for success on the ice, many fans may be searching for other fans with whom to connect. Fan bases of any size are built person-by-person. Strong fan bases are built tie-by-tie. The interactions and relationships between fans become the team’s foundation. You may be among the thousands of fans already attending PWHL Boston games. You may be among the millions of fans already watching the PWHL. Maybe you don’t have the bandwidth in your hockey calendar to watch a new team play. Whichever defines you, you can support PWHL Boston by interacting with other fans. Fan bases are built one fan-to-fan interaction at a time. A text, phone call, like, or high five goes a long way in creating a new fan base.  

Matthew Katz is an associate professor and associate department chair in the Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management and a Dean’s Research Fellow in the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts.