The Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA) announced that it left the NHL as two of its leaders, Evander Kane and Akim Liu, claimed that the NHL was not seriously committed to dealing with racial barriers and inequality issues.
The HDA claimed in a statement that the NHL was “focused on performative public relations efforts that seemed aimed at quickly moving past important conversations about race needed in the game.”
Some of the initiatives that the HDA sought from the NHL included a fund to support local programs for minorities, the League promoting social justice, Black owned businesses and individuals, and implementing rules changes for inclusivity in the game.
On August 26, when major sports leagues like the NBA postponed games and immediately addressed players’ concerns about racism, including promoting get out the vote initiatives in their arenas, the NHL went ahead and played its games that day.
The League was criticized by the media and NHL broadcasters for having been “tone deaf” to the Black Lives Matter movement.
In response to that criticism, the NHL announced it would provide training to promote inclusion and diversity for its players and employees.
The NHL also stated it would open a dialogue with ethnically diverse organizations to attempt to address the lack of diversity in the League.
The HDA found those measures did not go far enough to address the systemic inequality in the NHL.
If the NHL needed a lesson in how to address BLM and act as a business, it should consider Nike’s handling of former NFL player, Colin Kaepernick.
Nike has proven that despite the controversy surrounding Kaepernick, and the fact the NFL had no interest in hiring him back, taking a symbolic stand through Kaepernick (even if it is perceived as an implicitly political one) can be good business and still be the right thing to do morally.
With that, Kaepernick’s “Believe in Something” ad was released, and it didn’t show a single clip of him playing sports or doing anything athletic.
All it had was his narration and a montage of diverse athletes, including visible minorities and the disabled, exerting their will and proving their excellence in sports despite the immense barriers they faced.
Nike experienced a 5% stock price increase in the three weeks after its Kaepernick “Believe in Something” video was released, resulting in a more than $3 billion USD increase in Nike’s stock price valuation.
Instead of alienating heartland consumers, Nike smartly benefited from the cultural and political climate and popularity of the ad.
Its sales spiked, particularly in urban centers where the resonance of the Kaepernick ad met favorably with the Nike brand’s demographics of young, urban, and diverse customers.
Bloomberg reported that the immediate media exposure of Nike placing the ad on Twitter (prior to rolling it out widely) was worth $43 million USD alone.
In total, the press and social media buzz resulted in an estimated $165 million USD spike in Nike sales with the ad timed around the Labor Day weekend when students would be returning to school.
To be sure, Nike does not make its marketing decisions by chance, so it must have done a thorough analysis of how a Colin Kaepernick ad would play out in conservative red states and elsewhere.
Even with the possibility of alienating conservatives, the sales success and the discussion it provoked in public and private conversations proved that Nike did do the right thing in using Kaepernick in its marketing.
In marketing, authenticity matters to a customer’s connection to the company on an emotional level. The stance Nike took made the social media post go viral and was a public relations coup.
Nike’s use of Kaepernick was not only a political statement but virtue signaled to the public Nike’s core brand values about striving for greatness in athletics, individualism, and standing out of the crowd by believing in something important.
The NHL is a business but also a social and cultural influencer. Sports are a symbolic representation of those greater aspirations everyone feels when they look up to athletes.
What the NHL does in response to HDA’s criticism will signal what it believes in.
The NHL should learn from Kaepernick and implement serious changes to show it cares not only about players from diverse backgrounds, but it is willing to stand for something truly greater than itself.
Daniel Tsai teaches marketing and is also a law and business lecturer at Ryerson University