The National Women’s Hockey League is just six years old, has only six teams, and, like many women’s professional sports leagues, has faced slow early growth. The players are part-time, often competing only on the weekends, and the salaries are small—just $7,500 a year on average. Their games are broadcast on Twitch, an online streaming platform usually used for video games. And the coronavirus pandemic ended last year’s season early.
So you might think that when Barstool Sports, a media company and website with a large and rabid following, gave a couple of NWHL players press ahead of a planned January bubble tournament and encouraged its readers to support the contest, the league would have been thrilled. Instead, the NWHL distanced itself from the site, and some potential fans, creating an online firestorm that highlighted a deeper question: Can women’s sports leagues afford to be choosy about their fan bases?
Barstool Sports, which says it has 66 million unique monthly visitors, has had a history of racism, misogyny, and trolling anyone who challenges its online community or its employees since the website was founded in 2007. The site publishes regular features that ask community members to rate women (also referred to as “smokeshows”) on their appearance. Its bloggers and radio-show personalities routinely objectify female athletes and sports reporters, make rape jokes, and use anti-Semitic language. One Barstool podcast episode even spelled out the N-word in its title. The former hosts, who are Black, said that the episode would address the unrepentant use of the term by Barstool’s founder, Dave Portnoy, who is white, and ask the question: Can you make a racist comment and not be racist? A 2017 television partnership between Barstool and ESPN was canceled after just 10 days, thanks to internal pushback at ESPN, mainly from female employees who had been targeted by the site in the past.