NHL Avoids a Close Shave on Playoff Beards
If hockey's most important television executive had his way, the bruised chins of the NHL's budding stars would be forever bare.
NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus told the Dan Patrick Show that he's requested the league end the annual tradition of playoff beards, arguing that they obscure the faces of players, hurting their marketability.
"Let’s get their faces out there. Let’s talk about how young and attractive they are. What model citizens they are," Lazarus said. "They have a great opportunity with more endorsements. Or simply more recognition with fans saying, 'That guy looks like the kid next door,' which many of these guys do."
Lazarus's reasoning isn't exactly out of left field: One of the (many) theories explaining hockey's relative lack of popularity in the U.S. has to do with masks and visors hiding the stars' faces. Of course, that hasn't had any impact on football's ability to promote its players, but the NHL could certainly use any slight advantage.
Still, Lazarus's comments come across as the out-of-touch musings of a middle-aged corporate suit who might not fully understand the root of the sport's appeal. Despite its high-cost barrier to entry, hockey has a reputation as a blue-collar sport whose players embody "toughness" and stand in stark contrast to those athletes thought to be more coddled in, say, baseball.
Furthermore, NHL fans already skew affluent: According to Nielsen, a third of the hockey fanbase earns six figures or more. Beards haven't turned away high earners from watching hockey.
A smarter strategy to increase the NHL's fanbase would be to diversify it, to bring in more of the blue-collar fans the sport's reputation suggests. Additionally, targeting younger fans is also a constant goal of sports leagues, and in case you haven't noticed, beards are in.
The real truth, however, is that all of this is silly and a beard is just a beard. I have a hard time believing that in 2015, the average sports fan -- or anyone, really -- thinks a little facial hair affects one's standing as a "model citizen." That's the kind of thinking that has sustained the New York Yankees' ridiculous ban on beards all these years, rules touted as "professionalism" by a team that has become the face of cold corporatism in sports. Hockey stands in stark contrast to that -- it might not be the most popular kid in school, but it's the one with the most personality.
Playoff beards are galvanizing -- they unite players and fans, who get in on the fun and grow their own beards in solidarity with their teams. Since 2009, the Beard-a-thon campaign has encouraged thousands of fans to grow beards and says it has raised more than $3 million for NHL-affiliated charities. The campaign hasn't had trouble attracting marketing partners: It's sponsored by Just for Men. There's an opportunity to interest other companies in the beard-grooming business, some of which are already involved in sports marketing, such as Gillette and Dollar Shave Club.
Sure, I prefer my Henrik Lundqvists neatly trimmed and my Patrick Sharps clean-shaven. Push those beautiful, bare faces out as much as possible during the regular season. But for two months out of the year, may the beard be with you.
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