Latin hockey fans and NHL exclusion: Brazil

Latin Hockey
min - read
Luiza Vidal
Latin Hockey
min - read
If you only have a few minutes to spare, here's what you should know:
When I started watching hockey a few years ago, the first thing I noticed was the lack of Latino players and families around the league.
Brazil is not Hispanic - but we're still here
What could the NHL do to make it better?


When I started watching hockey a few years ago, the first thing I noticed was the lack of Latino players and families around the league. To be fair, the NHL isn't the most inclusive place in North America, but the exclusion of Latino people was a little surprising considering the number of Latin immigrants moving to the United States and Canada every year. One can use the argument about cultural differences, the giant cost of playing hockey, and the fact that hockey is a winter sport and we barely have a proper winter in most of Latin America. Yet there I was a 20-year-old young adult from Brazil, watching and loving the sport just as much as anybody else. And I'm not the only one. Across Latin America, there are fan clubs, hockey pages - big ones - and fans who love the sport as those raised in traditional hockey markets like Toronto and Edmonton, despite not seeing themselves on the screen. With that in mind, the question begs, even though Latinos are a minority, should we be represented on ice?
The Latino community did have some recognition this season and the NHL does the Hispanic heritage month celebration. Now, even though Auston Matthews, one of the biggest names in the league, is of Latino heritage, why do we only have a Hispanic month celebration? Why is it centered on "Hispanic" and not inclusive of Latino heritage? I couldn't possibly know the answer to that question. One thing some people, including those in the hockey world, fail to acknowledge is: Latin America is not only Hispanic. And Latinos have been longing for recognition in the game.

Auston Matthews
Photo credit: © Christopher Hanewinckel - USA TODAY Sports

Brazil is not Hispanic - but we're still here

If one is a Twitter user and a fan of literally anything, it's easy to notice that no matter what is being discussed, there will be a Brazilian involved at some point. Hockey is no different. As a Brazilian hockey fan, I feel obligated to discuss my own country and colleagues in the first part of this series. To give anyone who might be confused some context: Hispanic is a term that defines Spanish-speaking countries. It may come as a surprise to some but, no, Brazilians do not speak Spanish - and therefore, we're not Hispanic. The main language spoken in Brazil is actually Portuguese. Brazilians, however, are Latinos, and we have a beautiful community of hockey fans.

Deep questions come with deeper answers

I'm a content creator and podcaster at Tic-Tac-Gol, a Brazilian hockey platform which I helped create, and we're very passionate about the sport. To uncover the feelings of my colleagues and peers, I created a questionnaire to examine how they feel being a Latino fan of a North American-centered sport. The overwhelming answer was, “lonely.” Don't get me wrong, our community is amazing. Working with multiple North American websites, however, I have nearly always been the only Latina in the room. My experience has been lonely, and the responses of my peers resonated with me.

"Being Latin/Latin American is like being invisible, or non-existent," said Thiago Farias, a Brazilian fan since the late 90s. "The NHL does a couple of actions in a season during the Hispanic Heritage Month and that's all. We are not a targeted market or even an audience they have interest in."

This part hit home. In a league where the reigning Hart Trophy winner, Auston Matthews, is half-Mexican, how can we feel so invisible? Farias is not alone in this feeling. Natália Brauns, a Bruins fan from Rio de Janeiro, expressed a similar opinion.

"I feel completely invisible and sometimes unwanted,” said Brauns on the questionnaire. “I try not to think about it too much considering many things involving hockey culture are very problematic, but it can be very isolating."

"It's funny when gringos get pleasantly surprised with the fact that Brazilians watch hockey (including a player from my team, which was very fun)... When the teams (or even the journalists that cover them) don't acknowledge how much we sacrifice for our love for them, sometimes it seems like everything kind of goes to waste."

The isolation is amplified due to the distance and the time zones, as expressed by multiple volunteers who answered the questionnaire. We can only hold on to each other and dream about the day we will be inside our favorite team's arena, watching our favorite players for the first time. It's a dream most of us can't afford.

The NHL is losing money and viewers

As mentioned, there are Brazilians who have been watching hockey for a long time, with fan networks existing since the 1990s. With that, one might think NHL games are now on national television or at least easy to access, however, that's not the reality. NHL games only started to be streamed consistently in Brazil when Disney's Latin American sports platform, Star+, was released two years ago. I've been a hockey fan since 2019 and we only got a legal streaming platform in 2021.

I understand it's not entirely the NHL's fault and of course, it depends on the country and who holds the streaming rights. Brazilians, however, have been a constant presence in the hockey community since 2019. Why isn't the NHL recognizing us yet?

When asked about the lack of Latino representation in the NHL, Érica Barros, a Washington Capitals fan, said, "It's sad, [...] there is such a big and participative community here. We will never be their number one priority but it would be great to see some recognition."

Out of 15 people who answered the questionnaire, seven are part of a portal or fan page about the NHL and hockey in their respective countries, and that's only of the people who participated. If one were to search a ‘team name and Brazil’ on Twitter, there's a 99% chance they would find at least one fan or fan page. Even the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes have Brazilian fans. If the NHL decided to invest in marketing toward Brazilian fans, they would not only make money, but they would also gain space in a huge sport-loving country.

Journalist and New York Islanders fan Larissa Tallon gave her perspective on how well hockey could perform here if given the right amount of dedication.

"As a fan, It's pretty obvious that the NHL does not care about us in any way,” said Tallon. “There's no content, no policy, no strategy to reach us and even in North America the Latin community is very underrepresented." 

"[E]ven analyzing in the marketing and brand spectrum, it's pretty unintelligent to not try to capitalize Latin American fans…The NFL has a specific social media account to communicate with Brazilian fans and made events with fans and celebrities for the Super Bowl."

Tallon even brought data from the NBA’s efforts to connect with fans in Brazil. 

"The NBA has tight relations with South America, their social media communication is very strong,” said Tallon. “During the playoffs, there were marketing activations in different Brazilian malls. And how did that help? Research shows that between 2019 and 2021, the audience [in Brazil] went from 31 million people to 45 million people."

One can look at those numbers and say 'Hey, that's unfair, that looks like the NBA was already popular there.’ And it was, but here's the difference: both the NFL and NBA recognized the opportunity they had with Brazilian fans. Both leagues saw their sports growing in the country and decided to take the jump, and it couldn't have gone better. In 2018, the NFL Game Pass had 5,000 Brazilian subscribers. 

Since then, the number has grown exponentially. They're now at 100,000 subscribers (the last public statistics are from 2019) and the amount of NFL fans continues to grow. They have official merchandise outlets in Brazil, multiple places stream the Super Bowl and other games, and the NFL’s social media presence in Portuguese is undoubtedly the best of all American sports. Recognition makes fans want to be a part of the NFL community.

Each of the questionnaire participants has never experienced going to a live NHL game or owning an official jersey - or any other product - from their teams. I'm lucky enough to have a partner who gave me my two jerseys from my favorite players, but before him, I didn't have any either. Looking at the economic scenario of South America, purchasing products that cost our minimum wage is not a priority. It's not even a luxury, it's irresponsible or impossible.

Auston Matthews
Photo credit: © Christopher Hanewinckel - USA TODAY Sports

What could the NHL do to make it better?

Recognizing the problem is one thing, but rectifying the problem is the hard part. I'm no marketing specialist and neither are my Latino friends and colleagues, but there is one thing we know for sure: connection is magic.

The Tic-Tac-Gol! portal is growing rapidly as they approach its sixth month of existence as an independent outlet and are closing in on a thousand followers, all due to the connection they have with its community. Tic-Tac-Gol! makes hockey accessible and easier to understand, almost erasing the language barrier that exists between fans and leagues.

ESPN does sporadic streams in Portuguese, usually once a week, and it's a big hit - even though they struggle a lot with communicating which games will be in Portuguese and what dates they will be aired.

Multiple fan pages are regularly creating content about their teams, also helping erase the barrier and distance between team and fan. A brilliant example is the relationship between the New York Islanders and their Brazilian fan club, which receives gifts and constant recognition from the team and is responsible for making their fan base grow exponentially for the past three years.

Each barrier was conquered by fans begging for attention on social media, trending hashtags and repeatedly mentioning media outlets and the teams until they got a drop of recognition. That needs to change.

A practical guide to expanding to Latin America

To start with something simple, acknowledge Latino fans during our heritage month. Support our teams - yes, Central and South American countries have national ice hockey teams. Try connecting with pages and websites that work with hockey and provide them with contact with the teams and players. As a content creator, getting in touch with women's hockey players has been so easy, Tic-Tac-Gol! has even interviewed Olympic gold medalist Natalie Spooner and PHF star Saroya Tinker (and it was honestly two of the coolest things we've ever done). We should be given the same opportunity with the men's players as well.

Of course, the NHL is currently of a different magnitude than the PHF and PWHPA, but getting access to the league shouldn't be so hard when multiple platforms from the US and Canada have it so easily.

The second thing the NHL can do, a move which would involve effort and money, is to create  a Portuguese/Spanish Twitter profile to make access to the sport and information easier. You just have to employ a content creator and take the flowers of their work.

Next, which would happen naturally due to the first two recommendations, is to set up an official merchandise store or reseller so that fans don't have to buy from untrustworthy websites and get scammed (yes, I'm speaking from experience and it was awful). 

It's a love story, baby, just say yes

We dream about the future where events will happen in Brazil and it'll be so much fun but honestly, South American countries are complicated to bring hockey to. But that's a story for another time.

To wrap up this first part of what will very likely be a few articles long, I'd like to leave it on a good note. One of the questions I've asked all my volunteers was "How has hockey impacted your life (negatively or positively)?" and the answers were beautiful. It went from hockey being a gift that helped throughout the pandemic to literally save someone's life. Even though hockey has its problems, we still love, cherish and fight for it every day.

As for me, hockey is my everything. It got me friends, a job and a career, and an amazing partner with whom I can share my sometimes awful but mostly good hockey takes. It helped me build a future I never even imagined I could have and all I want is to provide this same feeling to many others who will come after me. I want other Brazilian and Latino kids to see them represented by not only one but multiple people who are from the same places as them covering, playing, and sharing a sport that once felt so far away. Hockey is beautiful and there's nothing the Latino peoples know best then to love a beautiful, messy sport. All you have to do is open the door and welcome us in.

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