Despite its reputation in some circles as strictly a sport for whites, the National Hockey League is making Major League Baseball look weak and ineffectual in terms of outreach and courting new and diverse audiences. Last week they made two bold announcements that put them on the pathway in terms of permanently exploding the myth hockey doesn’t want Black participation. In Nashville, Tennessee State University announced plans to become the nation’s first HBCU with a hockey program. They will begin at the club level and hope to have a men’s team ready to go by the 2024-25 school year, with the eventual goal fielding both men’s and women’s teams competing at either the Division 1 or 2 level in the American College Hockey Association (ACHA).
This is being done in a partnership between TSU, the NHL, the NHL Players Association and the Nashville Predators.
One day prior to that Wednesday announcement, the NHL and NHL Players Association announced the creation of a new Player Inclusion Coalition. Their stated goal is to make hockey “more accessible, more inclusive, and more diverse.” This represents the evolution of the player inclusion committee originally created in 2020 with the goal of examining and taking action on diversity issues. The two driving forces behind both the old and new committee are Julie Chu and Mark Fraser. The group is co-chaired by NHL alumni Anson Carter and P.K. Subban, and now has 20 members. It includes both current and former men’s and women’s hockey players, players of color, LGBTQ+ players and allies. They hope through grassroots programs, education initiatives and other things to generate more interest in and awareness of hockey in non-traditional communities and among demographic groups who haven’t always viewed the sport as a possibility, either as players or fans..
Compare those bold moves with MLB, which continues to lament the ongoing lack of Black players in the sport, but doesn’t seem to know how to change that situation. Why MLB hasn’t done the same thing on HBCU campuses as the NHL just did with TSU is mind-boggling. TSU once had a baseball team. MLB should long ago have had meetings with the athletic department and simply asked “what can we do to get baseball back on this campus.”
MLB does have the annual Jackie Robinson Day celebrations each year, and this year added Juneteenth events at most ballparks. They have tried through the RBI program to stimulate more baseball activity at the youth level, and there have been some entertaining young Black players come into the game over the last couple of years. But last year’s World Series really brought into focus the absence of Blacks in the sport. Neither the Astros nor the Phillies had any Black American players on their roster.
The current percentage of Black players in MLB sits at just over seven percent, with nearly 29 percent of that total being Hispanic or Latino. Contrast that with the over 70 percent figure of Black players in both the NFL and NBA, and even a growing number in MLS, and things don’t look so good for baseball on the diversity front. Seems hard to believe, but as recently as 1991, 18 percent of the players in both leagues were Black. You hear the familiar array of excuses given for this situation, everything from the lack of inner city schools with high school baseball squads to the scarcity of Blacks on college teams, the smaller amount of HBCUs with baseball teams and fewer Little League and Pony League teams in Black communities.
But the NHL seems more focused and ready to attack the issue of diversity than MLB. That’s despite an overwhelmingly white workforce (86 percent). Just over four percent of the players in the NHL are Asian, 4,7 percent are Black, 3.71 percent Hispanic and 0.5 Indigenous. The league does have one Black GM, Mike Grier of the San Jose Sharks. One thing that was not addressed during Allen’s press conference was what are TSU’s plans to stimulate fan interest once the team is completed. In the beginning the curiosity factor may lure some fans, but over the long term, they will have to emulate the Predators and start winning some games in order to retain fan interest. It will also be instructive to see who gets hired for the Director of Hockey Programs, and how soon that person can formulate some plans of action to hopefully both attract fans and make the current players more effective.
By contrast, someone in the MLB office should just stand up and say, “whatever we’ve been trying to do regarding diversity, it isn’t working. So let’s put or heads together and see what we come up with.” At this point, anything they try till be an improvement.