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I cower at her love of the puck Add to ...

With the regular hockey season wrapping up, guys can look forward to having at least one butt cheek glued to a couch or barstool for the two-month televised marathon that is the NHL playoffs, beginning next Wednesday.

According to the TV commercial stereotype of guys watching sports, women are seen either in tight tank tops and serving beer, or as uninterested wives nagging their husbands about undone chores. But times have changed. Women represent a significant demographic among sports fans, so it's almost as likely that they'll be the ones worried about getting to the bar in time to see the first puck drop.

The trend of women skipping makeup in favour of face paint in team colours is well established. Major college and professional team sports have courted female fans for years, with good results: Surveys suggest women now comprise a larger-then-ever segment - about 40 per cent - of hockey, baseball, basketball and football fans. As a result, all of those leagues are cashing in on the trend, expanding clothing lines for women - one of the fastest-growing segments in licensed-product sales - and courting advertisers for that constantly growing female market.

On the face of it, this sounds like a male sports fan's dream, but could it also be his worst nightmare?

I'm not a hockey nut myself, but this generalized gender encroachment into a traditionally male domain makes me consider potentially similar situations in my own life. Would I want to be involved with a woman who had memorized more lines of The Empire Strikes Back than me, or who had a more extensive collection of classic psychology books? Could my male ego survive being out-nerded by a woman?

A couple of psychology professors I talked to assured me that I would be a happier person if my mate beat me at my own game. The University of Toronto's Penelope Lockwood, who studies social comparisons, says that while evidence shows we feel crappy about ourselves when our friends excel in our areas of interest - and in some cases we may attempt to sabotage their success - this is not true in our primary relationships.

"We thought it would be interesting to look at what happens in the context of a marriage," she said, "because these days an awful lot of people are married to someone who is in a similar field as them, and couples now share activities within the household."

Dr. Lockwood admits that, initially, the recognition that your mate is more knowledgeable than you in your pet interest, or better than you at your coolest skill, will take your ego down a notch. But eventually, she says, you'll both win.

"The optimal situation is one in which both partners are at about the same level," she says. "If I'm not doing as well as my partner, I will be motivated to improve. If I'm really into obscure electronic music, and I get into a relationship with someone who is much more knowledgeable in that, I benefit because I can borrow their music - I'm going to gain something from that."

To put this into context for hockey dudes, you should be hooking up with a hockey babe who can name the top 10 goal-scorers faster than you can. This will improve your fantasy league results and your hockey brain will soon be the envy of your friends.

But speaking of friends, isn't the allure of sports and other traditionally male obsessions partly about getting away from the ladies for a while?

Ulrich Schimmack, a professor at U of T Mississauga, says that if your woman likes to watch hockey as much as you, stop complaining and simply find other times to spend apart. Dr. Schimmack gave subjects personal digital assistants and buzzed them at random to ask how they were feeling about the activity in which they were then engaged.

He found, not surprisingly, that if the person was doing something that only their partner was interested in, it made them feel bad about the relationship. "But when a person is with their partner and they're both doing things where they say, 'This is good for my goals and for my partner's goals,' then they're really happy," he says. "If both have the time and would enjoy watching the games together, then according to our research the hockey couple is a happy couple."

Fine, but - and here's my final issue with this, for now - what about the fact that while a guy is sitting next to his girl watching the game, using his spare tire as a nifty spot to rest a can of beer, the TV screen in front of them features dozens of muscle-bound males displaying another type of six-pack for her to gawk at?

The news isn't good here. Femmefan.com, a website that launched nearly a decade ago to help women learn about the rules and players without having to ask the men in their lives, includes a prominent regular item called Locker Room Lookers. After discovering this, I called my stepsister, a 24-year-old devout football fan, to gain reassurance that she watches on Sunday for the game and not the guys. She spelled it out for me straight: "I mostly watch because I have crushes on the players. I like to watch them be big strong men and I love looking at their delicious arms and their bubble butts in those tights. What can I say, I'm like a dude watching women's beach volleyball."

I suppose, in the end, this could be an example of how common interests are, as Dr. Lockwood put it, a "motivation to improve."

Micah Toub's memoir, Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks, will be published in April, 2010.

mtoub@globeandmail.com

Follow on Twitter: @MicahToub

 

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