Olympic Star Hilary Knight Builds Brand, Looks Beyond the Rink
It’s been 12 years since U.S. women’s hockey star Hilary Knight made her Olympic debut in Vancouver, where she and Team USA took home the silver after falling to Canada on its home ice in the gold medal game. The story repeated itself in 2014 at Sochi: another stellar Olympic tournament for Knight, another U.S.-Canada final, and another Canada gold medal.
In 2018, Knight and her teammates finally flipped the script, beating Canada for the gold in Pyeongchang. So it’s truly no surprise that Wednesday night’s championship in Beijing (starting at 11:10 p.m. ET) once again comes down to the U.S. and Canada, with Knight in a featured role.
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Hockey fans have been able to set their calendar by the 32-year-old Knight, who has already notched five goals in her fourth Olympic appearance, along with three assists, as she looks for a second Olympic victory to add to her resume as one of the leaders of the U.S. squad. Yet despite her persistent presence, much has changed over the last dozen years—from the teams and leagues she’s played for to the sponsors supporting her and the platforms she’s had to rely on to build a lasting brand for herself.
A decade ago when Knight first turned pro, she was quite literally cold-calling brands she wanted to work with, trying to find sponsors to scrape together enough money to pursue her sport without having to hold a second job, as many of her peers did and still do today.
“Honestly, if I look back now, I’m sort of embarrassed,” Knight said in a phone interview before leaving for China. “Oh my gosh, if somebody who maybe deleted the email or listened to a voice message [I left], saw me now, they’d be like, ‘Oh, yeah, I remember that girl!’ I was just so hungry to be able to make it work. I love playing hockey, I love playing at this level, but the funding we had to live off of—if you were fully supported [by the USOPC] was like $24,000 annually for training, I think—just wasn’t going to work to be able to do what I wanted to do.”
Sustainable salaries have long escaped most professional women’s hockey players in North America, an issue the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (where Knight was selected fourth overall in the 2012 CWHL Draft) grappled with before folding. It’s an issue the Premier Hockey Federation (formerly the NWHL, where Knight spent the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons) continues to try to rectify with salary cap increases. The Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, which Knight joined in 2019 alongside nearly 200 other players, wants to do the same.
Pay has improved significantly since Knight first turned pro, particularly in recent years. The average salary in the PHF for the upcoming 2022-23 season, for example, will be $37,500, up from $7,500 just two years ago.
But professional uncertainty still lingers. Knight left the PHF, because, she says, she felt like she was lending the league credibility when it no longer aligned with who she was as a player or a person, and she and her peers continue to build the PWHPA—whose stated mission is to “promote, advance, and support a single, viable professional women’s ice hockey league in North America,”–despite the PHF’s recent rebirth.
Knight owes her career longevity to opportunities she’s cultivated off the ice. Sponsorship deals with brands including Red Bull, Nike, Bauer, Chipotle and Visa have made her hockey pursuits possible over the years. That’s the case for many female athletes, and Olympians in particular. Even in the WNBA and NWSL, salaries have only recently grown large enough to serve as a reliable sole income.
Knight, a Wisconsin alum, said she learned the importance of marketing herself early from watching male athletes on the football and hockey teams in college build names for themselves that they could translate into opportunities as professionals.
“Understanding that, yes, they’re phenomenal athletes, but they’re also far greater people and ambassadors and can be involved in different things off the ice or the field was the key for me,” Knight said. “That’s where my brand, so to speak, started, with asking, ‘How am I able to connect with different brands and build a platform to be able to fund this career path that I’ve chosen?’ It was a lot of trial and error, but the biggest obstacle for me, especially understanding that specifically women’s athletics and women’s sports don’t have visibility, was to tackle building a platform and getting seen.”
Social media provided the basis of that platform throughout her career. Twitter launched just before Knight’s freshman season in college, and Instagram in 2010, the year she took off from college to train for and play in her first Olympics. In the decade since, Knight has used them to help create endorsement opportunities, growing her following parallel to the platforms themselves.
Growing her presence on social media gave Knight tangible metrics—followers, clicks, engagement rates, conversions—to show brands how she could provide value to them as a partner without a regular presence on linear television. And she saw return value beyond herself: “I’ve done a lot a lot of partnerships because I understood the value of visibility that company or brand would provide the sport of hockey, because visibility is the biggest thing that we’re missing.”
As the popularity of certain platforms ebbs and flows, and as new ones emerge, Knight has tried to stay on top of it all. TikTok, for example, is her latest focal point. She’s been particularly active on the platform since arriving in Beijing, and her following has nearly tripled during this Winter Games as a result.
She’s also looking forward to a more conventional method of staying in the public eye, as an NHL analyst for ESPN, which reacquired the league’s rights this season in a seven-year pact.
A dozen years into her Olympic career, Knight’s priorities have begun to change. She recently earned her MBA from Boise State and has interest in investing in tech, among other pursuits.
“We’re just trying to be a little more strategic as we continue to push her past women’s hockey and move her forward,” Mary Anthony, director of women and Olympics at Wasserman, which has represented Knight for the last five years, said in a phone interview. “We want people to look at her as someone who is a strong, business-minded, savvy woman who is going to help create change for women’s hockey, but also girls and youth in the sport as well. We’re trying to find brands that really aligned with her business and what the next five years looks like for her.”
First, though, there’s some business to be done with a familiar rival: Canada.