Target Center is going to be a little more colorful than usual Thursday when the Timberwolves take on the Celtics. T-shirts with rainbow lettering will be available in the gift shop, a rainbow-colored light fixture will hang inside the arena’s glass atrium and some fans will be carrying socks with rainbow colors on them.
The merchandise and decoration are all a part of the Wolves’ Pride Night, when the organization will welcome and recognize its fans in attendance who are members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community. It’s the first time the Wolves have officially hosted a Pride Night. The Twins will host their first official Pride Night on July 9 at Target Field.
The promotions are part of a growing desire among Minnesota’s professional sports teams to extend a hand to a group that has long felt marginalized from inclusion in sports.
While some LGBTQ fans and advocates applaud this commitment of Minnesota’s teams, others have felt some of the promotional efforts haven’t done enough to fully embrace the LGBTQ community. It has created a dynamic in which some LGBTQ fans and advocates would like some teams to do more to voice their support for LGBTQ inclusion in sports and not make those fans feel as if the teams are using them to sell tickets.
“I think they’re evolving. How’s that?” said Dot Belstler, the executive director of Twin Cities Pride. “When I started here about nine years ago, really the thing was to have us buy a block of tickets and that was their contribution to the LGBT community. … [It could feel] like not a true partnership. Of course at the end of the day, they want to put butts in the seats.”
But Belstler said teams have gone about their LGBTQ promotions in different ways. Some have felt more “authentic” than others. She said Minnesota United FC and Lynx are examples for the Wild, Vikings, Twins and Wolves to follow, although she noted overall Minnesota teams have improved their outreach in recent years, especially the Twins, who have hosted LGBTQ fans for multiple years.
Not only did the Loons and Lynx market a specific game as Pride Night, but the teams made available or gave out Pride-themed merchandise, made announcements or showed videos on the scoreboard catered toward the LGBTQ fans in attendance and displayed pride flags or rainbow colors, like what the Wolves are attempting to do Thursday.
That kind of formal acknowledgment, instead of just selling tickets, can mean a lot to LGBTQ fans.
“Even knowing that the team will say, ‘Hey, we see you, you’re out there, you’re welcome here,’ that is such a huge thing for so many people,” said former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, a straight LGBTQ “ally” who settled a potential lawsuit against the Vikings in 2014 over allegations of the team fostering a homophobic environment. “For so long it hasn’t been that way. It hasn’t been, ‘You exist.’ It’s been, ‘No, get out. We don’t want you.’ ”
Added Jennifer Richmond, a transgender athlete and coach from St. Paul: “[They’re] small but significant inclusions. I think it comes down to showing the youth in all the various sports that it’s OK to be yourself and that our pro sports franchises support them.”
Richmond was one of several LGBTQ fans in attendance for the Wild’s “Hockey is for Everyone” night Feb. 8. “Hockey is for Everyone” is a campaign the NHL started in 2017 to promote the game to different groups of minorities, including LGBTQ. Each team in the NHL had events in conjunction with the campaign.
Richmond and other fans left disappointed because the Wild highlighted other groups in attendance but there was no mention or recognition of LGBTQ fans beyond a few players sporting Pride tape on their sticks in warmups. Compared to other NHL teams, some of which had all players sport Pride tape, sold Pride-themed merchandise and auctioned off equipment for LGBTQ charities, the Wild’s overtures were lacking for some fans.
“Rainbow flags would’ve read like destination markers: ‘You’re here, you’re queer, you’re in the right place, you’re welcome,’ ” said Brennin Weiswerda, from Minneapolis. “I probably would’ve pointed at rainbow flags like a kid seeing herself on the jumbotron, “Look! It’s me!” I would’ve felt seen, recognized, and valued.”
Wild senior vice president for marketing and ticket sales Mitch Helgerson said the team did not mean to slight LGBTQ fans and said the team will work to repair its relationship with those fans.
“I would say we missed an opportunity or didn’t do enough for the LGBTQ community and did more on the other sides [that night]…” Helgerson said. “Moving forward, I’m disappointed they were disappointed. We’d like to do better in their eyes. … We never want to be seen that we took a step back. That’s what we heard from some people. That definitely wasn’t our intention. We’re looking to try and remedy that.”
One way the team plans on doing that is participating in the Twin Cities Pride parade and festival for the first time.
Brian Kitts, the co-founder of the You Can Play Project, an organization that supports LGBTQ athletes across the country in all sports, said the criticism that the Wild received was shortsighted, considering the team’s history of working with his group.
“It’s easy for fans to say they’re not doing enough, but frankly, the Wild were one of the first,” Kitts said.
Kitts said the Vikings took steps toward embracing the LGBTQ community. As part of their settlement with Kluwe, they agreed to donate to various LGBTQ causes, and according to the team, the Vikings have given to the Matthew Shepard Foundation, Sports Project for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, OutFront Minnesota and You Can Play.
The team is organizing a booth at the Pride Festival and will sponsor a table at the Human Rights Campaign Twin Cities Dinner, and it has other promotions or events in the works aimed at the LGBTQ community.
“A lot of it isn’t in your face, but both teams have provided support,” Kitts said. “Both teams have provided community outreach. … The Vikings have been, in spite of what they went through with Chris Kluwe, I think as an organization they learned from that and have done a really good job of additional outreach.”
Kitts said when it comes to Pride Nights, he takes a longer view of how far such promotions have come in the past decade.
“You see we’ve gone from not having this discussion at all and whispering about who might be a gay athlete to having had openly gay athletes and having teams actually offer Pride Nights and having players speak up on behalf of LGBT fans and straight allies,” Kitts said.
Belstler said it’s important for teams to recognize that LGBTQ fans make up a significant portion of their audience.
“Somebody asked, ‘How do I get in front of the LGBT audience when I want to market something?’ ” Belstler said. “Well, how do you market to anybody else? We’re everywhere.”