Unlike the final of the Women’s World Cup in 2015, this weekend’s championship match of the National Women’s Soccer League will draw little attention from sports media. In both the US and Europe, women’s leagues and women fans are marginalized in the broader, male-dominated sports culture. Yet there are examples of women’s professional teams with strong fan followings. What can these teams teach us about future possibilities for women’s sport and a more inclusive model of fandom?
Americans love women’s soccer.
Nearly one half of the 4.8 million female soccer players registered around the world play in the United States and Canada. The 2015 Women’s World Cup final was the highest rated soccer game, male or female, in the history of American television. And our local professional team, the Portland Thorns of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), draws nearly 17,000 fans per game, more than any women’s professional sports team of any sort anywhere in the world.
Yet, when the NWSL final is played in Houston this Sunday, it will make hardly a blip on the radar of American professional sports culture.
First, let’s acknowledge that the NWSL is a success in having completed its fourth season of competition. The first incarnation of women’s professional soccer in the US, the WUSA, survived only three seasons (2001-2003), averaging around 7000 fans per game for its eight teams and losing an estimated $100 million dollars. The second incarnation, WPS, also lasted just three seasons (2009-2011), with an average attendance of 4000 fans per game. The financial losses for the WPS were undisclosed but likely represented a significant amount of money. The NWSL, in contrast, has survived with an overall average of around 5500 fans per game, thanks largely to a bare-bones salary structure and subsidies from the US, Canadian, and Mexican national federations.
In looking at the viability of women’s professional leagues such as the NWSL, attention typically focuses on business models and marketing plans. But we think the more interesting questions relate to fandom and sports culture. What accounts for the ongoing marginalization of women’s professional teams and female sports fans?
We’ve been thinking about these questions recently while working on a research project about the relative success of the aforementioned Portland Thorns (some preliminary notes from that research are available here). The first thing that became clear when looking at the academic literature is that, up until recently, there has not been much scholarly attention devoted to female sports fans, and even less to fans of female professional sports. The critical study of sports fandom (i.e., research that goes beyond sports marketing) has been a largely male space – like professional sports culture itself.
Of course, there are some noteworthy exceptions, such as the research that has been done about female fans of male professional sports like the NFL or European club soccer. The crux of this scholarly analysis is that female fans often have to find creative ways to negotiate male expectations. One recent example, a study by Katelyn Esmonde, Cheryl Cooky, and David Andrews published in a 2015 issue of the Sociology of Sport Journal, argues that our cultural archetype of a sports fan (and particularly an NFL fan) is male. As one of their female participants explained: “You see that guy, the big guy that’s always like, face painted, head dress on, just probably drunk, you know, they’ve been there since two tailgating the day before, and they have front row seats to every game, you know?”
Edmond, Cooky, and Andres find that women fans have to confront stereotypes of women sports fans: “women are only interested in sports because of a boyfriend or a husband (or to find a boyfriend or a husband); women are only interested in sports because they find the players to be attractive; and, women are not very knowledgeable, committed, or dedicated as sports fans.” The authors point out, however, that when women confront these stereotypes in mainstream sports fandom, it often means accentuating the conventional and hegemonically masculine norms of fandom. If a female football fan tries to prove herself to be as knowledgeable and intense as a serious male fan, she must accept the sexism embedded in NFL fan culture.
Similarly, in her 2013 analysis of female fans of men’s soccer and rugby in England, Stacey Pope emphasizes the diversity of female fan types but also argues that women often end up engaging in a “gender performance.” She notes:
Two different kinds of gender “performance” helped to connote female fan types: “masculine” femininities and “feminine” femininities. Whereas those fans who explored “masculine” femininities often had experience of playing contact team sport, adopted a “tomboy” persona when younger, continued to identify strongly with men and male fans, and exhibited “hot” styles of support, those performing “feminine” femininities demonstrated the opposite propensities.
In some cases, Pope finds, female fans are able to use sports fandom as a space to blur gender and explore alternative ways of being a fan. In most instances, however, female fans in England, like fans of the NFL, have to negotiate against a male norm.
It is worth noting here that the deeply embedded male norms of fandom in European soccer may help explain why support for women’s professional leagues in Europe is even worse than support in the US. Long-standing women’s soccer leagues in Germany, Sweden, England, and France now offer a top-notch level of play, yet fan support for regular league play is meager. Though some games in the UEFA Women’s Champions League draw well, regular league attendance in the women’s Bundesliga and England’s Women’s Super League hovers around 1000 fans per game while the average in Sweden’s Damallsvenskan is around 900 (it is even difficult to find exact attendance figures for these leagues). Our suspicion is that soccer fandom in Europe is largely marked as a space associated with masculinity, thus marginalizing prospective women’s fans despite broader European social norms promoting gender equality.
Research looking at fans of female sports, rather than female fans of male sports, is even rarer outside of the business-oriented context of sports marketing. There is some interesting critical analysis of WNBA fandom (which is the best-attended women’s professional league, with an average attendance over 7000 fans per game). Most of this work emphasizes the tension between the league’s efforts to promote its players as role models for young girls and the fact that many of its most ardent attendees are LGBTQ fans who find a sense of community at the games. There is also some sports marketing research comparing fan perspectives on women’s professional sports (including the WNBA and the US Women’s National Team for soccer) with fan perspectives on men’s professional sports – much of which supports the idea that casual fans are most interested in women’s professional athletes as role models and women’s professional sports as “family-friendly” (whatever that means). It also doesn’t help when much of the overwhelmingly male sports media focuses on marketing women’s professional athletes as sex-objects rather than as serious athletes.
But the crux of the issue for the viability of women’s professional sports is that it has to move beyond casual fans and cultivate highly invested fans. These committed followers of the sport help create a fan experience that make games an event rather than just a passing entertainment.
This seems to sometimes happen for the WNBA, with games providing a home for both hardcore basketball junkies and fans who don’t feel welcome in other professional sports settings. It also seems to have happened for the Portland Thorns, where a vibrant supporters culture has emphasized inclusion, community, and gender equity. Non-traditional sports fans and serious soccer fans alike enjoy Thorns games as something of a hybrid between passive consumer entertainment and an alternative version of professional sports where fandom is active and values-based. It seems to happen, in other words, when women’s professional sports fandom is not just a derivative experience based on problematic consumer models from men’s professional sports, but offers possibilities for genuine alternatives that allow different (and often better) ways of being a sports fan. At the least, let’s hope there are many future seasons of NWSL finals to learn more about those possibilities.
Andrew Guest teaches psychology and sociology at the University of Portland and is the author of numerous articles on sports psychology and youth development in both North America and Africa. He has written for pitchinvasion.net and writes about sport and the social sciences at Sports & Ideas. He is on Twitter at @sportsandideas.
Anne Luijten studies psychology and sociology at the University of Portland. She is a member of the university’s nationally ranked cross-country team. Anne tweets from @