The women's sports conundrum

Posted at 1:33 PM Aug 10, 2009

By Andrea Grimes

If ever there were a prime candidate to be a women's sports fan, it's this gal right here. Not only did I spend much of my childhood playing a variety of sports, from soccer to basketball, to softball to volleyball, I genuinely look forward to events like the Final Four, Super Bowl, etc. I follow my favorite teams--OK, I really just follow anything that comes out of my hometown of Dallas--and know more about Tony Romo than Jessica Simpson. No, I don't track statistics and rarely follow off-season happenings that don't involve felonies, but when it comes to sporty things, I can hang.

Trouble is, I talk a big game when it comes to women's sports, because I rarely follow them unless something record-breaking happens. And when it comes to tennis and golf, which are probably the best publicized of any women's sports, well, they're just downright boring to me, no matter what sex is playing. But soccer--which I learned to love while living in England--and basketball, which is fast-paced and holler-worthy almost every time, ought to be great entry points for a potential ladysports fan like myself. So why don't women like me--and male sports fans, generally--follow women's sports?

That's a question asked by Mark Starr in the GlobalPost this weekend. The headline, "What's wrong with women's sports?" almost got my blood a-boiling. Because the last thing I need to read is some wanky male sports reporter talking about how women's sports deserve every ounce of non-attention they get because they're slow, boring, untalented, not surrounded by titty-beer commercials, etc. Instead, Starr makes the argument that it's not the athletes who are to blame, but the spectator culture (or lack thereof) surrounding them, which results in a lack of funding:

While women's sports boast an abundance of talent, they still lack a broad fan base. Too many male sports fans, still by far the dominant force in sports consumerism, regard women's sports as a marginal entertainment. Perhaps even more of a problem, the sports spectator culture among women hasn't kept pace with the participatory one.

Women don't seem to embrace the "couch potato" traditions -- and certainly not the label -- as readily as male fans. And though women attend sporting events in increasing numbers, girls' night out isn't as likely to include a women's soccer game or basketball game as boys' night out is a baseball or basketball game (and perhaps a second late game on the pub TV afterwards).
Indeed, I think I buy Starr's argument, at least on the surface (there are a number of mitigating factors, not least poor coverage of women's sports and underfunded programs). But the spectator question is key; even though I was always encouraged both to play and to watch sports as a kid, most girls I know were not.

My folks, both of whom were really good athletes, set a pretty serious watching/playing example. (Especially my mother, who can still school just about anyone in basketball despite a bum knee.)  I had the good fortune of having a mom who loves--and I mean loves--watching football and hockey. But my teammates' families? Oh, sure, Natalie's mom might make buffalo wings for the Super Bowl party or Jackie's mom would mix up some Final Four 'ritas, but those ladies were yammering in the kitchen while my mom was on the couch with the guys, following the game.

As a result, I find that I'm rarely motivated to instigate sports-watching among my female friends, because it's just not part of the repertoire. You get stuck in a rut--even if it's a good rut--of a certain group of activities (karaoke, road tripping, shopping, drinking, tubing, etc.) that are appropriate among your friends, and it's hard to branch out, regardless of your gender. People are hard to change, especially in groups.

Perhaps if we engendered a sense of spectator appreciation in little girls in addition to encouraging them to play, we could create the kind of rounded sports fan you so often see in men. And I think it's about time that women who do enjoy watching and playing sports--I'm looking at myself, here, because I've dropped the ball, as it were--took the lead in making athletic fandom as much a part of being a girl as high heels, cosmos and nail polish.


Andy said:

I just heard a good NPR story about this that came to the same conclusions. I like watching sports more than anything else on tv. For what it's worth, this one male fan would rather watch:

women's soccer vs. men's soccer (courtesy of the awesome US Women's teams of the 90s)

women's tennis vs. men's tennis

women's gymnastics vs. men's gymnastics (probably not in the minority here)

I like women's golf, too

I don't understand why more women won't support women's sports. But it would definitely help. At least Title IX assures they can't be completely marginalized.

Also, on a personal note, the author came to a softball game I played in years ago and read a book in the stands the whole time.

Amber said:

i, for one, would love to see more women's sports publicized. my only problem is this: the big one out there is basketball. i dislike basketball when played by men. if there was women's hockey, id not only watch, but participate. sure, there's softball. but id like to see women's baseball. cause i am a hardcore baseball fan. i was never encouraged to play when i was young because sports at my school involved a lot of $$ from the parents for gear and all that and we plain old didnt have the dough. on top of that, my dad never taught my sister or i anything, and regarded us as hopelessly unathletic, and told us so, often.

Trenton said:

hey now, Gina Carano is getting to be a major draw in MMA, even though the weight classes aren't well established and she fights girls 20 pounds lighter than her. And lets not forget about the super-sensation that is ROLLERDERBY. And of course I have to mention that, technically, cheerleading is a competitive sport as well, which is covered on ESPN and ABC. ESPN 8 (The Ocho) covers Women's Collegiate Field Hockey for about a tenth of the season.

Chicks are also well represented in most Olympic sports from women's table tennis to women's regular tennis.

And lest we forget, author, the ever popular and ferociously competitive Lingerie League Football ( WOW, girls can throw for home runs too!

BorgQueen said:

I think the biggest problem in women's sports is coverage. Sure, ESPN will show some women's softball on Sunday afternoons sometimes and the WNBA will have a few games broadcast and wrap-ups on SC but overall it's pretty pathetic. I think this leads to apathy within the viewing public. Case in point, the elimination of softball from the Olympics. As a 15 year player this just pisses me off.

I was always encouraged to play and watch sports as a kid, my dad taught me how to play baseball and even to this day I can have discussions with him about football and baseball. But most girls I know can't do that and that is probably why most of my friends are dudes anyway.

I don't buy the agrument that women's sports are slower and less interesting. You just have to give it a chance. Sure, you don't see sick dunks in the WNBA (Lisa Leslie and Candance Parker aside) but you see actual basketball instead of over-payed players walking up and down the court and really only trying when they can put on a show. Go watch the video of Jennie Finch striking out MLB players and tell me THAT doesn't get your attention.

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