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Why aren't more women watching women's sports?

posted by Sports, Media & Society
Sunday, July 15, 2012 at 9:14pm EDT

Marie Hardin, associate director of the Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State University, takes a look at the interaction of sports coverage and U.S. culture.

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Research from the Curley Center for Sports Journalism has recently generated international coverage, giving legs to a study that first appeared in the academic journal Communication, Culture and Critique.  

The study began with a simple question: Why, despite exponential growth in sports participation among girls and women, have we not seen a similar rise in women’s sports viewership? In addressing the question, we conducted group interviews with 19 women in which we discussed how they situate sports consumption and fanship into their lives.

Importantly, the goal of our research was not to apply our results to a wider population of women, but to develop a more nuanced understanding of fanship from a cultural feminist point of view. From this perspective, we were concerned with thinking about the social construction of gender, and how gender roles are normalized through everyday practices, including the act of watching sports in the home.

In drawing from the conversations, we suggest that fanship is something more than simply developing an affinity for a certain team, but rather a complex concept mediated by one’s gender roles.  For example, most of the women expressed a preference for the Olympics (an especially timely finding and one that sparked the initial popular interest in the piece). Indeed, analysts are saying that the female audience watching the Olympics will be larger than ever. Our research helps explain why this is; we note that the way the Olympics are presented – in short, easy-to-digest packages – are especially easy to appreciate for individuals who do not have the luxury of sitting down in front of the television for three uninterrupted hours. Rather, for those who are responsible for childcare and other domestic labor duties (generally women, according to existing wide-scale sociological research), the routine of sitting down only to get back up quickly to tend to something in the house is all too familiar. Thus, the ability to turn on the TV for 15 minutes, see a nice, tidy package of, say, track and field, is especially conducive for people with a hectic and full schedule in the home.

Our research also helped nuance the concept of fanship in another way; many of our participants said that they enjoyed watching sports in part because it gave them an opportunity to spend time with their families, including the men in their lives. In addition, while sports fanship may be fun, it was not entirely leisurely for the women we interviewed. Primary domestic caregivers are often charged with the job of making sure everyone’s leisure time is enjoyable. Thus, for women, sitting and watching sports on TV was work, as well as leisure.

This nuanced understanding of fanship helps provide an explanation to our initial question – why don’t women who played sports watch women’s sports? The ability to sit down and watch sports requires the existence of leisure time, something individuals who are responsible for the lion’s share of domestic labor simply do not enjoy when they are at home. Thus, as we conclude:

The challenge to building a women’s sports fan base is also mediated by the form of domestic life. As the women in this study showed, watching sports was not a leisure activity, but rather associated with emotion labor. On the latter part of this two-pronged challenge, media producers and women’s sports advocates interested in building audiences in the short-term need to acknowledge and address the structural impediments facing women with the potential for interest in watching women play. For instance, airing professional women’s sports on weekends is a barrier for many women who perform traditional gender roles associated with childcare.

Admittedly the notion of fanship as mediated by gender roles is an abstract concept, which presents a challenge to reporters working to summarize the study in a short article. In covering the piece, some outlets interpreted our study as suggesting that all women watch sports to be with their husbands, which makes women look simplistic. This interpretation drew considerable criticism from feminist and women-centric blogs. (And rightly so; anyone who would make such a claim with a sample of 19 should be criticized.)

Applying any research “finding” to a wider population is only appropriate when the study draws from a random sample that is sufficiently representative of that wider population– which we did not do. But our goal was not to describe a social trend at a meta-level but to interpret it, something for which qualitative research provides an especially useful toolkit. The interviews provided a level of depth that quantitative research in the form of surveys or experiments, for example, lack the ability to do.  In sum, we hope the project informs women’s sports advocates and also adds to the growing understanding of how patriarchy persists through everyday practices.

--Erin Whiteside

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There are 7 comments on this post. Join the discussion!

stephaniemp says:

This looks like some interesting research! I haven't read the entire research article, but I think most current/former athletes and sports fans think about this question a lot (so I'm pleased that you decided to investigate further).

You're right, leisure time is huge! The Olympic Games is perfect for someone who doesn't have a lot of leisure time because combines several different sports into a condensed period of time. Regular professional and collegiate track and field, basketball and soccer (to name a few) have seasons that span several months. For a busy mom (which you referred to), or a busy non-mom for that matter, it is much more tempting to stay interested in something that lasts a short time. If you can follow the journey and find out who is the winner is within a few days or weeks it is much easier to fit into a packed schedule.

I also think that the Olympics is easier to follow because it's pretty clear who you (meaning the viewer) should be cheering for. If you're from the USA, you usually want the U.S. team to do well. When you get into collegiate or professional sports, you have to really develop a fanship, which requires time and energy. All the WNBA, WPS or NCAA teams are from USA. So, in order to figure out which one you want to follow and become a fan of, you have to watch the long season, etc. It just takes much more time and energy to develop this type of fanship than one for the USA during the Olympics.

Sunday, July 15, 2012 at 10:03pm EDT

Resident_Badass says:

Great post, thanks for sharing.

Monday, July 16, 2012 at 10:53am EDT

greekgirl28 says:

Yes, this does look like interesting research but I need to ask, for the above article does not address, were the 19 women in this research all the same age, social status, and with children? If so, then it is quite easy to understand why the researchers reached the conclusion (childcare gets in the way) that they did. My hope is that they get a little deeper next time to understand fanship from a critical feminist point of view across ages, class, and race. This has such great potential.

I also wholeheartedly agree with the great post above. Short packages of sport action, in a "brief" season (2 weeks) and with a clear favorite (Team USA!!) make the Olympics very appealing to women. What also makes them very appealing to women is the way Dick Ebersol (former NBC sports programming honcho) packed them for years -- by regularly giving backstories about the athletes' trials and triumphs, by making them personal, by simply STORYTELLING! This is what attracts female viewers to the Olympics for the same reason it attracts more women to novel-reading. The Olympics -- for two-weeks, for TEAM USA -- is one big story, and a quick "read" at that. If that what it takes to get women to be sports fans, so be it. Like the research above, it's a start!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012 at 8:11am EDT

Crimson says:

Seems that Greekgirl called out the obvious, which the author confirms in her final paragraph. Calling this non-random, non-validated group discussion methodology "research" stretches the definition of the term well past the limit of reasonableness. It is unfortunate that instead of using a robust research approach to finding an answer to the stated question she uses this exercise as an opportunity to renew the tired approach of pandering to her fellow feminist social scientists and gender studies types by blaming the Patriarchy. I suppose it should come as no surprise since this meme is always popular with the sisters and it is certainly easier than women actually taking collective responsibility for supporting their own sports. I would add that "feminist research" holds a unique position in the academy with a long and well-deserved track record of poor design, sloppy execution and unsubstantiated, politically motivated conclusions and recommendations. This work product holds true to that form.

Given the recent failure of women's pro soccer and the well documented struggles of the WNBA a reasonable person would think that someone would get serious about this challenge. Since past performance is normally a fair indicator of future outcomes any expectation that objective research and real world recommendations that can actually be implemented successfully can come from the social sciences and / or gender studies world is naive at best.

I suggest someone get serious about this challenge as right now women's pro team sports in the U.S. are largely products without a paying customer base or proven business model. Women's pro soccer in the U.S. may get another shot and it may not. If it does I can promise you that any investors could care less what women with a gendered axe to grind think about the Patriarchy. Either there is a paying, profitable market or their isn't. While the cloistered halls of the academy will provide cover for many of these professional gender panderers the business world has no such protections. So I suggest someone willing to take an honest look at what is really going on step up to the plate.

If you ladies don't want to collectively take on this task the right way I suggest the next time you need "research" on the subject just get together with a few friends and break out the old Ouija Board. The results of that seance will surely be as valid as this exercise was.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012 at 3:06am EDT

Caitlin Constantine says:

I read the study, and I thought it was really interesting and thought provoking. In addition, they acknowledge the limits of their study, as most quality researchers do. I would suggest the critics of the study do the same.

Here's a link for anyone who is so inclined: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1753-9137.2011.01098.x/full

For what it's worth, I recognized a lot of my own experiences in many of the experiences referenced by the women in the study. My own history as a viewer of sports has been complicated by my relationships with men (husbands, father, etc.)

Thursday, July 19, 2012 at 11:23am EDT

Crimson says:

As most of you know women collectively have never been more educated, made more money and delayed marriage and child bearing longer than they have at this point in time. As a group they have the bucks and the time to be totally legit fans, they just don't want to pay to watch women's sports or frankly even watch them for free on television at reasonable, advertiser enticing levels. They are choosing to do other things with their resources. It is after all totally about a women's right to choose, correct? Seems they've chosen. I find the fact that women have never been more empowered and other than the LGBT and Dads and Daughters demographics they still largely don't go for women's pro team sports pretty interesting.

The ongoing failure of women's pro team sports in the United States may well just be a reflection of the free market for the women's product. As you all know the government has legislated artificial demand for women's amateur sports via Title IX. Women sports enthusiasts seem to be assuming that because there are all of these women's sports at the university level that means people will be willing to pay for the product at the pro level. It's faulty logic similar to what we have seen manifest in government supported and subsidized disasters such as sub-prime mortgages and solar panel manufacturing. Point being, just because the government decides to force a market via legislation, taxes and / or legal intimidation and artificially creates demand it doesn't mean that in a free and market driven non-subsidized, non-supported environment there is a sustainable market or business model for the product.

Even if there is a potentially successful business out there constantly ranting about the Patriarchy won't help you identify and leverage the opportunity.

Friday, July 20, 2012 at 12:12pm EDT

mcjack says:

Please. I routinely work 60 hour weeks and have piles of personal stuff that crowds out just about any shred of free time out of my schedule. But I still know what Mauer's batting average is. Because that's my team and that's what me and my friends talk about.

How many in this study could give you a full breakdown of what happened this season on "glee" or some reality show? My guess is they had plenty opportunity to catch a wnba game, but decided to watch something else.

I only watch sports. Have never seen a single episode of Seinfeld, Freinds, American Idol, or any other cultural phenomenon that has hit tv in the last 25 years. People watch what they want to watch.

Friday, July 20, 2012 at 10:52pm EDT

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