It’s an experience many women know all too well:
You’re watching a sports match in public or reacting to the ESPN notification on your phone when suddenly, a man takes notice.
“Oh, do you like that team?” he asks. Before you can answer, he cuts you off. “Who was their highest goal scorer in 2004? Where was their 1951 championship game held? At what precise hour was their star player born and how many penalty minutes has he recorded in his career?” Don’t worry if you don’t have the answers. He wasn’t planning to listen to you anyway!
I haven’t gone a day without watching sport in some capacity for at least a decade. I’ve been covering it as a journalist since 2016. Yet the above conversation is one I’ve endured too many times to count. In pubs, on first dates, while waiting in queues, I constantly find myself proving my worth as a female sport fan.
It’s not just me. A 2020 study from New York University indicated that women account for 37% to 45% of sport fans, but their existence is still treated with dismissal and contempt.
In February 2022, Red Bull Racing principal Christian Horner said Formula 1 was “bringing in a lot of young girls because of all these great looking young drivers.” A few months later, NHL veteran and analyst Paul Bissonette commented on national television that “half the reason the NHL has female viewership is because the players are attractive.”
This casual sexism reflects common stereotypes of female sport fans: that their fandom is not serious. Women must pretend to like sport to impress the men around them, not because it is something worth enjoying. If they do somehow enjoy watching, it must surely be because the players are attractive and not because they understand the game itself. And never mind the constant sexualisation of female athletes by male viewers: if women admit to finding an athlete attractive, this must mean they are not legitimate fans.
There’s a deeply misogynistic irony here. Women are berated constantly for their enjoyment of feminine pursuits, whether it be makeup or reality television or enjoying a latte with whipped cream. Yet those who dare partake in a traditionally male hobby like sport must be doing so for trivial reasons. The underlying message is that nothing women enjoy can be taken seriously.
This double standard has kept the world of sport hostile to women in integral ways. According to Quartz, more than 90% of sports editors, reporters, and anchors are men. Even the most respected female broadcasters are typically relegated to sideline interviews instead of more “serious” commentary roles in the broadcast booth. The World Football Summit estimates that less than 15% of sport management positions worldwide are held by women.
This lack of representation has serious repercussions. Female reporters face harassment on social media; female fans endure ridicule. But there does appear to be a silver lining. BBC reported that the number of women’s football fans in the UK tripled between 2021 and 2022. Women like Mina Kimes and Emily Kaplan are revolutionising journalism in their respective sports. Leagues are increasingly realising the significance of marketing to their female fans, a long-ignored demographic.
As women playing and watching sport becomes more common, it becomes more difficult to brush these women aside. I hope that soon we can spend more time discussing sport with other people, and less time defending our legitimacy as female fans.
“鸟巢紅椅 Red chairs inside the Bird’s Nest (National Stadium) / 中國北京體育建築之形 Sports architecture forms in Beijing, China / SML.20140502.7D.52037.P1” by See-ming Lee (SML) is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.