Making the Case for Women’s Sports Part 2: Being a Fan of Women’s Sports

If you want drama, women’s sports has drama. If you want tension filled, nail-biting finishes, you’ll find it in women’s sports. If you want a distinct set of personalities to follow, clashes of playing styles, moments of inspired brilliance, you’ll find it in women’s sports. Any of the feelings that bring out your passion as a sports fan, you can find it in women’s sports. It’s just a matter of finding a team, player, or sport that you enjoy to follow.

Criticism of Women’s Sports

Criticism of women’s sports usually fall into one of following complaints:

Women’s sports aren’t as exciting as men’s sports
Women aren’t as strong/skilled/talented as men

The majority of criticism comes as a result of somewhat unfairly comparing men’s and women’s sports as if they are the same product. Like comparing apples and oranges.

Women’s sports aren’t as exciting as men’s sports”

Part of the reason for this, is that media publications and TV networks cover women’s sports much less frequently than men’s sports and often utilize much lower production value while covering women’s sports. TV broadcasters tone down their usual bombastic and excitable commentating style when covering women’s sports. The result of putting less effort into a product, is a lesser product. Buzzer beating shots have all the tension and excitement whether it happens during a men’s or women’s basketball game.

Another reason, is that viewers are setting their expectations at the wrong level, comparing every women’s basketball player to Lebron James is going to result in you being bored. If you compare every basketball player to Lebron James and say that every other player is inferior and boring, then you should only watch the Cleveland Caveliers and no other men’s basketball team. You are setting the wrong expectation before you even start viewing. Men’s and women’s sports are played in different styles, at different paces, and they make for a different viewing experience. Depending on your taste, you might like one more than the other. Furthermore, the ability to play a boring game is hardly gender dependent. I’ve sat through more dull men’s soccer matches than I care to admit, just in the hopes that there will be a flash of brilliance to make it all worth it. The Mayweather-Pacquiao fight was widely panned as a rather lethargic affair, except by boxing purists and Mayweather fanboys. And a 80-40 blowout in basketball tends to be boring except for the most hardcore fans of the winning team, regardless of the genders or teams playing.

Women aren’t as strong/skilled/talented as men”

This is true in most sports. No hiding behind it. High school varsity boys teams have been known to defeat national women’s teams in hockey, soccer, and other sports. Top tennis player Serena and Venus Williams were easily defeated by the #203 ranked men’s tennis player. But if we only watched the best players and the best teams, only Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers would have fans. No one would be interested in watching the other NBA teams. No one would be interested in watching any of the 200+ college basketball teams, each of which would be easily dominated by any NBA team. No one would be interested in watching European basketball, Philippine basketball, high school basketball, minor league basketball. If we were only interested in watching the best, then Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquaio would never have become famous boxers, because boxers above their weight class would easily defeat them due to having significantly more power in their punches. Watching and being a fan of sports is rarely about only watching “the best.” There is some nuance. We are interested in competitive games, dramatic finishes, different playing styles, emotional story lines. There is a lot more to watching sports than only watching the best.

As I stated before, men’s and women’s sports offer different viewing experiences. Sometimes the difference favor women’s sports in terms of mainstream popularity. Women’s volleyball, figure skating, and tennis all rival or surpass the popularity of the men’s side, despite being the same sport. The differences between men’s and women’s sports can make them appeal to different people. Keeping that in mind, there needs to be a context for measuring the performances of women athletes. Rather than comparing them to men, they should be compared to the previous generations of women athletes.

Expanding Fan Bases

There is a growing interest in women’s sports. It’s a slow growth, but growing nonetheless. International competitions show this the most clearly. International events such as the Women’s World Cup, Olympics, or regional events such as the Southeast Asian Games always bring a new crop of interest in the women athletes participating, sometimes surpassing the interest of the male athletes. This hasn’t translated directly into local women’s sports leagues, but shows that an interest is there and growing. It takes time to grow fan support, and women’s sports are often fairly new at the collegiate and professional levels. In the 1950s the NBA had an average attendance of 4,500 people. In the 1960s it was still less than 6,500 people attending per game. Now the NBA often sells out games and plays to an international audience. Growing fan support takes time for any sport, women’s sports will be no exception.

Media publications can play a role in promoting women’s sports, simply by conducting more player profiles and more interviews with women athletes and coaches. It’s difficult to be a fan of players with no background; interviews and profiles reveal the human and emotional sides of athletes and can make fans feel closer to the players. In my analysis of UAAP Season 79 Women’s Basketball media coverage, I noticed that there had been well over 1,000 interviews and profiles of the UAAP Men’s Basketball teams and players and coaches, yet fewer than 50 such interviews and profiles of the women’s basketball players and coaches. Aside from media coverage, a few lessons might be learned from the most popular women’s professional sports team in the world, the Portland Thorns. Rather than marketing their athletes as “role models” for young girls or primarily targeting young women as the audience, they are marketed in a more traditional way as any men’s sports team would be. Men make up the majority of Thorns supporters. Core fans of the men’s soccer team the Portland Timbers rallied behind the Thorns with the idea of supporting women’s opportunities in sports, the rest of the community followed their lead, with “supporting women” and “community pride” being some of the most commonly cited reasons for supporting the Portland Thorns. Perhaps that is unique to the culture in Portland, but it’s an interesting thought, especially considering that the Portland Thorns have the highest fan base of any professional women’s sports team in the world, despite not being the best performing team in their own league.

This is part 2 of a 6 part articles series. You can view the rest of the series “Making the Case for Women’s Sports” here:
Part 1: The value of girls and women playing sports
Part 2: Being a fan of women’s sports
Part 3: Financing women’s sports
Part 4: Media coverage of women’s sports
Part 5: Women’s sports in the Philippines
Part 6: Personal note “It’s just a game”

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