Towards an understanding of why and how women consume sport and why so many don’t

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Lise Joern
Institute of Sports Science and Clinical Biomechanics
University of Southern Denmark


Andrei S. Markovits & Emily K. Albertson Sportista: Female Fandom in the United States 258 sidor, hft. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press 2012 (Politics, History, and Social Change) ISBN 978-1-4399-0964-5

Andrei S. Markovits & Emily K. Albertson
Sportista: Female Fandom in the United States
258 sidor, hft.
Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press 2012 (Politics, History, and Social Change)
ISBN 978-1-4399-0964-5

There is a large quantity of literature on sports fandom, however, gender is mostly not an issue in these publications. Research about female sports fans is very limited. Based on both sociological and psychological literature from the United States and Europe, as well as surveys and qualitative interviews with college students and female sports journalists Markovits and Albertson explore women’s interest (or lack of interest) in sports and their patterns of sports consumption in their book Sportista.

The authors argue that women tend to follow and talk about sports differently from men due to different gendered socialization and the historical association of sports with the image of an institution created for celebrating, displaying, and reproducing masculinity. Despite its title, however, Sportista is as much a book about gender differences in sport culture more generally and the culture of workplace as it is about female sports fans.

In the first chapter the authors focus on social mechanisms and gender differences between boys and girls that start in childhood and continue into adulthood. For example, from an early age girls focus more on narratives than boys. Boys prefer to engage in physical activity while girls tend to socialize in small groups (walk and talk). This influences the way female fans follow and talk about sport.

Next, the authors focus on gender issues related to workplace. Sex segregation persists in the labor force despite shifts over recent years that have desegregated certain occupations from being dominated by one sex. Male-dominated industries provide particular challenges for women’s advancement. These industries tend to be vulnerable to masculine stereotypes due to lack of diversity. Hence, women may find excelling in these occupations to be difficult.

In the third chapter, Markovits and Albertson explore the history of female athletes in the United States. In recent years, barriers to women’s participation in sport have weakened, and cultural views of female athletes have been revised. However, unlike male athletes, female athletes are not primarily portrayed as performance athletes, as coverage of their beauty and sex appeal usually overshadow highlights of their athletic performance.

In the final three chapters the authors introduce ‘the typical female sports fans’, the professional sportista (a pun on the word ‘fashionista’),  the female sports journalist, and the non-professional sportista, the female sports fan.

A fan is generally viewed as someone who has an intense interest in a certain team, celebrity or similar. The term is also one that commonly signifies an interest in popular culture. Having an intense interest in what is deemed high culture (such as art, literature or classical music) is what constitutes a scholar. Fans, on the other hand, are frequently viewed as somehow deviant. They are obsessed, often hysterical and sometimes even dangerous. Especially sports fans have been stigmatized as deviant and dangerous. Defining what constitutes a fan, however, proves extremely difficult. Sportista does not offer any answer to that question. It is difficult to define exactly what constitutes a fan, as this is not simply an objective thing, but rather a lived experience. Moreover, the nature of being a fan is not only historically and culturally specific, but also dependent on individual definitions and specific social situations.

Despite the sportistas’ overwhelming commitment to sports, they have a different consideration of what it is essential to know about sports than their male counterparts.

A person may consider him/herself as fan, but the patterns of fandom may be viewed as not a real fan. Any attempt to define what constitutes a fan will probably oversimplify, often complex, patterns of behaviour and meaning. It is extremely problematic to attempt to provide an overall definition of what does and what does not signify a ‘real’ and ‘legitimate’ fan. The term fan is often used to consider those who are deemed as having appropriate and legitimate patterns of interest (real fans) and to disregard those who are seen to have far more trivial and uncommitted patterns of involvement.

So what constitutes the sportista? The sportista’s interest in sports is not limited to a favourite team or athlete or watching major sports events. The knowledge, commitment and enthusiasm extend beyond the interests of the average female fan. To what degree is left undefined.

Despite the sportistas’ overwhelming commitment to sports, they have a different consideration of what it is essential to know about sports than their male counterparts. The authors explain that sportistas are not interested in historical details, statistics or post-game analysis. Even though an increasing number of women identify as sports fans, they consume, follow and talk about sports differently from male fans.

Having constantly to prove knowledge about sports to be seen as a ‘genuine’ fan by men who are unwilling to accept them as legitimate fans, the sportista faces another problem. Women’s entry into the world of sports is perceived as an intrusion into and threat to this sphere. There is, however, one exception to this: the sportistas’ fathers ,who admire their daughters’ knowledge.

Also the professional sportistas, the female sports journalists, face challenges in gaining acceptance. Their knowledge and credibility is also questioned. Interviewing high-profile athletes and coaches is difficult for anyone, regardless of gender. However, female sports journalists face the challenge of entering a historically male-domianted profession. As with female athletes, female journalists see their professions, reputations and careers reduced to their appearance and their sex. A recent example is the Swedish journalist Johanna Frändén’s interview with Paris-Saint Germain coach Laurent Blanc. Frändén asked the manager about his decision to switch from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 formation in a recent football game. Blanc responded by saying: “Women talking football tactics, it’s so beautiful. I think it’s fantastic. You know what 4-3-3 means, don’t you?”.

Although the authors tend to make broad or universal claims based on limited (it primarily deals with white, middle-class college students) and sometimes questionable and obsolete material, throughout the book Sportista is an interesting look at female (and male) sports fandom. Despite some shortcomings it is an important contribution to the study of sports fandom and a step toward an understanding of why and how women consume sport and why so many don’t.

Copyright © Lise Joern 2014

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