Important gender analysis of professional marketing models

Anna Maria Hellborg
Dept. of Sport Sciences, Malmö University


Rachel Allison
Kicking Center: Gender and the selling of women’s professional soccer
194 pages, paperback, ill.
New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press 2018 (Critical Issues in Sport and Society)
ISBN 978-0-8135-8677-9

Kicking Center is a study of Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS), a professional soccer league for women that existed between 2009 and 2011. Rachel Allison’s aim for the research project is to analyse how the WPS had been built and sold and what role gender had in this. By observations and interviews with players, staff, managers and journalists between 2011 and 2012 she has conducted an ethnographic study in a WPS team were she “worked” as an intern.

Rachel Allison’s feministic ethnography is an important contribution to the field of sport management. She problematizes that the models that are used for men’s professional sports is considered gender neutral and that according to those models women’s professional sports are not as attractive for fans, media and sponsors. Allison claims that the construction of men as better at sports rather than the quality of the product “women’s sport” affect the choices fans, media and sponsors make. She also talks about how the team she studied failed to attract a consistent fanbase by marketing towards a narrow demographic such as white, middle-class heterosexual families. In retrospect, this may not be surprising. Allison explains very well how women’s team sports are walking a thin line between seriousness and lesbianism, femininity and hypersexuality.

Allison begins with the modern history of women’s soccer in the US, describing how the sport grew into a big youth sport and a big team sport for women. In the second chapter, Allison explores two of the main and contrasting opinions of how to legitimize a women’s soccer league, as a business or a cause. Those who saw the league as a business believed in the market system, return of investment (ROI) and the gender neutrality of it and saw the lack of interest in the league as a product failure. They saw the market as a fair system beyond gender. Other people saw ROI not as gender neutral, but as clearly gender biased, discriminatory and sexist. These advocates for women’s soccer wanted to promote and generate  support for women’s soccer leagues as a good cause were the players were role models for young people, especially girls. To summarize, either you say women and men are equal in our society and that women’s sports can be profitable on the same premises as men’s sports, or you say that we live in an unequal world and that our hopes lie in inspiring the next generation to achieve gender equality. These views depend on if and how you see the gender order in the world. It is important to add though, that both of these dichotomies are problematic. Allison only problematizes the business view, which I do agree is the more problematic one, but I would have liked to see a more nuanced analysis.

Allison’s next chapter deals with how the team she observed constructed their fan base. This chapter is very interesting since it gives a possible other reason for the failure of the WPS, even though Allison does not really go as far as to say or speculate why the league failed. She writes that the team moved out from the city to a white middle class suburb. Instead of being more accessible to more people, they moved and marketed the league towards the white middle class. The belief was that young white girls and their parents were the team’s main target group. They completely ignored existing fan bases in the lesbian community as well as male fans (who were not fathers to young girls). However, Allison’s study shows that even though families are a big group attending the games, one family generally did not attend that many games, the core fans were others. It also seems like the team tried to steer the image of the players towards a heterosexual, white femininity that would sit well with suburban middle-class people. Allison shows how the team (and the league) wanted the players to present a heterosexual femininity with a focus on glamour. Some saw this as professionalism. One interviewee said, “Someone else has to buy into it as a product”. Maybe that was the problem with WPS: the loss of individualism, maybe they saw it too much as a product and too little as something relatable to young people in their everyday life.

I appreciate how Allison manages to include race and class perspectives as well as a gender perspective in her analysis.

The problems that faced WPS was that they believed girls and women could be sports fans if the athletes were women, which they did not to a sufficient extent. The team assumed that the male professional sports models would work for women, but it did not. One problem is that inclusion with the male professional leagues leads to male control of women’s sports as well as challenges female inferiority. The “dilemma of difference” is hard to get around. Difference reinforces women’s inferiority because difference tends to create hierarchy. Women’s sports fail to live up to sports norms that are gendered but are perceived as gender neutral. “More than mistaken business models or misplaced feminist ideals, persistent essentialist ideology is at the heart of the challenges that women’s professional soccer has faced since 2001” (s.137). The market and business are used as an excuse for the lack of interest in women’s sports and discriminatory treatments are not admitted.

I appreciate how Allison manages to include race and class perspectives as well as a gender perspective in her analysis. Moreover, she demonstrates how trying to be something sometimes leads to denying others. “The symbolic exclusion of people of color, the poor and working classes, and sexual minorities from women’s soccer as players, fans and employees limits the sport’s future growth and potential to meaningfully transform professional sport /…/ The irony is that as women’s soccer itself is fighting for recognition, it has denied recognition to others” (s. 139).

One question that comes up when reading about the bad decisions that were made, is whether the WPS could have survived. It is evident from Allison’s research that the league was not entirely professionally run. They did not adapt to their existing market but tried instead to develop a new market without negotiation, and in doing so, they did not give the league a proper chance. Allison does not actually say that, I am not sure if she believes that, but that question pops up when I read her study: Were they using the wrong marketing strategy, is that what she is saying? The author does not really address that issue, maybe she should have.

I also wonder about the definition of “professional”. I have known about the league and studied it at master’s level (it’s available on idrottsforum.org as an article) and understood it as a fully professional league. In my mind, that means every player is paid so the whole team can make a living by playing soccer. However, I understand from Allison’s book that this was not the case for WPS, some players had to have another job as well. Maybe it has something to do with how long the season is, but to me, and my understanding of the word “professional”, that is not a professional league, maybe a semi-professional league. Even though the new league, National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), has lasted seven seasons, more than twice as long as any previous league, they still struggle to get attention from media, sponsors, and fans. If this league is entirely professional the book does not say.

Allison’s study reveals a complex field were women in sports have to navigate a thorny terrain – not be too feminine and sexy, not too butch, but still professional and gaining attention.

The successful running of women’s professional (team) sports is a complicated task, which becomes very clear in Rachel Allison’s Kicking Center. I urge universities with sport management programs to put this book in the hands of their students, since it intelligently explains why managing and marketing models, in an unequal society, do not work the same way for women’s sports as it does for men’s sports. This is an important perspective since gender analyses often are lacking in the field of sport management. In addition, I urge fellow sport scholars to keep exploring this issue and the consequences it will have in a longer perspective. It is important for gender equality in professional sports.

Copyright © Anna Maria Hellborg 2019

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