Important sociological study of female fandom – “fills a huge gap”

Aage Radmann
Norwegian School of Sport Sciences

Stacey Pope
The Feminization of Sports Fandom: A Sociological Study
280 pages, hardcover, ill.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2017 (Routledge Research in Sport, Culture and Society)
ISBN 978-1-138-91608-1

During the last few years we have seen a new form of fandom research arising – after more than 60 years of hegemonic male dominated supporter research, the field has been enriched by female scholars doing research on female football fans. One of the leading academics behind this trend is the sociologist Stacey Pope, a Senior Lecturer in Sport in the School of Applied Social Sciences at Durham University, UK. Her book The Feminization of Sports Fandom: A Sociological Study highlights the fact that a significant number of women these days watch, and love, football. Female supporters have been largely ignored by academic research, and the growing body of publications on the topic of female fandom creates curiosity and raises questions. Why has female fans been ignored all these years, and how come that there is a change at this point in time?

Pope argues that the feminization of sports fandom has its explanation in two major changes in contemporary society. She looks back at the 1960’s and the women’s liberation movements, and the 1990’s ‘genderquake’, at which point, she suggests, there was ‘a major structural shift that has reoriented the balance of power between the sexes and led to greater equality for women’ (p 8). Pope’s second statement is that professional sport has created a more welcoming environment for women which has made it easier to be involved as sport fans. But of course, we are talking about female fans following male teams, and so far, it’s hard to find anything written about female fans following female sport clubs. Popes empirical data consist of 85 semi-structured interviews with female football (Leicester City) and rugby union (Leicester Tigers) fans. The sample contains one ‘young’ group, 20–27 years old, one ‘middle aged’ group aged 28–59, and one ‘older’ group, 60 years and older.

The City of Leicester is an ethnically very diverse city but when it comes to watching sports, ethnic minorities are not well represented in general and in Pope’s study nearly all respondents where white and heterosexual.

Pope’s book is contextualising the idea of fandom through different theoretical lenses. In chapter 2, “Women’s Changing Leisure Lives”, she discusses the ‘ethic of care’ and how this has been linked to women not feeling that they have a right to their own leisure. This has changed over time and one contemporary change is that women now have access to leisure time to a greater extent than before, but it’s still connected to class, ethnicity and age. Pope shows that the number of female fans have increased in recent years in the UK – in Premier League the female fans are around 26 per cent of the total number of fans for the 2014–2015 season; the corresponding proportion of rugby union fans is around 18 per cent (p 32). She gives numerous examples of the lack of representation of women in sport in general, and when it comes to sport and media, Pope’s research gives many examples that show that we are far away from an equal sport culture. Sport journalism is still male-dominated – an international press survey from 22 countries found that only eight per cent of the articles were written by women (p 45).

She discusses how the macro-level gender equality affects the general sport attendance and concludes, referring Lagaert and Roose (2016), that ‘gender gaps in sport attendance between men and women are smaller in countries with higher levels of gender equality (for example, Scandinavian countries) and bigger in countries with lower levels of gender equality (for example, Portugal and Greece)’ (p 77).

Pope’s study confirms that the female supporters recognise themselves as authentic fans even if other fans and academics put other labels on them, such as ‘followers’ or flaneurs’.

In my own research about female fandom in Sweden, I have found that Pope’s results from the UK have a lot in common with my findings and results. The idea that female fans are not ‘authentic fans’ or fans in their own right – that they rather should be at the terraces to ‘civilize’ men – is a widespread perception both in UK and in Sweden. The fan discourse in both countries is also that women and children form one group – a group that is supposed to be nice and quiet and part of the family ‘middle-class’ area (p 80–81).

In the chapter “Continuity and Change in Women’s Lives”, Pope discusses how the commercialisation of sport also have had an important impact on the diversification of the supporter landscape in UK – ‘/…/ the club now markets itself towards a more diverse range of supporters, with greater sensitivity towards gender, as well as other intersecting issues of inequality such as ‘race’ and ethnicity, class, sexuality, religion, disability and age’ (p 133). Pope emphasizes that it is important to acknowledge differences between female fans – they are not a common group of people with the same approach to football and rugby fandom. One difference between Sweden and UK seems to be that when female fans in UK become mothers they take a ‘fan break’ for many years while in Sweden the ‘new mothers’ seems eager to get back in the stands as soon as possible.

In chapter 5, “Women, Sport and a Sense of Place”, Pope raises several important and interesting questions related to localism and fandom. She refers to previous research that show the ‘topophilic’ attachments that male supporters felt regarding their home stadium (p 152). In our globalised world and fragmented lives the local stadium seems to be an anchor for sport supporters. Pope brings up the question, as did Coddington (1997), if the intense promotion of localism and the idea of the ‘authentic’ fan exclude women as well as other groups, i.e. ethnic minorities (p 154–155). Pope’s study confirms that the female supporters recognise themselves as authentic fans even if other fans and academics put other labels on them, such as ‘followers’ or flaneurs’.

One general and very important question to ask is about the issue of leisure and safety. Pope, among others, points out that the sport arenas are masculine-coded and thus theorized in a patriarchal premise ‘of the universal male norm’. This has an impact on how we choose to move depending on sex, age, ethnicity, and sport arenas can create a ‘topophobic’ feeling amongst female fans, a ‘landscape of fear’, a ‘no-go’ area. (p 161).[1]

A good thing about the growing interest from female fans is that they also take part in the collective identification, combined with sporting success, and feel a sense of ‘place-pride’ (p 173).

In chapter 6, “Rivalry and Class Distinction between Female Football and Rugby Union Fans”, the old notion that rugby is supported by middle-class supporter’s while football has a stronger connection to the working-class is confirmed (p 196, 215, 230).

In chapter 7, “The Meaning and Importance of Sport for Female Fans”, the author examines women’s attachment to sport as fans, and one of her main findings is that the traditional idea, both among academics and supporters, that fandom is ‘exclusively important for the construction of men’s identities’ is wrong. Pope concludes that her findings demonstrate that sport is also central to the lives and identities of many women (p 211).

Stacey Pope’s book is rich and complex and gives fruitful insights to an area that has been all but neglected within academia – female fandom. With inspiration from grounded theory and by employing mixed methods, Pope’s results give the reader an overview, not only of the female supporter landscape, but also of traditional (male) supporter research, and she challenges and problematizes the gender-blind history of fandom.

It’s an important book that fills a huge gap in the long tradition of fan research. Hopefully we will see international comparative research on female fans in the near future which also includes intersectional perspectives.

Copyright © Aage Radmann 2017

[1] Writing this review on November 20, 2017, it seems like the ‘topophobic’ issue is setting the agenda for the Scandinavian countries – and, sadly, the ‘landscapes of fear’ are extremely connected to sex and gender. Ten thousand women from across society – sport, theatre, music, art, hospitals, etc. – have told their stories as part of the #metoo campaign about sexual violence, harassment, abuse, and maltreatment that they have experienced from male colleagues in ‘public spaces’. Maybe it’s time we redefined ‘public spaces’ as ‘male-controlled spaces’.
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