Fantasy sport: It’s a man-boy-stats-geek-jock’s world


Richard Tacon
Birkbeck, University of London

Rebecca Joyce Kissane & Sarah Winslow
Whose Game? Gender and Power in Fantasy Sports
230 pages, paperback.
Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press 2020 (Sporting)
ISBN 978-1-4399-1887-6

There is a plot thread in the 2007 film, Knocked Up, in which the Leslie Mann character suspects that her husband, the Paul Rudd character, is having an affair. All the signs are there: disaffection with home life, unusual but seemingly vital work meetings, supposed lack of phone reception. So, she enlists the help of her sister and her sister’s unwilling boyfriend and engages in a spot of detective work. She tracks her husband to a suburban house, bursts into one of the rooms and catches him right in the act… of doing a fantasy baseball draft with a roomful of other men. ‘We said no wives,’ complains one of the other managers.

Rebecca Joyce Kissane and Sarah Winslow do not discuss this in their excellent book, Whose Game? Gender and Power in Fantasy Sports (Temple University Press, 2020), but they might have, and they get into a lot of the same themes: men being men (or a particular type of man), women’s historical exclusion from fantasy sport, the bonding (primarily among men) and the conflict it can create with domestic life. They also discuss many other aspects: fantasy sport as a new form of sport fandom, women’s entry into these masculine spaces, the interactions between gender, class and ‘race’, and, running through the whole analysis, the role of power in determining who gets to play, what fantasy sport means and how men and women experience it.

First: the basics. The book is the outcome of a US-based mixed and multi-method project: an online survey (N=453) of current and former fantasy sport participants (as well as some non-participants), 47 in-depth interviews, content analysis of fantasy sport message boards and chat forums and ethnographic observations at a three-day conference of the main fantasy sport industry body. In practice, the rich interview data and the open-ended survey responses take centre stage, with the authors drawing on the other data to add further depth and/or indicate the wider distribution of certain attitudes or interpretations.

Structurally, the book works really well. The authors offer a clear introduction, then delve into the world of fantasy sport in five thematic chapters, before finishing off with a snappy conclusion. In each thematic chapter, the authors adopt a kind of four-move strategy. First, they start with one participant (occasionally two) from the in-depth interviews, offering multiple quotes that exemplify the theme of the chapter and weaving their own commentary around them. Second, they pull back to provide a detailed, contextual discussion, drawing on a range of academic sources. Third, they zoom back in to the interview and survey data, mixing long and short quotes with critical analysis of relevant academic literature. Fourth, they draw the threads of the chapter together and conclude. Throughout the book, the authors achieve a really good balance of data and theory, enabling the participants to speak directly to the reader, while offering clear, interesting and theoretically informed perspectives on their comments.

This starts in the first chapter, where the authors provide eight-and-a-half pages of crystal-clear discussion on gender in the context of sport (or sport in the context of gender).

The book will appeal primarily to those already interested in fantasy sport, or those who wish to understand it, and here it makes a distinctive contribution. The authors are right when they note that the vast majority of academic research so far has come at fantasy sport from a sport management and/or marketing angle, looking at participant demographics, consumer behaviour-type motivations and the implications of all this for the sport industry. Kissane and Winslow deliberately come at it from a different angle, focusing on ‘how participants’ involvement in fantasy sports is interwoven with their sense of themselves as sports fans and as men and women, how their experiences with fantasy sports reflect and sometimes challenge larger gender structures, and how fantasy sports affect their relationships with others’ (pp. 5-6). While a few individual articles have examined these aspects before, this book really opens up the world of fantasy sport and situates it sociologically.

However, there is also much in here for others, in particular those who study gender, both in sport and elsewhere. This starts in the first chapter, where the authors provide eight-and-a-half pages of crystal-clear discussion on gender in the context of sport (or sport in the context of gender). Although this is there to frame their subsequent analysis of fantasy sport, it is an exemplary introduction to a set of complex issues (in fact, the main thing I thought as I was reading it was, I immediately want to copy these eight-and-a-half pages for all my sociology of sport students). This clarity is there throughout the book. What works particularly well is the ‘roundedness’ of the analysis. Many academic analyses of gender focus on women’s or men’s experiences. Such analyses often work well, but they can also feel like slices of a whole. Here, the authors explore the phenomenon from both sides. Fantasy sport is a predominantly masculine space, so the book starts from there: How and why is it masculine? How do men experience it? What forms of masculinity are dominant? How do men view women who participate? Then, the book moves on to women’s experiences: How do women experience their participation? How do they experience their interactions with men and other women? How do they reproduce or transform dominant gender relations? This takes the reader on an analytical journey that mirrors the experiences of men and women in the fantasy sport environment.

There are some limitations to the book. First, in comparing fantasy sport with ‘traditional’ sport fandom, the authors offer a somewhat out-dated, monolithic picture of ‘traditional’ fandom. Indeed, Guilianotti’s (2002) well-known taxonomy of supporters, followers, fans and flâneurs demonstrated a trend away from ‘traditional’ fandom towards more detached, consumer-oriented engagement with sport almost 20 years ago. Second, while the authors repeatedly identify White, middle- and upper-class men as the dominant group in fantasy sport, they only really show, and therefore can only really probe, the gender dimension. To be clear, there is no reason to doubt this intersectionality and the authors do offer some interview-based evidence around occupational class (e.g., participants’ disposable income, jobs that enable time spent at computers and other devices, geographical mobility for work that encourages fantasy sport as a means to stay in touch with friends from home/college etc.). However, presumably because the original research project was focused directly on gender, the empirical material cannot speak with anything like the same nuance about class or ‘race’ and ethnicity. Finally, there is only a very short discussion in the conclusion about what future research could do, which is a shame, as the authors are in a great position to offer clearer, more specific directions. These are, though, minor limitations.

Overall, the book is excellent. It is rich, fluidly written, provides genuine insight into a world known intimately by insiders, but not by many outsiders, and is a superb example of gender-based analysis.

Copyright © Richard Tacon 2021

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