Research from the Curley Center for Sports Journalism has recently generated international coverage, giving legs to a study that first appeared in the academic journal Communication, Culture and Critique.
The study began with a simple question: Why, despite exponential growth in sports participation among girls and women, have we not seen a similar rise in women’s sports viewership? In addressing the question, we conducted group interviews with 19 women in which we discussed how they situate sports consumption and fanship into their lives.
Importantly, the goal of our research was not to apply our results to a wider population of women, but to develop a more nuanced understanding of fanship from a cultural feminist point of view. From this perspective, we were concerned with thinking about the social construction of gender, and how gender roles are normalized through everyday practices, including the act of watching sports in the home.
In drawing from the conversations, we suggest that fanship is something more than simply developing an affinity for a certain team, but rather a complex concept mediated by one’s gender roles. For example, most of the women expressed a preference for the Olympics (an especially timely finding and one that sparked the initial popular interest in the piece). Indeed, analysts are saying that the female audience watching the Olympics will be larger than ever. Our research helps explain why this is; we note that the way the Olympics are presented – in short, easy-to-digest packages – are especially easy to appreciate for individuals who do not have the luxury of sitting down in front of the television for three uninterrupted hours. Rather, for those who are responsible for childcare and other domestic labor duties (generally women, according to existing wide-scale sociological research), the routine of sitting down only to get back up quickly to tend to something in the house is all too familiar. Thus, the ability to turn on the TV for 15 minutes, see a nice, tidy package of, say, track and field, is especially conducive for people with a hectic and full schedule in the home.
Our research also helped nuance the concept of fanship in another way; many of our participants said that they enjoyed watching sports in part because it gave them an opportunity to spend time with their families, including the men in their lives. In addition, while sports fanship may be fun, it was not entirely leisurely for the women we interviewed. Primary domestic caregivers are often charged with the job of making sure everyone’s leisure time is enjoyable. Thus, for women, sitting and watching sports on TV was work, as well as leisure.
This nuanced understanding of fanship helps provide an explanation to our initial question – why don’t women who played sports watch women’s sports? The ability to sit down and watch sports requires the existence of leisure time, something individuals who are responsible for the lion’s share of domestic labor simply do not enjoy when they are at home. Thus, as we conclude:
The challenge to building a women’s sports fan base is also mediated by the form of domestic life. As the women in this study showed, watching sports was not a leisure activity, but rather associated with emotion labor. On the latter part of this two-pronged challenge, media producers and women’s sports advocates interested in building audiences in the short-term need to acknowledge and address the structural impediments facing women with the potential for interest in watching women play. For instance, airing professional women’s sports on weekends is a barrier for many women who perform traditional gender roles associated with childcare.
Admittedly the notion of fanship as mediated by gender roles is an abstract concept, which presents a challenge to reporters working to summarize the study in a short article. In covering the piece, some outlets interpreted our study as suggesting that all women watch sports to be with their husbands, which makes women look simplistic. This interpretation drew considerable criticism from feminist and women-centric blogs. (And rightly so; anyone who would make such a claim with a sample of 19 should be criticized.)
Applying any research “finding” to a wider population is only appropriate when the study draws from a random sample that is sufficiently representative of that wider population– which we did not do. But our goal was not to describe a social trend at a meta-level but to interpret it, something for which qualitative research provides an especially useful toolkit. The interviews provided a level of depth that quantitative research in the form of surveys or experiments, for example, lack the ability to do. In sum, we hope the project informs women’s sports advocates and also adds to the growing understanding of how patriarchy persists through everyday practices.