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Sports

Watching Like a Girl

How mainstream sports reporting gets female fandom wrong

Published on July 22, 2013
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Photograph by Joel DindaJoel Dinda

Earlier this year, I was at a Blue Jays home game when a kindly usher took it upon himself, unsolicited, to explain to me how many strikes make up an out, and how many balls are a walk. While I’m sure he had the best intentions at heart, the trouble with his instruction was that he assumed I needed it—I’ve been going to games for about thirty years.

Men tend to make these assumptions, but like most female baseball fans I know, I actually have a specialized knowledge of the game that my male counterparts may not. For example, I know what sections of the ballpark are the safest to sit in, where I am least likely to be harassed by men, or to overhear sexist, homophobic or racist remarks from the male voices around me (at the Rogers Centre, 515 and 113 are both good places, if you’re interested). I know that weekday evening games tend to be most comfortable for women, that Sunday afternoons are generally better than Saturdays, and that Friday evenings should be avoided all together. I know that the new centre field porch on the 200 level—although equipped with a beautiful view—is generally out of the question if you’re interested in avoiding aggressive, drunken masculinity. Female fans navigate the game differently by necessity, as media messaging consistently tells us this is a male space that we’re being “allowed” to enter. I am a devoted fan of the game despite and not because of the culture that surrounds it.

Men hold an overwhelming majority of the power when it comes to creating mainstream sports culture, whether it’s by being a player, a fan, or a sportswriter. Take, for example, Tom Maloney’s piece in last Friday’s Globe and Mail, titled “A new generation of baseball fans in Toronto are young, hip and cool.” The article, which breaks down results of an in-stadium survey conducted by Ipsos-Reid, reinforces the very same exclusion and hostility that I have front of mind every time I pick my seats. In it, the author attempts to explain an “astounding” jump in women’s attendance at Rogers Centre from 2010 to 2012 by lazily hypothesizing that these young women aren’t really baseball fans at all.

Through some rather biased quotation choices (“it’s the best patio in the city, the best people-watching in the city”; “we can ‘watch’ the game—in quotations”), Maloney paints a singular portrait of a woman out for a night of beer and boy watching. “Along with a number of other women interviewed for this story, she indicated the club’s eye-appealing roster has enhanced her interest,” he writes of one subject. By cherry-picking comments and manufacturing conclusions, he does his part in contributing to a long-standing image problem that many female fans rail against.

To the media at large, baseball fans of the female persuasion tend to be seen as vapid, bored, and distracted, either dragged along by boyfriends or there to party and pick up, all the while wearing their Victoria’s Secret Jays tees and drooling over Brett Lawrie. Women are there for a ladies night or a bachelorette party—certainly not for any “real love” of the game, yet they do come in handy as the occasional pretty face for Sportsnet to zoom in on.

I certainly don’t deny that these kinds of fans exist—but I cannot agree that they’re a problem. The actual problem lies in consistently putting this very limited depiction of women’s relationship to sports into the world. It does real exclusionary damage in terms of attracting new fans, a project that both makes good economic sense and goes far in improving the overall experience for everyone.

If the Blue Jays organization is in any way invested in cultivating and profiting from a new female audience, it would be wise to manage how women are marketed to, and to consider its part in the way we are treated by mainstream sports media. I mean, why would you ever want to support, with your dollars or your love, a franchise that doesn’t respect your knowledge, interest or passion for it? That assumes you are stupid, but hopes you are pretty?

This idea that women don’t really watch permeates sports. Last year, The Score Blog’s Ellen Etchingham brilliantly summed up our severely limited viewpoint of female sports fandom in her reaction to While the Men Watch, CBC’s abhorrent hockey feed for women. In it, she describes the dominant stereotype as follows: “Women don’t understand sports. Women don’t care about sports. If women watch sports, they only do so because a man pushes it on them. Women are interested in fashion, cleaning, shopping, and men.” She further articulates how offensive it is for female fans to have this heteronormative femininity constantly pushed on us by the media, as many use sports to actually escape that very thing. For Etchingham, hockey has acted as a haven, a break from strict societal norms. “For many of the so-called serious female fans, watching the game is one of the best social avenues for meeting people and hanging out in a relatively ungendered way,” she explains. “Being into sports allows us to be guys, not in the sense of men, but in the sense of participants in a laid-back, friendly, easygoing social milieu that doesn’t feel defined by gender lines. Many female fans explicitly resist the category ‘female fans,’ because for us part of what is great about being a fan is the sense that female or male doesn’t matter so much.”

On Friday, when I expressed on social media my disdain for Maloney’s limited take, I brattily retitled his piece “Why women go to baseball games, by a male sports journalist.” Several female fans got in touch to share my sentiment: women who attend games with scorecards in hand, who have encyclopedic knowledge of players, stats, and history, who have romantic ideals of the game’s meaning and the narrative it provides them. These are women who attend (and spend) with the knowledge that the system excludes and disrespects them, yet they try to carve out a space for themselves anyway. When it is so difficult for them to participate, when they have to work so much harder to be included, why would anyone ever doubt how much they love it?

The real problem with Muloney’s piece is how many male fans actually agree with his theories on why women go, and the antagonism that attitude cultivates—as if a bunch of girls chatting about wedding plans instead of paying attention is more problematic than yelling homophobic slurs and harassing women at the ballpark. It speaks to this ingrained idea that women don’t belong, which is emphasized by an appalling gender imbalance in terms of who is “allowed” to write or speak publicly about “dad’s game.” Unlike other fields, sportswriting has mysteriously remained immune to conversations about gender parity, as if we’ve collectively accepted that this is a man’s domain and men alone should speak on it. With the success of writers like Etchingham at The Score and Katie Baker at Grantland, and producers like Caitlin Kelly at newyorker.com, things are certainly changing—but it’s hard to deny women have traditionally been offered extremely limited roles in North American professional sport, most of which amount to “look pretty and say little.”

I certainly don’t deny that some people go to games simply to drink and people watch, nor do I deny that some of those people are women (or think anything is wrong with that). What is important here is the emphasis we put on female ignorance and disinterest when we talk about female baseball fandom, and the way we exclude women from the larger conversation as a result. There is vast diversity to the common fan’s personal experience of the game, regardless of gender, and like anything, any stereotypes that we reinforce only harm the overall community. It surely couldn’t have been hard for Maloney to find a quotable female fan who could talk complex stats with him, or who even had more than a passing interest in the game, but instead he chose to focus solely on expectations already supported by the status quo.

Men come to the ballpark with an assumed knowledge and interest, whereas women need to be constantly demonstrating how much they know and care. A radically different take on that Ipsos-Reid survey is that maybe, despite hostility, we’re making a bold attempt to find more space for ourselves in a culture that has omitted us. Despite what may be believed, some women deeply love what has long been considered a man’s game, and the time is overdue for the gatekeepers of fandom to accept, support, and welcome that sentiment, and for sports media to report on it in a non-biased way.

In Etchingham’s brilliant words, “Don’t tell me you respect serious female fans. If you did, you’d have found some.”

Stacey May Fowles is the magazine’s circulation and marketing director, and author of the new novel Infidelity.

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  • Kiara Sexton

    Hear, hear!

  • C A

    Love this. I have been watching baseball all my life. I still play softball –I am 50 I love the game, I love hockey and, in fact, pretty much only listen to sports talk radio while in my car. I am increasingly offended by the lack of appreciation for the female sports fan. When a local Sports Morning show host can say “he doesn’t care if women like his show or not” and go on to say that this is because women are not important to his audience….then we have a long way to go to be accepted as true sports fans.

  • http://irememberfashion.tumblr.com nancybroden

    I grew up a Montreal Expos fan and am now, after the loss of my team and 13 years in the Bay area, a San Francisco Giants fan. My experience is that the crowd who goes to Giants’ games is pretty well balanced, male / female, couple and families with kids of all ages. You can certainly find some boors — the upper reaches of View Reserve seating or when the Dodgers come to town — but I’ve never experienced the kind of misogyny or ignorance you witness at the Rogers Center. Even our broadcast team is great: when scanning the crowd for interesting people to talk about during the game they’re just as likely to find a grizzled female fan (like myself) decked out in Giants gear, headphones in listening to the radio broadcast, glove on hand ready to catch that foul ball. They call us “gamer babes”, and they say it with the utmost respect.

    • elise12192

      I definitely agree with you here: I’m a huge St. Louis Cardinals fan, and I’ve never felt as if my baseball knowledge was diminished because I am a female fan. I wonder if it has to do with the specific market you’re in. St. Louis is all about baseball, and men and women obsess over it equally. I learned to love it from my grandmother and mother. In a city like Toronto, you might find there’s less of a history with the sport, so the market resorts to stereotypes when dealing with female fandom.
      That being said, I can definitely say I’ve experienced what you’re describing, but regarding my football fandom (I can hold my own in fantasy). I spent many a Sunday my freshman year of college with the guys in the lounge, wondering where all the girls were!

  • cck1974

    I’m a “female” fan as well. I consistently have people (men) surprised at the depth of my knowledge of the game. They are even more surprised when I actually know more then they do. I hate the “female” fan stereotype. Most guys figure I found my love of the game through a guy. But no I just love the game. Always have ever since I was a little girl. It’s nice to see the real fans of the female persuasion stand up and be heard!

  • Joan Tuchlinsky

    One reason I fell in love with my husband 34 years ago was because he respected my love and knowledge of sports. This attitude of sports being a “male domain” is spread across all sports. When we were golfing last year one man who had joined us at the course wondered out loud why there were so many women on the course that day. He thought it was probably so they could hang out with their husbands (the real golfers). I suggested it was because they wanted to golf. Thanks for addressing this issue.

  • alexbarton

    I’ve been a huge fan of baseball since I was very young; I played, I watched, I learned the vernacular and the stats. I can hold my own at a bar when SportsNet is on and it’s hard to shut me up when I’m at a game.

    I recently learned about a term applied to female baseball fans in the very early 1900s. According to Ken Burns in his baseball series, “men who were crazy about baseball were called ‘Bugs’ and ‘Cranks.’ Women who shared their excitement were ‘Cranklets.’” They weren’t the baseball equivalent of puck-bunnies; they were fans. They knew their stuff and had opinions. (And if anyone knows the full version of Take Me Out to the Ballgame they’ll have seen a Cranklet in action.)

  • Kristin

    The assumed knowledge of all men who enter a ballpark always kills me. I’ve been to countless games at Fenway and Yankee Stadium in my 39 years, and I’m usually sitting next to a guy who knows less about the teams and the game than I do. And yet, he feels empowered to continue to share his ignorance at full voice. I want women to feel empowered in that way too.

  • Lois

    Great article. Bravo

    Check out my film
    “Baseball Girls” by Lois Siegel – National Film Board of Canada
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=alJg0SkLii4

    or here
    http://www.nfb.ca/film/baseball_girls

    I grew up going to baseball games and loving it.

    The
    Boys and Girls of Summer: Baseball Films at the NFB

    by Albert Ohayon

    April 24th, 2013

    http://blog.nfb.ca/blog/2013/04/24/the-boys-and-girls-of-summer-baseball-films-at-the-nfb/

    · A
    woman’s place is at home… and first base, second base, shortstop…

    Lois Siegel, Ottawa

  • mmartini.is@gmail.com

    Bravo. I cannot tell you how many times I will go to games with a group of friends and a guy will ask for a stat? And I will answer him, correctly. But he will STILL ask another dude in the group the same stat question, right in front of me, right after I’ve answered him. Ridiculous. Then, when that next dude answers him, he’s the one that gets the credit, not me.

  • Brian Douglas Macleod

    My girlfriend has far more interest in sports than I do, and I am ok with that.

  • http://www.theepicadventurer.com/ Julia

    I would add to this that for baseball in particular, it’s baffling to me that there are no female teams. I’ve never understood why softball is the female equivalent of baseball – and I bet this plays into the exclusion of women. We are expected to have never played ourselves, whereas baseball is a hallowed Americana-laced rite of passage for boys.

  • Laura Ludlum

    I really feel like in this day & age this isn’t as big of a deal. I am a female who not only enjoys sports, but works in sports as well, and I haven’t had any major issues because of it. I grew up going to games, and I have never had to sit in a certain section or find a special place in the park/stadium to sit. I don’t understand this concept at all. If a guy, whether at a bar or a game, questions my knowledge, I immediately prove to him what I know, and then it is settled. Guys banter with guys all the time and question each other’s knowledge, but females cry sexism immediately. This just adds to the problem, IMO.

  • Ron Kaplan

    I was at a Yankees-Mets game last year where the two guys behind me talked, quite loudly, about nothing but their trip to Las Vegas. Quite annoying.

    Dare I ask how you feel about books written by women for women about baseball, for example “The Cool Chick’s Guide to Baseball,” by Lisa Martin and “It Takes More Than Balls,” by Deidre Silva and Jackie Koney?

  • Dayle Reynolds

    Great comments! Check out Lois Seigel’s movie “Baseball Girls”

  • Bob Lamm

    Thanks for this great piece. Please count me as one 66-year-old White boy who respects and supports what you’re saying. Sadly, sports remains for many boys, young and old, a crucial place to engage in the worst kinds of misogynistic (and often racist and/or homophobic) male bonding. To keep women out, it is crucial to create and reinforce dishonest stereotypes, including the fact that no woman knows or can know anything about sports. Back in my 20s, because of a piece I wrote about male bonding, a feminist friend told me of how when she was a teen all the boys around her were obsessed with cars. So she started reading car magazines and learned all she could about cars. She figured then the boys would like her and want to talk with her about cars. But of course they didn’t want to let her into their male world.

  • canadianboy5

    Though I agree with the sentiment of the article and that there are real female sports fans, the author is right in exploring the fact that there are not many woman employed in the North American sports media scene. In fact, it can be argued that the current North American sports media scene helps to perpetuate the notion that women are “not (there) for any ‘real love’ of the game” and are just there for an “occasional pretty face for Sportsnet to zoom on.” If you look at the vast majority of women employed in sports media, specifically on the male side of things, they are mostly photogenic, beautiful females who either read off of match highlight teleprompters, twitter feeds, or act as a mediator between two, angry agressive males while they debate about sports. Rarely do you see a woman brought in as an expert analyst or reporter. Many of these women on sports channels rarely, if ever, have an extensive background in actually covering sports before they get hired. They have not been to journalism school, have not written for their university newspaper’s sports section or held a position as a sports information director at a college or amateur sport level. The athletes in the female version of the sport that many networks attempt to bring on as analysts come off as naive or ignorant by sometimes comparing their experience playing the female version of the sport to the male one — case in point: suiting up for Canada in the Women’s World Cup is not akin to playing for Germany in the FIFA men’s World Cup. This is not to say, however, that women shouldn’t be employed by sports media networks or tv channels or that the ones currently employed can’t learn on the job. There are plenty, albeit relatively few, female sports journalists out there, at the university, small town, and amateur sports levels that deserve a chance over many of the pretty faces on tv to show how much women know their stuff on sports. Even the women who currently cover pro sports and the olympics and have been in the press boxes and inside the locker rooms should have the opportunity to share their deep knowledge, as a result of many years of experience, of sports as analysts and broadcasters as opposed to mere sports highlight anchors. Modern examples include ESPN’s Jemele Hill who has worked from the ground up struggling through the male-domanted field of sports newspaper journalism to the screens of ESPN. After decades of on the ground beat reporting and covering sports, no one can tell you, honestly and rationaly, that she does not know her stuff. Bottom line — stop hiring these “bimbos” to cover sports and give us the real, educated, and experienced female sports journalist who are quietly working, unrecognized, across the country and whose jobs in sports journalism are being taken by pretty girls in pink who networks use as a sign that gender representation is increasing in the sports world.

  • Chris Jillings

    Yay!!!! My daughter is a huge fan. I took her to Dodger games when we lived in LA. We saw the first 2 games of the Dodgers-Jays series. We were on Wednesday happily surrounded by a few teams from a girls fast-pitch league. The only thing these girls didn’t understand is why my daughter and I cheered withen the Dodgers scored.

  • Alex

    I question the core statement of this article, that the Blue Jays organization doesn’t understand women. This was never made clear throughout the entire article. It was one usher, and the author takes it upon herself to cast the entire organization as clueless when it comes to women? Because of one person? Now who is the one making sweeping judgements about a group of people?