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As NFL fans gear up for Super Bowl LI between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons, some fans are apt to feel more included in the broadcast than others. Advertisers, as critics have long noted, tend to assume that American football fans are straight men. Many long-awaited and expensive Super Bowl ads tend to be, well, pretty sexist. While the most egregious examples of sexism in Super Bowl broadcasts and advertisements seem to be decreasing as the NFL tries to acknowledge the presence of women fans (at minimum as a new marketing demographic), many women continue to feel left out of the Super Bowl spectacle.

Secret, a deodorant line with a history of taking on important social issues in ads, is trying to address that in this year’s ads — taking direct aim at sexism within sports fan communities. One of the company’s ads, titled “NFL—Red Zone” (subtitled “Ain’t No Party Like a Teachable Moment Party”), features two men shouting at the TV encouraging the quarterback to “throw the ball.” A woman standing nearby interrupts and explains, to the shock of the two men, why their calls to throw the ball are wrong and that the team should run the ball instead. In another Secret advertisement, titled “No Love At First Sight” (subtitled “Throws Before Bros”), a woman watching a game in a Pittsburgh Steelers jersey stares longingly as a handsome party guest enters the doorway, while the camera pans in slow motion between the two of them exchanging eyes as her windswept hair blows and he basks in a sunlit glow. This “love at first sight” moment is quickly extinguished, however, when he takes off his coat to reveal a New England Patriots jersey, which prompts her to not allow him to sit on the same couch.

While I don’t look to advertisements to bring about revolutions, they are nonetheless emblematic of the appetite among women sports fans to be taken seriously, which the majority of other commercials that actively or passively exclude women, do not satisfy. The two Secret ads are emancipatory in an extremely limited and specific sense, in what Andi Zeisler calls a “marketplace feminism” that is based on consumption (of deodorant, in this case) rather than collective social change. But even more, their challenge to dominant norms of fandom doesn’t go nearly far enough. My own research on women who are fans of men’s sports, which I recently published in the Sociology of Sport Journal alongside Cheryl Cooky and David L. Andrews, shows that defining the quality of one’s fandom by criteria like these—knowledge of the game, unwillingness to pay attention to men’s bodies—also serves to exclude those who do not fit those criteria.

Gendered Sports Fan Stereotypes

The first ad discussed above illustrates a situation that many women who love sports are familiar with—being greeted with low expectations for knowledge and needing to prove people wrong before being accepted. The second ad challenges the stereotype that women become sports fans in order to impress men, which may suggest that women are not serious as fans or that they are not fans for the “right” reasons (such as being initiated into the local team in childhood by a father figure and loving the team forever no matter how bad they are). A belief that women’s fandom is guided by heterosexual attraction, whether it is attraction to other sports fans or to the players on the team, is all too common.

While many feel that sports can bring people together, it is important to ask who is excluded from the definition of a sports fan, and how this exclusion creates the boundaries that reaffirm others fans’ membership. When I interviewed women who strongly self-identified as sports fans for the aforementioned study with my colleagues Cheryl Cooky and David L. Andrews, I quickly discovered that the women knew those stereotypes very well. One participant was frustrated that when she goes to the sports bar:

People don’t talk to me, they talk to my boyfriend. … And I don’t always know how to answer sports questions, but it’s just the fact that people always talk to my boyfriend who is a man, who is a sports fan, as opposed to a girl.

While everyone I interviewed felt that the stereotypes were unfair, their explanations for this unfairness differed. For some women sports fans, stereotypes were unfair because they excluded all women whether they fit the stereotypes or not. The women that conform to dominant ideas of what sports fandom is, they argued, should be included. This was explained by one woman I spoke with, who responded to a question about gendered stereotypes:

[Being subject to stereotypes is] not fun but [the stereotypes are] true. I’ve seen it. … I thought of someone I work with who’s a really annoying Blackhawks fan, and his girlfriend claims to be a Blackhawks fan because of him, so it’s all really annoying.

In this quote, the participant is stating that if gendered stereotypes about a woman are true, then she is not a real fan. Conversely, others felt that women should be included as fans regardless of whether they fit the stereotypes or not. As one participant put it:

I feel like I’m living the definition of what it means to be an actual sports fan, female, male, whatever, doesn’t matter. …For something like, I think, you know, A.J. Pierzynski is hot, you know, to kind of disqualify… or somehow cheapen my sports fandom just really irritates me.

For her, the belief that women are not legitimate fans if they engage in any of the stereotypical fan behaviours—regardless of any other aspect of their fandom that might be deemed more serious or appropriate—is unfair and frustrating.

I think there are two important but slightly contradictory points to take from this. On the one hand, stereotypes that women sports fans are driven by heterosexual attraction, that they are not knowledgeable, or that they are not passionate about sports, need to be rejected. These assumptions serve to exclude women and to solidify sports as a heterosexual and masculine preserve. But on the other hand, sports fans should broaden their understandings of what counts as a “real” fan. Why is it wrong to get into sports because of a significant other, or to be attracted to the players? Why is a large amount of specialized knowledge about a sport the bar that we set, when everyone has to start somewhere? Why can’t people be fans in the way that they want to be fans?

Sports can be a very meaningful part of people’s lives, and exclusion based on gender or any other facet of identity is harmful. Super Bowl broadcasters and advertisers would do well to acknowledge the diversity of fan bases and to scrap sexist programming. But the work of creating more inclusive fan communities cannot be limited to teams and broadcasters. Fans need to personally challenge sexist stereotypes when they encounter them; strict definitions that exclude others (especially women) should give way to more inclusive and welcoming sports fan communities. The inclusion of women as sports fans should not be dependent on their ability to meet specific criteria, or worse, by rationalizing one woman’s deservingness of being accepted by marginalizing another. There are many ways to be a fan, and fan bases are stronger when they include everyone who wants to be a part of them.

Katelyn Esmonde is a doctoral candidate in Physical Cultural Studies at the University of Maryland. She is interested in gender, sports fandom, digital technologies, and theories of physical culture. You can follow her and her Toronto Maple Leafs commentary on Twitter at @phylliskessel.