As part of research I did several years ago on U.S. women’s professional soccer, I went to a lot of games. I still do. Since 2011, I’ve attended games in Chicago, Atlanta, Portland, New Orleans, and Birmingham.
In all of these locations, one thing has always stood out to me—how different the crowd is from that of many men’s sporting events. At professional women’s soccer games, girls fill the stands, accompanied by their parents. But not just any families are there—white girls and their parents predominate.
Some people assume that fan demographics simply reflect existing interest in sport. In other words, the stands are packed with white parents and their daughters because these groups are the “market” for professional women’s soccer in the U.S.—those who are already most interested in the product. And sure, many fans may be interested in women’s pro soccer due to having played soccer or watching their kids play. The overwhelmingly white and class privileged pool of players in the competitive, pay-to-play youth soccer pipeline undoubtedly makes interest more likely among these groups of girls.
However, sociologists of sport have challenged the idea that fan numbers and demographics simply reflect existing interest. Instead of seeing fandom as this one-way mirror where fans select into stadiums, there exists a two-way street where interest is also cultivated and grown by sport and media organizations. Fanbase numbers and demographics are influenced by the opportunities to become fans in the first place, how visible these opportunities are, and to whom they are available.
For instance, mass media outlets have a role in building audiences by making sports teams, leagues, and players visible to many people. Media communicate the history and stakes of sports competitions, drawing fans to the action and shaping their perceptions of sport. The fact that women’s sports receive less than 5 percent of mainstream mass media coverage is troubling, then, because women’s sports are denied the opportunities to connect with new and existing fans routinely provided to men’s sports. And, as sociologists Michela Musto, Cheryl Cooky, and Michael Messner have found, even when women’s sports are covered, they are often presented as less exciting than men’s sports.
In my book Kicking Center: Gender and the Selling of Women’s Professional Soccer, I argue that beyond media coverage, teams and leagues engage in their own forms of audience building. In studying the “Momentum” (I use this as a pseudonym for an actual women’s professional team), I found that this team ‘engendered’ fandom in the sense of creating opportunities for fandom and by making these visible, building interest among those who may not have known this young league existed. In the process of doing so, the team made opportunities for fandom more visible and available for white, class privileged groups than others.
In the process of building an audience, the Momentum participated in community events like road races, food festivals, and youth soccer tournaments. In team apparel and underneath a large team-logoed tent, players and staff members introduced themselves to potential fans, signed balls and jerseys, challenged one another to juggling contests, and handed out game schedules and, frequently, free tickets to upcoming home games. These events were designed to build awareness and interest in the team among locals. Yet, with the Momentum located in a predominately white and affluent suburb, these efforts made the team, its players, and its schedule most visible to white and class privileged residents.
Simultaneously, the Momentum also ‘engendered’ fandom by generating different opportunities for and experiences of fandom among men and women. Based in a frame of empowerment in women’s sports, girls were assumed to be the most highly interested in coming to games. As a result, audience building was largely designed and carried out with girls in mind. The Momentum partnered with girls’ soccer teams, featured girls in many of their promotional videos, and set up their game day spaces to welcome children, with inflatable bouncy houses, face-painting, toy giveaways, and child-friendly pop music.
The girl- and child-centrism of the team’s marketing campaigns, public appearance schedule, and game day spaces often marginalized or alienated adults whose fandom was not tied to children. This was particularly true for adult men. For instance, Jared, a 30-year old white season ticket holder, likened his fandom to strenuous swimming. He said, “I mean the league is totally geared to like teenage soccer players. That’s kind of what they’re going after. I just – nothing. Don’t care. I swim upstream. I like what I like. No one can tell me any different.”
In fact, in some moments, adult men’s fandom of women’s professional soccer was perceived as being suspect. Lacking motivations for fandom that clearly aligned with narratives of women’s empowerment, highly engaged adult men fans were feared to be more interested in the player’s bodies than their athletic abilities. At one post-game fan meet-and-greet, an older man with gray hair who attended the event alone was enthusiastic about meeting the players, telling me things like, “I can’t believe I just talked to Abigail!” After several of these post-meeting exclamations, he felt a need to explain his fandom to me, saying, “This isn’t sexual or anything…it’s just that I appreciate their play so much.” The man was right to be concerned about how his fandom was perceived—when I joined a group of Momentum staff members later, the table’s consensus was that the man was “inappropriate.” While some may believe that men are not interested in women’s sports, this example illustrates a more complex reality—men who are interested in women’s sports sometimes face questions about the motivation for their fandom.
Walking in the stands at games today and looking at the fans around me, I am acutely aware that these are not just the most interested, but also the most welcomed fans. I encourage us to ask, who is included and who is excluded in the process of building fandom? And, despite the goals of these efforts to make new fans and connect to existing ones, what might be the consequences of current audience building for the future growth and vitality of women’s pro soccer?
Rachel Allison is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and affiliate of Gender Studies at Mississippi State University. Her research examines the gender, racial, and class politics of U.S. professional sports. Her book on U.S. women’s professional soccer is out now with Rutgers University Press.