A fan holds up a foam finger while cheering at a Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park.
In a recent survey of nearly 4,000 U.S. adults, 90% identified as being a sports fan to some extent, although there were important differences related to respondents’ gender and sexuality. (photo via SGPhotography77)

Our lives are socially structured in many ways. This means that we are frequently directed to behave in a certain manner, embrace particular values, and think about ourselves in socially patterned ways. Gender and sexuality are especially influential aspects of social structure that affect our aspirations, interactions, and identities.

As sociologists who study such influences, we recently investigated the relationship between gender, sexuality, and sports fandom among U.S. adults in a study published in Sociology of Sport Journal. Prior research indicates that most Americans are sports fans. Yet, historically, sports cultures have often been organized by and for heterosexual men as spaces for them to have fun and connect with one another as they watch and talk about sports. Sports have also been used as sites where men could successfully “prove” themselves to be heterosexual and masculine. In contrast, sports cultures have often been unwelcoming spaces for women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ) adults. This has been less true within women’s sports fan communities, although women’s sports are also characterized by a long legacy of homophobia. Still, many people across all gender and sexual identities love to watch and follow sports.

Yet there is evidence that women and LGBTQ people have often withdrawn from sport or organized their own sports as a response to hostility in many sports cultures. For example, initial signs of withdrawal can be seen in sport participation patterns from the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System that indicated more male high school students (60%) had played on at least one sports team over the previous year than female students (49%). Heterosexual (57.9%) students were also much more likely to have played, compared to LGB (38.5%) students and those unsure of their sexual orientation (43.7%). In forthcoming research to be published in Leisure Sciences, we also trace similar disparities in sports involvement among adults.

Exclusivity in sports fan cultures seems to reflect and partially extend from these trends. For instance, there is ample evidence that women are neglected and marginalized as sports fans. Also, an enormous cross-national survey about homophobia in sports found that many LGB adults specifically said that mistreatment in their sports interactions while in school turned them off from sports. The vast majority of respondents (across different gender and sexual identities) believed that it was not very safe to attend spectator sporting events while clearly identifying as LGB. As a matter of fact, spectator areas were seen as the most common place for homophobia in sports interactions to occur.

Yet progressive changes are also occurring. Women now comprise nearly half of the fanbases of men’s professional sports leagues like the NFL and are the majority of those who follow elite women’s sports. There is also increasing acceptance of LGBTQ players, staff, and fans, evident in the growing number of publicly “out” elite athletes, though this appears to be more the case in women’s sport than in men’s. Some teams are known for their large number of highly devoted LGBTQ fans, and many have organized or joined efforts to counter homophobia in sport and society.

Consequently, we wanted to know more about sports fan identities in the U.S. We also wanted to know the extent to which there are differences in fandom by gender and sexuality—and better understand why these differences may exist, if they do.

What Did We Do?

Using information from a unique new survey of nearly 4,000 U.S. adults that Knoester designed and administered in 2018-19, we examined the links between gender, sexuality, and sports fandom while also considering how childhood experiences of mistreatment may have shaped these connections. Hundreds of lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults, as well as those whose gender identities are non-binary, responded to the survey—it is rare to have such gender and sexual diversity represented in survey research on sport.

Responses to the question “Are you a sports fan?” were indicators of adults’ sports fan identities. Responses ranged from “not at all” to “a little” to “somewhat” to “quite a bit” and to “very much so.”

What Did We Find?

While 10% of respondents reported that they were “not at all” sports fans, 90% identified as sports fans to some extent, and nearly half reported being “quite a bit” or “very much so” fans. Yet there were differences in sports fan identification by gender, with men (53%) more likely than women (38%) and non-binary (13%) adults to report high (“quite a bit” or “very much so”) levels of sports fandom. Heterosexual (46%) adults were also more likely than those who are lesbian/gay (35%), or bisexual (32%) to report high levels of fandom. Gender and sexuality differences remained statistically significant after using regression techniques to better account for the social contexts of respondents.

However, when we considered the intersections between gender and sexual identities, we found an interaction whereby heterosexual and lesbian women reported similar levels of sports fandom but gay men reported lower levels than did heterosexual men. In other words, differences in sports fandom by sexuality existed only among men. Nonetheless, after adjusting for the impact of adults’ social contexts beyond gender and sexuality, we found rather modest differences, on average. Still, heterosexual men more commonly reported strong sports fandom (61% as “quite a bit” or “very much so” sports fans); heterosexual women and both men and women who identify as gay/lesbian more typically reported being “somewhat” of a sports fan.

Finally, we found that both childhood sports identities and previous experiences of mistreatment in sport are related to adults’ sports fan identities. People who reported thinking about sports less while growing up, not thinking of themselves as much of an athlete, and being mistreated in sports reported lower levels of fandom. Yet childhood experiences did not explain the gender and sexuality differences in adults’ fandom. These gaps were likely not a result of sports experiences and identities in childhood, then, but related to processes and experiences that occur in adulthood.

What Does It Mean?

One the one hand, these findings are unsurprising given the role that sports fandom and participation have played in cultivating and protecting heterosexual and masculine identities among men. As other research has found, sport is often still perceived as a “masculine” (and heterosexual) sphere despite high levels of girls’ and women’s involvement, and the cultural meanings attached to sport shape whether and how people decide to get involved. That is, gender and sexuality continue to socially structure sports fandom.

On the other hand, there is reason to believe that gender and sexuality differences in sports fandom have been diminishing. More diverse and inclusive cultures are developing in sport, and one consequence is the greater visibility and acceptance of women and LGBTQ fans.

In the end, though, we found that despite apparent and recent gains, sport still has strides to make toward full inclusivity. Still, substantial numbers of people across different gender and sexual identities identify as sports fans, and this is important to emphasize. Yet there is more work that needs to be done in improving sports experiences for all. In part, this work entails recognizing the power of gender and sexuality as social structures and making institutional changes to address inequities—both in sport and society at large.

Rachel Allison is an Associate 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. She is the author of Kicking Center: Gender and the Selling of Women’s Professional Soccer, published in 2018 with Rutgers University Press.

Chris Knoester is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Ohio State University. He studies the sociology of family and the sociology of sport. He is the principal investigator of the National Sports and Society Survey, which was supported by the Sports and Society Initiative, the College of Arts and Sciences, and CHRR at The Ohio State University. Additionally, it relied on the willingness of thousands of respondents and hundreds of volunteers to help further social science research on sports and society issues.