My relationship to sports viewership is complicated

It was the headline that launched a million headdesks.

The article in question – “Wives watch sports for husbands’ sake, study reports” – hit the series of tubes, only to be greeted by the sound of a thousand feminist bloggers putting their hands on their hips and snorting indignantly.  Now we are in the third wave of the life cycle of this particular story, in which bloggers ask how the study could have been so badly misinterpreted.  (For what it’s worth, I don’t share Amanda Marcotte’s rage at Hamilton Nolan’s take on this whole thing.)

I was intrigued by the debate and so I did what the journalists who started this whole kerfluffle in the first place should have done and actually read the study.  (Imagine that.) The feminist outrage over this would have been reduced virtually to nil had a) the reporters performed their jobs well and b) had the bloggers actually read the initial study themselves.  I was kind of surprised to read the study myself and then see people (who hadn’t read the study!) commenting as if the study was Backlash II: Electric Boogaloo, when really, the authors were applying a very thoughtful and considered feminist analysis to a question that has occupied a lot of thought among women who care about sports and athletics in this country.  Seriously, opinionators of the world – source material is your friend.

Anyway, so I read the study and what I found was so interesting and thought-provoking and also so in line with my own personal experiences that I was practically vibrating with anxious anticipation of being able to write this post.  It turns out that I have lots of thoughts and feelings about sports fandom!  (Imagine that x 2.)  So excuse me for a bit while I spew those thoughts and feelings in a semi-coherent fashion all over your monitor.

Now, I consider myself to be a casual fan of the main sports in this country.  The sport I pay the most attention to is baseball, but in the past I’ve also paid attention to hockey and basketball.  I enjoy watching games in person as sort of a one-off event, but I don’t really follow all of the peaks and valleys of specific teams.  I do try to stay aware of the various narratives that surround teams and players, but that’s more from a sociological standpoint than from any personal emotional investment in the team.  And yes, there have been times in my life when I have actually gotten very excited about the success of teams: the Red Sox in 2004, the Tampa Bay Lightning winning the Stanley Cup, the Tampa Bay Rays making it to the World Series.

That’s about it for me.  The truth is, if I was left to my own devices – aka not married to a dude – I would very rarely watch men’s professional sports.  I realize that I deviate from what has become the standard “liberated woman” line in this regard, as it seems like a lot of younger women today take great pride in their love of beer, football (or any pro sports) and steak.  I sometimes get the impression that admitting I really don’t care to spend vast amounts of my free time watching what equates to grown men throwing balls around rectangular squares of land means I am somehow regressive in my femininity.

Before I continue, I want to make it very clear that I have no problem with people who do love the Big Four sports.  We all have different things that float our boats, right?  I may not spend my Saturdays watching college ball, but it doesn’t mean that the time I spend reading junky crime novels is somehow superior.  We all have our passions and our leisure time, and I respect that.

Anyway, you can’t really look at my personal history of sports viewing without untangling it from the complicated webs of emotional attachments I have had to the men in my life.  When I was younger, my family used to watch the Utah Jazz play together.  We took family outings to see minor league baseball and hockey games.  I enjoyed going to watch live sports because it was exciting, and also because they represented one of the few times my entire family could sit together and be engaged in the same thing.

(I thought this was problematic about the news framing of the study, which is this idea that sports viewership as emotional and social connection is something that only women do.  Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like our culture is filled with narratives in which men talk about how they bonded with their fathers and grandfathers over watching sports, and how being fans of certain teams allows them to relive those bonds in a very real way.   I also know that a lot of people – men and women – say they educated themselves about sports because they wanted to be able to able to establish relationships with other men.  Brian once told me that he actually started paying attention to football for this very reason, and that it has since blossomed into an actual love of the sport.  So this idea that women are the only ones who watch sports as a means of building relationships is just silliness, and not at all borne out by reality.)

But the good feelings I felt about these moments of familial unity couldn’t really disguise the fact that sports were by and large considered the pastime of men.  I have countless memories in which the women of my family gathered in the kitchen to cook and talk while the men watched football in the basement of my grandparents’ home, or in which my father passed several hours at a time from the comfort of his easy chair as he watched basketball games.  I never got the sense that the women in my family were the ones driving the sports viewership.

This dynamic became exacerbated when I married for the first time.  My ex-husband took sports fandom to another level.  When football season started, he would spend nine hours a day, per weekend day, watching football.  Hockey season was another demand on his time, and then baseball occupied much of his attention throughout the summer and fall.   There was never a time of year when the schedule of his chosen sports teams did not dominate the way he chose to spend his free time.

Ideally this would have been fine with me, as it should have meant that I had the freedom to do my own thing, but instead what actually happened was that he expected me to sit with him for each of these games so we could “share our lives.”  When I failed to pay attention in whatever sport we were watching, he chastised me for not wanting to share things that were important to him. That other things might be important to me didn’t seem to surface, not until I actually told him I was leaving.  I still remember buying tickets to see Liz Phair, who has been one of my favorite musicians since I was a kid, and having to go alone because the show conflicted with a college hockey game.  The idea of “sharing our lives” was actually “sharing his life.”  Some of the women in the study actually noted a similar dynamic within their own marriages.

After nine years of this, any potential I had for sports fandom was abused and twisted to the point that it was utterly busted.  When I left him, I stayed far, far away from all professional sports, almost as if I was allergic to them.  I’d spent so much time being forced to watch them that I couldn’t associate them with enjoyment and fun, and instead it was another reminder of the ways in which I pretty much surrendered my autonomy as a human being during those years.

I’ve come back around to being able to watch them sometimes, as Brian does enjoy sports, but vestiges of those days remain.  For instance, I have a really difficult time being in possession of the remote when both of us are watching TV.  The study’s authors actually hypothesized that for a lot of women, they didn’t associate watching sports with leisure but with emotional work.  This has absolutely been the case in my life.   Watching sports was something I did to bolster my relationships, not necessarily something I did out of a sense of pleasure.

All of this said, there have been a lot of times when I actually enjoy watching sports, especially when I can see the games in person and also when I can watch sports other than the ones that dominate our culture. For instance, I adore the Olympics.  I practically lose my mind for three weeks out of every two years.  The women in the study said they liked it because the events were time-compressed in a way that allowed them to maintain their domestic responsibilities – which was a big issue for a lot of the women, how they didn’t have the ability to spend three-plus hours focused on the television on the weekends because they had other responsibilities for child care and chores – but I also like it because they focus on sports that don’t get a lot of attention.  I really love to watch sports like volleyball and track and field, and I watch these sports when they show up on television.  The problem is, they don’t show up that often.  I will always watch the CrossFit Games, and I have actually seen the 2011 Ironman World Championship special three times.  I watched the Women’s World Cup! I watched the NCAA women’s championship!  I will totally watch sports when they interest me, and the fact is that most of what is offered to us as sports entertainment does not.

Which brings me to the fact that most of these conversations come up because there seems to be this belief out there that if more women watched sports, more women’s sports leagues would be successful.  I disagree with this on two counts.  One, even for a woman like myself who is inclined to enjoy women’s sports, there are pretty much zero opportunities out there for me to watch them.  There’s one pro women’s sports team in my area, and it’s a Lingerie Football League team!  I would rather disembowel myself with a twig than watch an LFL game. I’m not about to travel to Washington DC to see women’s soccer, and I don’t even know where the nearest WNBA team is.

It’s a Catch-22, as media companies don’t want to invest in coverage of sports that do not pay off financially, and because fandom of women’s sports has been historically so anemic, they are way less likely to actually commit to the coverage, which further decreases the opportunities for people to become fans, and so on and so forth.  The feedback loop has only become more pronounced with the rise of the Internet and digital cable, as it is possible to track exactly what grabs the attention of audiences in a way that was once left up to self-reported surveys like the Nielsen ratings.

Two is that we’ve seen time and time again that women will generally watch whatever men watch, as men’s viewing habits tend to dominate.  Think about the movie industry, how they will spend a gazillion dollars making movies that appeal to men because they know that women will go see them too, whereas there is all of this reluctance to make movies that appeal strictly to women because a lot of men refuse to go see them.  How would sports be any different?   If you want women’s sports to be successful, you’ve got to get men to watch them, too.  That’s a big part of why the Women’s World Cup was such a success – because a lot of guys wanted to see the matches.  I still remember sitting and watching the matches in rooms full of guys, while two or three girls scoffed at all of us for caring.   Assuming that more female sports fans will equate more viewership of women’s sports is a mistake.  For women’s sports to succeed, they have to appeal to all genders.  Unfortunately we have a ways to go in this regard, but I do think progress is happening.  It’s just that this progress is insanely slow when compared to the explosion that has been seen in women’s sports participation.

So I’m aware that this post was a jumble that was pretty much written in a rush of excitement and that it may not be the most coherent thing I’ve ever done.  Plus, there remains the fact that I am still forming a lot of my ideas about this.  I’d love to hear your take, too.  Do you watch sports?  Why?  Why not?  Do you watch women’s sports?  Tell me in the comments!  I’m really curious to know.

I’m going to be doing another post on this shortly in which I criticize the idea of sports viewership as the Holy Grail of athletic cultural involvement, so stay tuned for that.

8 responses to “My relationship to sports viewership is complicated

  1. I have a hugely complicated relationship with watching sports. I grew up spending weekends and holidays at my grandmothers house – men in front of the tv, women cooking, or sitting at the table yelling at the men to turn it down, and pay attention to the kids. I hated it. HATED IT. I swore I would *never* get involved with someone for whom rabid (yes, I call it rabid) sports watching was the norm. Annnnnnd then I married my husband. Who is a HUGE fan of sports. And it was a big bone of contention early on in our relationship. I don’t have any desire to dedicate several hours of my day to watching football, or a Nascar race, or a baseball game, or a golf tournament. (Please note, there is approximately no time of the year when one of these events isn’t on over the weekend.) And his desire to do so meant that if we were going to spend time together over the weekend, we would need to consult some various sports schedule and plan accordingly.

    We’ve talked about this a million times, and he watches less now than he did 4 years ago. Partly because we got rid of cable (Hallelujah!) and partly because we have a child. A boy child who I don’t want growing up with the sexist influence of the culture of male dominated sports.

    I really enjoy watching sports, when I’m there. Not on TV. And the vast majority, I’d say close to 90% of all sports events that I have ever attended in my life, have been to watch women’s sporting events. Women’s college volleyball, women’s collage soccer, women’s professional soccer, women’s college basketball (it’s handy living near a college!). Men’s games? I don’t have a whole lot of interest in it. And I will make every effort to take my son, and my husband with me to the women’s games that I go to. It’s really important to me that I expose him to women sweating, and running, and scoring. Everyone should see that. Because we’ve created this culture of “sports” in the US, that really means “men’s sports” and it gets on my last nerve.

    Dang, I had a LOT to say about this.

    • Haha, I had the same experience while writing this post. I was like, holy SHIT, who knew I had so many opinions about this?!

      I love that you are running against the grain in exposing your son (and also your husband) to women’s sports. I really think that this is what it’s going to take, a generation of men (and women!) who grew up seeing women as athletes in ways that didn’t just frame them as novelties, but actually seeing them as athletes. This is the kind of change that will come about organically and over time but not without the efforts of people who actually care about women’s sports.

  2. I think I must have grown up in a surprisingly gender-neutral sports-viewing household — at least in terms of who was doing the viewing. While my dad was the only one who really enjoyed baseball, he, my mom, and I all shared a genuine interest in what I call the “faster moving, team back-and-forth” sports (football, basketball, hockey). My grandma was always really into professional bowling (not an interest I shared), and my sister and I are both equestrian aficionados (eventing, show jumping, dressage, reining — no racing, please). My uncle and both grandfathers were accommodating but politely indifferent.

    I have never had any long-term partners of any genders who were particularly into sports, so whenever I have watched sports as an adult, it’s predominantly been from my own interest.

    The sports I watch now are mostly high school sports, and at least part of that is because I can also get paid to work at the games. (I mean, if I’m going to be there anyway…) I do tend to favor the girls’ sports there; part of that is a conscious effort on my part to encourage the interest and effort of my female student athletes. (Given the school and social climate, the boys who are athletes already tend to get more support in general. I like to give girls who are athletes that same sort of treatment if I can.) I don’t, however, watch on TV or at a university level.

    • If you are looking to try watching a sport with some kick ass women athletes, Tampa has a Roller Derby league. I know it is not “pro” yet, but I find it immensely fun to watch and cheer for.

  3. Pingback: Women, Sports, Playing, Watching, and What We’re Exposed To | Life V 2.0·

  4. I was on the treadmill running for an hour next to a very girlie girl*. She CHOSE to watch SportsCenter on ther personal TV. She didn’t watch HGTV, or cooking or house wives screaming at each other. Thank goodness.

    *Girlie Girl: The way she dressed and she clearly showered and did her makeup before going to the gym.

    • I wish I had the option to fix my spelling mistakes 😦
      and of course, Your “relationship to sports viewership is complicated”. Your a woman, they make everything complicated! hahahaha JK

  5. I don’t get how men are somehow able to stop women watching sport and this is why women’s sports are not succesful… No one on earth can tell me that the majority of households in the first world don’t have at least 2 televisions. Is Mr Patriarch watching “the game” on both? At least half the population are women correct? Women’s sports are just as good as men’s sport correct? Why don’t the same proportion of women watch women’s sport as men watch men’s sport?
    It’s not that women don’t watch TV, Desperate Housewives, Greys Anatomy, The View, Ellen, anything on lifetime (a gross stereotyping I know but a valid reality unfortunately) seem to rate well enough to get more than a single season in. Why aren’t the women watching these (it sure as s**t isn’t men propping up these shows) also supporting their athletic sisters and putting their money where their mouth is? Why don’t I see young girls in their favourite female athletes jerseys? Why can’t my sister tell me what Ellyse Perry’s fastest ball was clocked in at?
    Women’s sports aren’t commercially unsuccesful because of male chauvanism, as you said, men will watch women’s soccer (I also watch netball, tennis, field hockey), they’re unsuccesful because of female apathy (if not open derision).

    I loved this corker… “I really enjoy watching sports, when I’m there. Not on TV.”
    So you attended a heap of women’s sporting events but refuse to watch it in the format that actually generates mass revenue…
    Revenue used to promote grassroots development of the game and get kids invloved. Promote the relevent league to people other than the already converted.
    Fund developments in those teams’ sport science areas to promote improvement in the actual quality of the sport.
    Revenue to increase the wages of the players and draw promising athletes and administrators to the game.

    I’d do anything to watch my favourite team. If I can’t be there I will more than gladly watch them on the box, or listen on the radio or get updates on my phone if Im desperate. It seems to me you are a fairweather fan, or worse, a person who watches women’s sport to prove a point but doesn’t actually get behind a team genuinely with passion.

    Just one more comment (I believe by now people will be praying for me to shut up). I believe male sport watching patterns are based around wanting to see the best of the best at what they do. Top flight women’s netball, soccer, field hockey teams would be genuinely competetive against male colleagues and that is why men will watch them. No female team will ever be competetive against a male team in football, basketball, ice hockey, rugby etc. Men will watch female versions of these sports with passing interest, but there will never be the same passion as you just aren’t seeing the absolute best of the best at that activity.

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