Women Watching Sports

by: Janet Staiger / University of Texas at Austin

Avid WNBA fans

Avid WNBA fans

I knew something had changed when I called my then-mid-70-year-old mom in Omaha several years ago on a Saturday afternoon before Christmas to ask her about clothing sizes for gifts and she responded: “I can’t talk now. Texas is beating Nebraska for the Big XII Championship.”

Granted my brother Don and his son Kevin had been a bit extreme as fans for Nebraska football. Although working in Houston and Los Angeles and now Perth, Australia, Don managed to come back until his Perth job to nearly every home game during a season, especially when Kevin was still at home. Even now, with Kevin working in Washington, D.C., both make it to about half the games. And when he can’t come home, Don will call mom from Perth several times during the game for updates. She tapes the games to send him (sorry about that!; I’m sure he destroys them after watching).

But having my mother become so devoted to watching the game marked an escalation of family commitment to the team. When she watches the game (I’ve been home to see this), she keeps jumping off the couch and paces around the room, holding her arms close to her body until the play is over, and then relaxing. My own recent involvement in Texas sports has been in part due to being able to offer Don and Kevin 50-yardline seats for Texas home-games against Nebraska.

My family life memories are vividly of the family gathered in the evenings around the (sole) television set during the 1950s and 1960s (dad bought a TV in 1952 when Omaha had its second station, but we did not move up to more than one set in the household until after I left for graduate school in 1968). So watching TV always meant negotiating which program to watch and then enjoying it together.

So I have understood my mother’s involvement in Nebraska team sports “escalate” to this new stage potentially as a way to relate virtually with my brother and nephew’s obsessions. But it is also the ability to watch the game on television that has permitted her commitment.

I use this example to suggest that while Title IX has been important in the last thirty years to the development of women’s sports and women (and men) fans of women’s sports, I speculate that television has been an important facilitator of women’s engagement. Particularly cable — with its proliferation of channels and avaricious appetite for content — has enabled fans for most major college teams to see almost all of the conference games. While radio used to supply coverage, now television provides this service as well, with the visual information intensifying the experience. (This raises the question for me as to whether radio or television might be better for certain sports; certainly baseball seems almost a radio game because of its long periods of “inaction” versus the multiple events occurring simultaneously during football and basketball games. Has anyone researched this?)

In fact, I would also argue that fans of sports are increasingly more distributed between the sexes as a result of cable coverage of sports. Often, I will raise the topic of sports — like weather — as a means to engage conversation with new acquaintances. Frequently, recently, men have indicated to me that it is their wives, girl friends, or boy friends (but not they) who follow sports.

Yet we do not know much about women’s sports fandom. My mother, for instance, knows very well what is going on in a game and can intelligently understand and predict plays. However, statistics and recollections of past games are not part of her arena for football fandom.

Other women, however, seem as capable as well-trained men in providing the on-going narrative arcs of a team: the triumphs and difficulties of the players, the inter-school rivalries, and so forth. Trained as soap-opera viewers, this sort of long-term engagement with a text is not difficult for women to do.

We also do not know much about the progression of fandom or its progression in relation to access through various media. Mom also enjoys watching (and playing) golf, a sport I cannot contemplate viewing on TV. Meanwhile, for various reasons, I have recently added the Texas Women’s Basketball team to my sports watching. Being able to see the games on cable television led, finally, to the purchase this year of a season ticket. Lately I have actually been reading the sports pages and watching the headline news tickertape for game results. That has lead this fall to following the coverage of the Pistons-Pacers and their fans’ brawl and actually bothering to watch the Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O’Neill re-union match last week. Clearly knowledge leads to curiosity, leads to more information, and so on.

The growth in the popularity of women’s sports and women watching sports (men’s or women’s) is partially a result of second-wave feminism and Title IX. (I haven’t even touched on scopophilia or attention to body images in the past thirty years as partial causes.) But the impact of cable television to facilitate virtual attendance for some intensely visual sports also needs recognition as a factor in the changes that are evident. Personally, as odd as it may seem, Saturday afternoon football viewing has become family time even though my family is spread as “near” as Omaha and as far as Australia. It’s really nice to know that we are still gathered together watching the same program on TV.

Title IX
Women’s Sports Online homepage

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WNBA fans

Please feel free to comment.


  • Olivier Tchouaffe

    What strikes me about Staiger’s piece is the love and the fair-play which emanate fromit. Sports for Cameroonians, especially soccer, make us devolve into aclannish, tribal and cannibalistic mob. The reasoning goes like this: In a nationof underachievers, soccer is the only shot out of the swamp of mediocrity. Thisis a possible explanation for the great psychological pressures attached to thegame. One can argue that attitudes toward sport reflect the experience of modernity; American fans are less psychotic about the game because they have many leads in the world; we have zero. Power produces better fans, does it not?

  • Swamp of mediocrity

    First of all I think a lot of the “love and fair-play” here have more to do with Janet Staiger than they do with American football fans. Hailing from the Cornhusker state originally, I have often said that I will always root for the Huskers even when they play Texas, because college football is the only thing happening in Nebraska; Texas has all kinds of other stuff. Nebraska fans or Texas fans for that matter have often seemed very much like a “cannabalistic mob” to me.

    The other point I’d like to make relates to cable tv sports. I married a sports fanatic and in the ten years we have been together I have grown quite familiar with the range of tv coverage Staiger discusses. During this time, I have also noticed a steady increase in the number of women who cover sports professionally. There may still be very few female sports statisticians but there is a growing number of female commentators. I think this also enables female fandom. It also makes young female sports fans’ dreams of being a sports casters seem much more realistic.

  • Janet Staiger Article and Nebraska Tapes

    I enjoyed Janet Staiger’s column. I’d like to know if any of the football tapes exist. I’ve been trying to find some for a long time. Please let me know.

    Bill Kellyhttp://members.cox.net/wjkelly

  • Beretta E. Smith-Shomade

    Like Dr. Staiger, I too am from Omaha (with much of my family living in Texas). So football has always been a way of life–across gender. And as a child of the 70s, television has too. So the viewing of sports via television and attendance at actual games can have as long as a 30 year tradition in some cases. I think it’s important for us to recognize that visualized competition serves as both an exilir and relief from our every day stresses. Both genders apparently think so. Survivor anyone?

  • Amie Zukowski

    Do girls have game while watching it or playing it?

    Yes and no. I am a girl and have grown up watching sports. It is strange for me, being from such a young generation, to think of time when women were not obsessed with television programs highlighting athletic events. The Olympics do not really count. In fact, I think women have always watched sports as much as men have done in the past. They just did not garment themselves in the teams’ colors or yell the way men did during the programs. With the feminist movement and title XI, we as a sex have been able to be more open with our interest and pursue them without the fear of ridicule. I doubt though, there was a baseball game made up solely of boys and their dads in the stands. In fact, watching sports with my father has been the only way to ever have true interaction with him. My unconscious, but livid, reaction to a foul call usually inspires a weak smile across my dad’s face. But no matter how big of fans women are of sports, there will always be distinctions. Every once in awhile, you will catch a girl supporting a male team because of the cute players and their uniform’s color.Another thing about women watching sports, I feel they are more cynical of the sport. Because of the criticism, girls feel they must uphold their liking with knowledge of useless statistics and strong opinions of players. My beef is specifically with female sports. Even though I support their right to play, I do not feel they hold the same entertaining value that male sports do. Women must play more gracefully and with sportsmen-like conduct that looses the aggressive violence that is so attractive in sports. Where do female players draw the line of becoming true athletics and remaining ladies? In other words, I do not think they can ever become the best athletes without imposing male standards on their own game.

  • who decides what is beautiful?

    By reproducing these images of what society has now deemed ‘ideal’ beauty, the media both shapes the way we think about beauty as well as utilizes the images it feels will be most appealing to audiences. But this leaves out a major element – who gets to decide what is beautiful? The media aims to please the audience by producing images they feel will be appealing. However, the ideals propagated through the media are that of the dominant audience and therefore the media ultimately marginalizes women who do not fit in with this ideal. By aiming to appeal to the dominant discourse of beauty, the media establishes a hierarchy that connects race with ideal sexuality.

  • Kailey Oppenheim

    Women’s Sports Should Appeal as Equally as Men’s do

    Before reading this article, I had no idea what Title XI was or that it even existed. What I have learned by researching this term is that Title XI is the assurance that women are equal to men in schools in both academics and athletics (http://bailiwick.lib.uiowa.edu/ge/aboutRE.html). A gender ideology about women assumes that women do not watch or understand sports like men do. When sports scores and discussions are announced on the radio, they are not as appealing to women as if they were to be televised. Television has commercials that lure women in to watch with men, but once a game is watched, the woman is hooked and possibly more enthusiastic about it than the man.

    Women start watching sports to fit in with men. Once a woman understands the (rules of the) game, the teams, and the players, she is then able to create small talk with men. It is interesting that both women and men are mostly interested in men’s games and not women’s. People choose to watch men’s games over women’s games because they are publicized more often and the advertisements are more appealing to the viewer. According to Women’s Soccer World, “the amount of promotion for women’s events whether on television or at stadiums is less than 5% of that for men’s sports” (http://www.womensoccer.com/ref.....une03.html). Men’s sports are discussed everywhere from Sports Center on ESPN to radio commentary and headlines on newspapers.

    In Staiger’s article, it is apparent that since there was only one television set in the house, the channel would be adjusted to whoever wanted to watch what, even if it were sports. So Staiger does not feel surprised to hear her mother watching a sports game even after there are multiple televisions in the house because she was hooked a long time ago and it brings back memories of previous times with her family.

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