UConn women’s basketball team breaks record for longest winning streak, and other thoughts on women and sports

Last week the University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball team broke the record for longest winning streak in college basketball—men’s or women’s—by winning its 89th straight game.

The Huskies’ coach, Geno Auriemma, noted that many male commentators dismissed his team’s achievement because it was women’s basketball—and only paid attention at all because they were chasing a record held by the UCLA men’s team since the early 70s:

“Because we’re breaking a men’s record, we’ve got a lot of people paying attention. If we were breaking a women’s record, everybody would go, ‘Aren’t those girls nice, let’s give them two paragraphs in USA Today, you know, give them one line on the bottom of ESPN and then let’s send them back where they belong, in the kitchen.'”

In fact, the impressive feat garnered comparatively little attention as it was. As Paul Farhi reported in the Washington Post, “the nation’s sports media all but yawned at the news.” Which begs those perennial questions: whither the female sports fans and—related—whither the fans of women’s sports? Farhi notes:

“The record-breaking game was relegated to ESPN2, clearing the flagship ESPN channel to carry something called the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl. The UConn news rated a wire-service story in The Washington Post’s Sports section and inside-the-section play in the New York Times. Sports talk radio stations barely touched it.

Women and girls are playing sports in vast numbers, propelled onto the court and into the field by Title IX, the 1972 law that effectively outlawed discrimination in funding for public-school sports programs. Between the law’s enactment and 2008, the number of girls playing high school sports grew tenfold, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation.

Fans are a different story. One reason is that men – generally the most passionate and loyal sports fans – aren’t keen on watching women’s sports. But if anything, women show even less interest in the games women play. Women haven’t grown into the sorts of sports fans that can sustain professional leagues or boost a women’s game into the national spotlight.”

Of course, there’s a chicken-and-egg problem here: “Does a lack of media attention cause lack of interest in women’s sports or simply reflect it?” I’m sympathetic to Kathryn Olson, president of the Women’s Sports Foundation, who argues that if the media gave female athletes a higher profile, it would build more interest in them. On the other hand, it’s hard to deny that when it comes to a money-driven business like sports media, the root problem is one of demand. As David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at USC says, “If there was more interest, I guarantee you there would be more coverage.”

The article goes on to discuss the differences in the way men and women are socialized to watch, consume, and talk about sports. Which is fascinating stuff. And, if we’re interested in why women are less likely to be sports fans, we should probably think about how playing and talking about sports is a key way of performing masculinity. And about how sports are a main source of homosocial bonding among young men. And about how many of the bastions of sports talk—particularly sports radio—are actively misogynistic and opposed to letting women into the club. These things might help explain why women may feel a little out of place (or, at worst, downright unwelcome) when entering the sports talk zone.

But what really bothers me is the assumption—evident throughout the article—that the elusive, potential fans of women’s sports are necessarily women themselves. Farhi includes this throw-away line before launching into his discussion of why more women aren’t into sports: “One reason is that men – generally the most passionate and loyal sports fans – aren’t keen on watching women’s sports.” No need to interrogate why men—already “the most passionate and loyal sports fans”—aren’t interested in watching women’s sports—and if and how that could ever change. Nope, it’s so taken for granted that there’s no need to even articulate the reason clearly hovering behind the assumption: Because the women aren’t as good.

Which is why it seems strange to me that anyone would be surprised that female sports fans (and more and more women are fans these days) aren’t any more likely to watch women’s sports than men are. The sports media denigrates women’s athletics. ESPN’s “SportsCenter” devoted only 1.4% of its coverage to female athletics in 2009. Our male sports-talking peers, who know every last stat about men’s teams, show little interest in their female counterparts and do not hesitate to admit it’s because “women just aren’t as good.” The possibility that avid male fans could learn to love women’s athletics as much as they love men’s is not entertained for even a moment. And yet somehow, because we have vaginas too, we’re expected to support the women?

Of course not. As Farhi notes, “Study after study confirms that female sports fans tend to watch what male fans watch, a correlation that suggests TV-sports viewing is a bonding activity for many women.”

No shit. Watching and talking about sports is a “bonding activity” for everyone—women and men. That’s the whole point. As researcher Andrei Markovitz notes, “It’s the only kind of discourse in which they can shed their social differences. The CEO and the janitor can talk to each other for 40 minutes about the collapse of the Giants last week.” The wonderful thing about sports talk is the way it cuts across social differences. And women who want to get in on the action—who are looking to connect with their guy friends over last night’s game, who seek the comradery of fandom, who long for the community that sports can offer—are going to join the conversation that’s already happening.

I’m sure that many male sports fans will find the proposal that they should embrace women’s athletics laughable—so deeply entrenched is the assumption that they won’t. And hey—maybe it is. But the status quo—in which women are increasingly becoming sports fan but widespread support for women’s sports is still lacking—is clearly unequal and women can’t be expected to transform it all by themselves. Besides, in my opinion, true gender equality in the sports world doesn’t look like a lot of male fans sitting in one corner talking about men’s sports and a lot of female fans sitting in another talking about women’s sports. If gender is the one social difference sports talk can’t bridge, then maybe its bonding power has been overestimated.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like Cosmopolitan.com, TheAtlantic.com, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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