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.

Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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  • http://cabaretic.blogspot.com nazza

    Part of our societal bias is the belief that men’s sports are faster, more exciting, and that male athletes are simply better than women athletes. And it is true that men are physically larger, but that shouldn’t be a limiting factor for potential fans. By contrast, women’s sports are paced differently and look very different than men’s sports.

    This is why many consider women’s sports inferior. It’s all in how we equate what we see unfolding before us. Taking women athletes seriously would require us to revise what we perceive as competitive and entertaining.

  • http://feministing.com/members/fuzzyface/ FuzzyFace

    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.

    Given the dismal teams that men have rooted for enthusiastically (the 1962 Mets come to mind), that doesn’t seem to me to be a plausible explanation. I think a different mechanism is more likely – that deep down, men who watch sports entertain the fantasy that they, too, could be playing and winning if only the right things had happened. The epitome of this phenomenon may be Joe Boyd / Joe Hardy from the musical Damn Yankees who makes a deal with the devil to join his prized Washington Senators. But a man watching women’s sports cannot avail himself of this fantasy — he’s not going to fantasize about being a women, however skillful she might be.

    It’s not always about denigrating women.

  • http://feministing.com/members/maraalyse/ Mara Hollander

    This is a great post. As an ESPN-watching college basketball fan (men’s and women’s), I have experience a LOT of what you’ve written. “And women who want to get in on the action…are going to join the conversation that’s already happening.” – YES.

    One side note: much like Mets fans will recognize the achievements of, but ultimately ignore, a Yankees-Phillies World Series, I have all but ignored UConn’s 89th win. I am a HUGE Big East women’s basketball fan (UConn plays in the Big East conference), but as I am a Georgetown fan first, to say I am bitter would be an incredible understatement (both Georgetown and Notre Dame were poised to topple them last year).

    Fans of UConn women’s basketball, from my limited experience, tend to be older residents of Hartford – not necessarily ESPN’s target audience. Without the pressure of an audience clamoring for coverage, ESPN probably doesn’t feel like it’s necessary to spend too long talking about the streak.

    So there’s ESPN-watching fans of women’s basketball, like me, who are too bitter to ask for more UConn, and there’s fans of UConn, who are too busy having real lives to watch ESPN. This doesn’t make it right for ESPN to ignore such an amazing record. The women of UConn have done an incredible job, and I’m glad there is at least *some* coverage of their record-breaking streak, if not the coverage they deserve.

    I feel lucky to be surrounded by men and women who love women’s college basketball. It really is a different sport, with its own quirks and unique elements, and I know that more men would appreciate it if sports channels would bother covering it.

  • http://feministing.com/members/steveo/ Steven Olson

    You brought up a point that I had never thought of, but upon hearing it it is so obvious it smacked me in the face. That “sports talk” is not particularly welcoming to women. What is interesting though, (I can’t speak for all men, just myself) is that I think its awesome when sports is one of the topics I can discuss with a woman.

    Again, I can’t speak to all men, but there are several women’s sports which I enjoy watching a lot. I enjoy watching female track and field. Even though times aren’t as fast as the men’s, the competition is very amazing. Female tennis is an awesome sport to watch, and I would say that until players like Federer and Nadal came along, the female game was much better to watch. The female game has much longer rallies, which is much more exciting than watching the men’s booming serve dominate the match. The players who were able to extend rally’s are what brought excitement back to men’s tennis.

    On the other hand, some women’s sports are not even close to the level of mens. As a Canadian who loves hockey, I always watch women’s hockey during the big tournaments, such as the Olympics. And woman’s hockey can be pretty exciting (when its Canada vs USA at least), but its no where near the level of the men’s game. I know the Canadian women play against boys teams in their preparation. They play against 16-18 year old boys who play Midget AAA hockey, which isn’t even the best boys at that age group, who are playing junior hockey. So in that case, its not any different than saying I would prefer to watch the top level professionals, vs high school aged kids.

    All of that being said, its a shame that a bigger deal isn’t being made out of the Uconn record, as they are competing against top notch competition and haven’t lost in over 2 full seasons, which is absolutely incredible! Watching Pardon the Interuption, I have heard about it at least. And although it doesn’t get the same attention as the NFL, from what I remember, at least one of those guys thinks its absolutely incredible too.

    Speaking of incredible feats in women’s sports, this is a pretty amazing story, as far as success (not so much the lack of personal choice taken away by the coach!)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edmonton_Grads

  • http://feministing.com/members/badgers54/ Alex Wagner

    I agree with just about all of this.

    Sure, there are probably a fair number of men who will never care about women’s sports, no matter what. And that’s fine.

    But there are also some who would care more about women’s sports if they weren’t made to feel like some sort of freak for doing so–not only by sexist men, but also by the people who are in charge of marketing women’s sports in particular, particularly the WNBA. This is going to be pretty basketball-centered because it’s really the only major team sport where men and women play with almost exactly the same rules.

    Right now the WNBA pretty much targets women and dads with preteen daughters, and then they wonder why nobody cares about the WNBA except women and dads with preteen daughters.

    I do think that the WNBA (and probably women’s professional sports in general) is in a tough spot. On one hand, they don’t have the elements that make college basketball great–the historic rivalries, connection to a school, first-round upsets in the NCAA tournament. Great rivalries such as Duke-UNC, Alabama-Auburn, Wisconsin-Minnesota, etc, automatically contain an element of intrigue regardless of whether the sport is football, men’s or women’s basketball, volleyball, or anything else. When a smaller school beats a major power like Michigan or Florida, that’s pretty neat in any sport. And professional sports don’t really have that. On the other hand, the WNBA also lacks many of the things that make the NBA so appealing–the high-flying dunks, and again, the historic rivalries like Bulls-Pistons, Celtics-Lakers, etc.

    I don’t know what the answer is. Clearly what they’re doing now isn’t working, though.

  • davenj

    “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.”

    Is that not a reason, though? If the quality of one athletic league is inferior to that of another then isn’t that a reason to invest less time in following it?

    Sports are entertainment, and from a sports appreciation standpoint it’s more entertaining to watch higher-quality fare. It’s why professional leagues make more money than semi-professional leagues. Increasingly restrictive and higher quality competition creates better entertainment by narrowing down participation until one is watching something like the Heat-Lakers game on Christmas, in which the three best basketball players alive are on the same court at once, along with two of the other 30 best players on the planet.

    Sports consumers have a limited amount of time and money to invest, and that fundamentally means that at some point people have to choose between Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James or Maya Moore vs. Brittney Griner.

    The issue is that most sports were created by men, for men. They’re designed to highlight certain aspects of the male physique, and at the highest level of competition they’re almost entirely inaccessible to women. It’s not necessarily “fair”, but one would have to alter these sports beyond recognition to even make a dent in the gender dynamic.

    Anyway, what does “true” gender equality in sports look like? Is it women’s sports being on the same economic level as men’s sports? Is it the elimination of gender segregation in sports entirely? I have yet to hear a satisfactory answer about this.

    Currently, though, the problem is this: I know people who are better at basketball than Maya Moore, inarguably the best female collegiate basketball player in the country. I watch them ride the bench on a good men’s basketball team. Why would I invest equal viewing time to a sport where the athletes aren’t as good, barring a personal connection to the players or the program?

  • http://feministing.com/members/ladypolitik/ Ashley P

    I accept this argument and wish we could get into the sports pages.

    However, I would say tennis is the one exception where both genders are covered equally by the media. Further, fans watch both genders equally. Thanks in no small part to the hard work of Billie Jean King and Steffi Graf, no doubt.

    So, this leaves me with one question: Why is tennis different?

    Also, I would like to note that with the NFL viewership hitting record levels and women making up increasingly larger segments of the audience (I think I read somewhere that it’s about 40%), the NFL has taken to advocating for breast cancer, talking seriously about Brett Favre’s unwelcome overtures to women – while these are incremental steps – it’s very encouraging.

    • davenj

      Tennis is different for a few reasons.

      First and foremost, women’s tennis can be sold to male audiences because of the apparel that female tennis players wean (think Kournikova and Sharapova).

      Secondly, tennis is a sport that depends more on coordination than raw physical power or speed. Sure, you need to be able to run fast and have good reflexes, but ultimately your skill with the racket determines where the ball goes. This means that from an observational standpoint the primary locus of entertainment is in coordination with the racket, something that isn’t particularly influenced by gender.

      Third, women’s tennis matches don’t last as long. A casual fan will probably be able to sit through a best of three match, but best of five matches take a lot longer.

      Those three factors help make women’s tennis almost as popular as men’s tennis, even though the men’s tennis players are better.

      Other sports don’t really have the luxury of skimpy uniforms or shorter match times to draw an audience. The difference between male and female athletes is also more evident in sports with a bigger focus on things like height, body size, running, jumping, etc.