Becoming a Sports Fan: My Trip to the Women’s World Cup
I’m tearing up at a Nike commercial. There are girls in the commercial, from middle to high school, all wearing soccer uniforms. It cuts from team to team, with the US Women’s National Team’s training interspersed. The US Team just won the World Cup, the third time for the nation and the first for this particular grouping of women, and I’m full of emotions.
That fannish feeling of sentimentality burbles in my chest. I might be a bit of band wagoner, but my love has just cemented itself forever.
It’s not that I was a child athlete—I got kicked out of ballet for bad joints, and I inherited my dad’s “nerds vs. jocks” mentality, finding myself a nerd out of asthmatic necessity. But that didn’t mean that part of me didn’t still thrill at headlines of the Houston Comets’ triple WNBA championships or the Williams’ sisters ascent to power in tennis. The 1999 women’s soccer team? You bet I was a fan, even if I could barely understand a game at the time. In 2005, Sheryl Swoopes become one of the most high profile athletes to come out as gay, and it absolutely mattered.
But I wouldn’t have labeled myself a sports fan. I didn’t follow anything regularly. And aside from my lack of coordination, what really turned me off from sports fandom was that undercurrent of hostility toward women athletes. For me, the beauty of watching sports held no appeal if there wasn’t some kind of gender parity to be found—my nascent interest was less about the sport and more about that tantalizing glimpse of powerful, confident women excelling.
Without that, I thought, why bother getting invested? Sure, you could eventually muscle your way into sports fandom through sheer determination, become a “cool girl” who can hang and would never wear a pink jersey, memorize statistics, and that kind of stuff. Sports fandom was a difficult boys’ club, but at least it wasn’t entirely impenetrable.
But if you wanted to be a professional baseball player and were a woman? It was hard to even entertain it as aspirational fantasy. I didn’t really get why there wasn’t, say, a WNFL or a WMLB, when women’s soccer seemed super great (at least when I was twelve in 1999). And if they didn’t want girls around, then I wasn’t going to bother paying attention to it. (Note: I know plenty of women who are hardcore fans of men’s sports, some who do the work to make it a safer space, and I totally respect that. It’s just why I, personally, could never get into baseball.)
While there are more girls playing sports than ever before, there’s still absolutely the stigma of “women’s sports” being less: less challenging, less exciting, less athletic, and less entertaining. While most have accepted that women can be great athletes, the laborious task of paying attention to their games is just too much for some. Why watch them when you could watch men? This feeds the discouragement for athletic-oriented girls, described by SallyFGS at Fangirl Shirts:
“When I was a kid, I wanted nothing more than to be a major league baseball pitcher. I read books about baseball, watched The Baseball Bunch, and of course watched my beloved Cincinnati Reds whenever I could. When I was old enough to join a team, everyone told me that girls couldn’t play baseball. I would have to play softball instead.”
These attitudes segregate the efforts and accomplishments of women, and negative attitudes toward women’s sports creates a barrier to entry for people who might be casual fans and supporters. It’s hard to engage in water cooler chat about your favorite WNBA team if everyone wants to respond with a joke about how women can’t dunk.
[pullquote]It’s hard to engage in water cooler chat about your favorite WNBA team if everyone wants to respond with a joke about how women can’t dunk.[/pullquote]After years of indifference, I picked sports up as a serious fan in college, playing in the university’s pep band at every men’s and women’s basketball game for four years. I got to know the rhythm of the games and the star players, and I started seriously following women’s basketball in all its forms (RIP Houston Comets). Women’s basketball wasn’t considered lesser, in part because the team was more successful in the Big Dance then our men’s team, but also because I ended up watching with a dedicated section of die-hard fans. The band’s secondary purpose is to play music; their first order of business is to be as enthusiastic as possible. Just like with any other fandom, sports is best shared with those who love it as much as you do.
It was a good opportunity to be exposed to something you might not know you like—I’ve incidentally absorbed potentially hundreds of professional sporting events with all-male teams, but women’s sports I had to seek out. Without college ball, I might never have fully experienced the satisfaction of the perfect three-point shot winning a game. We became champions of women’s sports for a few years, urging friends to check out the team that was actually making waves. It mattered that I could be a fan without any derision, surrounded by other fans who valued women athletes as highly (if not more highly) then the men, for their talent and grit.
Watching basketball expanded to tennis fanatacism, and with the World Cup on the horizon, I figured it was probably time to get into soccer. As a pretty vocal fan of women’s sports as a whole, a footie-obsessed friend of mine suggested we travel up north to catch a live match. I didn’t know a ton about soccer at the time, but the team boasted names I knew from the Olympics and previous World Cups, the only real women’s games that my sports-enthusiast male friends would seek out.
The weekend of June 25 found us on our way to Olympic Stadium, ready to watch Germany play France. At this point, I think I know what to expect—the concourse will be full of shops selling me overpriced junkfood and shops selling me swag. Keychains, t-shirts, jerseys, and soccer balls—I want to pick up a souvenir, since I’m amassing a weird collection from things like Fed Cup finals and Sweet Sixteens.
But there’s no street hustle at all. Everyone in the stands must have come in with their own tiny country flags, their own country-colored leis, and their own scarves. Even a trip to a baseball game in the States means getting inundated with people selling off-brand team merch, so it’s a glaring omission. It makes the event feel like less of an event, even thought it’s a World Cup, the biggest tournament of the sport.
[pullquote]It reminded me of #WeWantWidow, the struggle to be recognized as valuable fans in an industry that doesn’t value women’s dollars or fandom.[/pullquote]I have to ask five people where to get souvenirs, and the shop is hidden at the bottom of the arena. It feels like there’s no expectation of full-blooded fandom here. It’s like an afterthought, as though no one could possibly be that enthusiastic about women’s sports, even if they’ve traveled all the way to watch a live match during the World Cup. It reminded me of #WeWantWidow, the struggle to be recognized as valuable fans in an industry that doesn’t value women’s dollars or fandom.
The game itself is full of girls wearing jerseys with keen observations about game play and strategy. We settle in, and make a few friends wandering the concourse, and later at a bar where we watch the USA beat China. The women I talk to agree—women’s soccer deserves respect, has been riveting this year, needs more attention and money, and at the very least grass fields. I’ve found my people.
So I tear up at the Nike commercial right after the US win. I feel that weird nationalist pride when the women raise their trophy to the sky. I think about buying a jersey. I think about how just a couple of years ago I wouldn’t have been this engaged. But a couple years ago, I probably wouldn’t have gotten to watch Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers slam a sports pundit for shit-talking women’s sports. And how, while TV coverage of women’s sports is still too low, ratings of these events keep climbing. Incrementally, it’s getting easier to become a fan of women kicking ass and slowly becoming easier for women to make a living kicking ass (this part, though, could go much faster; only tennis has reached some kind of parity in payment). More people watched the USA vs. Japan final game than watched the NBA finals or the Stanley Cup tournament, smashing the record for most-watched soccer game of all time in the United States. And Title IX makes it easier for women to at least play at the collegiate level. All of this helps open the doors to more fannishly-inclined people like me to find themselves a brand new thing to be obsessed with and inspired by.