Sunday, July 26, 2009

Why Women Don't Watch Women's Sports

"If the empty seats at sporting arenas could speak, what would they say?" - Annemarie Farrell

If you're really interested in why women don't watch women's sports, a dissertation by Annemarie Farrell at Ohio State University can be read here. (Farrell earned her Ph. D. and now teaches at Ithaca College.)

For those who are willing to slog through all 190-some pages of it, I am going to give it a very high recommendation. Farrell was interested in why women didn't attend women's sports. She focused her study on college basketball, and in particular, focused it on interviewing women who attended men's basketball games - but not women's basketball. The qualitative research, based on in-depth interviews with her participants, is very illuminating.

So why don't women attend women's sports? And maybe, why don't women attend WNBA games in greater numbers? There are Farrell's basic conclusions:

1. They never see women's basketball on television. It's never seen in the media. It's hard to develop a connection with something that you're not aware of.

2. There is an expansive lack of knowledge among potential consumers. This includes what some sports fans would consider to be elementary information:

- where do you buy your tickets?
- how much does it cost to go to the game?
- where do you find schedule information?
- where is the location of the game?
- what are the rules of the game?

3. The payoff might not be worth the effort. The study interviewed women who attended men's college basketball but not women's basketball. They knew the mechanics of how to attend men's games - where to sit, where to park, etc. - but these women were hesitant to learn how to attend women's games when they didn't know if the overall experience would pay off. Furthermore, attending the men's games was difficult enough in terms of time and limitations; for some women it would have to be either one or the other.

4. Women want fast paced basketball with a loud, animated crowd. The current perception is that the women's game is neither - the perception is that the game is slow and the crowd is either less passionate or less numerous. To many women, the crowd experience is very important to their perceived enjoyment.

5. For most women, their gateway to sports was through the men in their lives. The men in their lives don't watch women's sports, and therefore, they don't.

6. Sports is a world which is a production of male supremacy. Women see sports as exclusively a male domain. Women are made by society to feel abnormal for taking interest in a sport. Some men resent women having an interest in sport, and the roles of women in sport are strictly circumscribed by men - to be supporters, helpmates and cheerleaders.

7. Men gain part of their social identity through sports. They need sports so that they can share a common experience with other men. However, women don't need sports to socialize, and there is no social imperative for women to attend sports in order to bond with and socialize with other women.

8. The world of sports coverage is dominated by men - the overwhelming majority of sports editors and sports reporters in the media are men. The men decide what gets covered and what doesn't, and they simply don't hype women's sports the way men's sports are hyped. "Most schools make the men's team like 'the' team and the women's team is just a side team, just to accommodate women, but the men's basketball team is like 'the' basketball team."

9. There is a lack of human interest stories in women's sports. Psychologist Steven Danish suggests that human interest stories are more important to women than to men. Women are much more interested in the back stories of the participants, while men "value clear-cut measurements of ability and achievement".

10. Many women haven't seen a women's basketball game since before 1991. They remember empty arenas, quiet fans, no promotions. Their perception of women's basketball is that of women's basketball as it was 20 years ago.

11. The media frame women's sporting events to undermine women's achievement in sports. Players are called by their first names more than in men's sports. When male players fail when the story of the game is being told, it is because they faced tougher competition, but women's failures in team sports are usually blamed on one team's ineptitude. The women who get the most attention are the ones who are the most attractive. As a result, many women think that women's sports are less exciting, less talented, and less entertaining.

12. All in all, women expect that they will not have a good time at a women's sporting event.

(* * *)

After reading the dissertation, I drew some conclusions of my own, including conclusions regarding how I would cover the WNBA and the Atlanta Dream on this blog. There might be a few changes in the future. Trust me, as a Dream fan I want as many people attending Dream games as possible, and there are ways to promote women's sport and the Atlanta Dream that I had never considered.

P. S.: To add to the Great Dunking Controversy, one participant had this to say: "I think the lack of dunking hurts women's basketball a lot. There is just an excitement about getting that high up over someone and dunking. There's something girls basketball lacks because dunking is a big part of the excitement of the game. When somebody dunks the crowd just goes nuts." If the goal is to make WNBA games more exciting, this is something to think about - even if we're not in agreement with the particpant regarding the role of dunking, pro or con, in basketball.

1 comment:

Ethan said...

Very interesting summary, and one I'll have to stew over for a little while. If the net end result is that it inspires you to tweak your coverage and (ideally) drive interest and fan support, that's certainly positive.

Since I have been going WFN-crazy lately, it (sport fishing) seems at first to be completely a "guy thing" but there are female pro anglers too. They look like NASCAR drivers just like the men. In fact, many times when the topic of women in fishing comes up, the men say they want women to be involved because for some reason women are naturally better anglers. Not sure why? But if people are truly into competition, the smart ones know to use diversity for their competitive advantage.

I can't speak to this with the slightest shred of authority, but didn't Bear Bryant integrate for competitive reasons?

I throw that out there because many of the NBA players I have seen/heard interviewed about the WNBA have genuinely spoken highly of the players and the quality of play in general.

I'll stop there as this is a post that will surely generate a lot of disussion. Thanks for sharing!