Parents Talk Back

Parents Talk Back: Being a female sports fan in a man's sports world

March 24, 2014 

NOTE: This column originally appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Aug. 26, 2012.

Emily Albertson, 23, spent much of her childhood surrounded by boys obsessed with sports.

She has two brothers, and out of 15 cousins, she was the only girl. It’s no surprise that she grew up to become an avid sports fan. What she didn’t expect, however, was that she would be tested about her fandom every step of the way.

“Oh, really, you’re a Tigers fan?” one of her college buddies might start. And then she’d face questions to test her knowledge, to prove herself. Once she passed the first hurdle, the bar would be set higher for her.

Albertson, now a second-year law student at the University of Michigan, began thinking about these experiences as a Michigan undergrad in Andrei Markovits’ class “Sports, Politics and Society.”

Together, they’ve written a book, “Sportista: Female Fandom in the United States,” studying the phenomenon of the dedicated female fan and how she fits into a male-dominated sports culture and conversation.

Even though more female fans follow professional sports than ever before, Albertson and Markovits focus on the most devoted among them. They argue that even these “sportistas” are not fully accepted as equal-status fans by their male counterparts.

“Any in-group doesn’t like newcomers,” Markovits explained. And men have historically drawn the lines around sports as male territory. Female encroachment is viewed with suspicion by some. For these gatekeepers, fandom is not measured by affection or loyalty toward a team, but by knowledge of its statistics, plays and history.

The professor and student co-authors observed that, generally, women and men experience spectator sports differently and speak a different language about the games they watch.

For women, it’s a collective experience, Markovits says. They love a team, the players, the game itself. But once it’s over, it’s done.

“They’ll watch ESPN while doing something else,” he said. With men, however, the cerebral discussion – the pregame, the postgame, the collecting of sports knowledge – can be as important as the game itself.

“For men, sports is the default language ... that’s what defines your male identity,” Markovits said. “In the world of straight men, you are expected to be a sports fan simply by being a man.”

Albertson said that among her male roommates in college, she tended to know less about the history of a particular team, even though she consumed just as much current sports coverage as the men.

“Unless you’re in that conversation from a very young age ... the best quarterback of all time, a famous game from the ’70s, that’s my accent. I’ll never be able to sound as fluent as someone who was speaking that from when they were born,” she said.

But this should not discredit her as a serious fan, they argue.

Their research raises the question of why some men are threatened by women who are more interested in ESPN than the Kardashians. Is it because there are so few male-only spaces left in our culture that sports is a sacred realm?

Whatever the possible explanations, Markovits said he found it wonderful to discover that female fans have constructed their own sports world and love being fans on their own terms.

“Ultimately, it doesn’t matter much what men think,” he said.

Albertson recounted one of her favorite anecdotes from the interviews.

Jillian, their subject, relayed an incident from fourth grade in which she told a boy in her class that she was a Mets fan. He challenged her to name even one player.

She did.

He countered with: Name the first four batters.

She did.

Not satisfied, he challenged her again with another test.

Finally, she named the entire roster.

A nearly identical grade-school conversation recently played out in a particular bedroom in St. Louis County. A husband and wife were both listening to a Cardinals game on the radio. After a close loss, the wife vocally expressed her dismay.

The husband responded: “OK, if you’re such a Cardinals fan, name 20 players.”

“I refuse to play this game,” I said to him, in equal parts annoyed and amused.

Fourth grade was a very long time ago.

Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age.

On Twitter: @AishaS.

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