Why We’re Not Watching Women’s Sports

I’m as much a feminist as I am a sports fan. One would think this would translate into a love of women’s sports, including WNBA, NCAA women’s basketball and a host of women’s college sports, and women’s national soccer. But in my case, it doesn’t. At least not yet. I watch men’s pro sports religiously, and have sunk more money than I care to admit to attend a slew of men’s sports in person, but rarely do I even follow the ESPN ticker when it comes to women’s sports.

That just doesn’t seem right. So, I asked some of my friends and fellows at Dat Winning who were willing to admit to their gender biases to deconstruct some of our own excuses. Because, like any 12-step program, admitting we have a problem is the first step to addressing it. We hope the following discussion will help us avoid an errant Andy Benoit-like tweet, and maybe, just maybe help us enjoy this Sunday’s Women’s World Cup final.

1) They’re never on TV, and no one I know really watches it.

It is true that access to women’s sports on TV is a problem. According to a recent study from USC, ESPN’s SportsCenter devoted just 2% of its programming to women’s sports in 2014. Despite the fact that girls’ and women’s participation in sports at all levels (youth through professional) has dramatically increased in the past few decades, TV coverage of women’s sports is actually less than it was in 1989.

Yet, moving to Canada has eliminated this excuse from my repertoire. I will stream low-stakes LSU games not televised here from sketchy-ass foreign websites in exceptionally low-grade definition, just a chance to see my Tigers play. If I can stream LSU vs. Sam Houston, then I can find any sport I want to online. Or, I could just turn to regular sports TV to see Venus Williams serve up a double bagel at Wimbledon like it was still the early 2000s.

Compounding my brutal self-awakening, I recently attended my first FIFA Women’s World Cup, and only because it was happening in my backyard and the tickets were affordable. I was floored that the stadium was sold to capacity the first two days (33,000) and near-capacity the third (27,000). The first round of the World Cup gained more viewers than the Stanley Cup finals in Canada. I am ashamed to admit that I assumed no one would come out to watch women’s soccer. Turns out, I was the one who was sexist—there are plenty of fans who follow women’s soccer, as attested to by the myriad license plates I saw in the parking lots. Fans from all over the U.S. made the trek to literally-middle-of-nowhere Winnipeg to cheer on their women’s national team.

The U.S. vs. Germany game was televised on Fox, with a viewership estimated at close to 10 million. It’s not that no one I know watches women’s sports, but that I don’t watch these sports, and thus have never met any others who do. In philosophy, this would be called a logical fallacy—confusing cause and effect. In psychoanalysis, this would be called primary narcissism—thinking that my reality is the reality.

2) Women’s and men’s games are biologically and thus qualitatively different.

Andrew Tie: I get why you might not watch a lot of women’s basketball. More men can dunk, they use a larger ball and in my experience, make fewer simple mistakes. In one Division I women’s basketball game last season, I watched one team turn it over on a five-second inbound violation, only to watch the other team immediately give the ball back on the same call.

Whether there are clear biological and qualitative differences between men’s and women’s sports is often largely irrelevant, as men play other men and women play other women. Think of tennis, where women’s serves are on average slightly slower than men’s, but indiscernible to the naked eye. Most of the supposed differences you see between women’s and men’s games arise from internal biases, not the sport itself.

Particularly, the biological and qualitative argument doesn’t hold for soccer. Sure, women might not have freaks of nature like Messi and Ronaldo, but those are the outliers; most men’s teams don’t have those two, either. Watching Meghan Klingenberg save America from a Sweden goal, or Hope Solo dive for difficult saves or Abby Wambach flying through the air for a goal – that’s all just as fun as the men’s game. The parity is improving in the women’s game, and you see great athleticism and great scoring just like you might in the men’s game. The U.S. men and women scored the same number of goals, four, during group stage of their respective recent World Cups.

The USMNT is great to watch, but the USWNT is even better in its sport. Like the men, the women are anchored by a great goalie, and Solo happens to be the best woman in goal in the world. The women have a rock solid defense, with just one goal allowed through three matches, which is something you could never say about the men in recent years. Wambach is the most prolific international goal scorer in any gender, and healthy Alex Morgan scores goals in a way American male strikers have only dreamed about.

3) Women’s soccer hasn’t “grown” enough; isn’t good enough to watch yet.

Saqib Rahim: Germany 10, Côte d’Ivoire 0. Switzerland 10, Ecuador 1. France 5, Mexico 0. If you’re someone that wants women’s soccer to succeed in the U.S. and globally, scores like these make you wince. They indicate a massive gulf in quality between the World Cup’s best teams and the worst — not to mention the teams that didn’t even make the tournament.

They do not make it sound like the women’s game can soon approach the parity and quality necessary to be considered a major, can’t-miss sports event. You may be asking, how can a sport grow if most teams look like cannon fodder for a dominant few?

Point A: Saturday’s playoff between China and Cameroon. The game featured two young teams with very different styles: The Chinese preferred an organized, systematic, defensive style, whereas the Cameroonians flowed freely, lashing into the backfield with brave runs and ball-tricks galore. As the game wore on, you could see the teams’ strategic counterpunches. China vaulting the ball in behind Cameroon’s D-line, daring them to cheat forward. Cameroon narrowing their midfield to attack the box directly. You know what happened: China won 1-0 and Cameroon took 16 shots that didn’t reach goal. But in a wider lens, this was parity. Two quality teams — neither of them a “marquee” side — competed fiercely in a one-goal decision. Both are young. They’ll be back. They’ll be better.

Americans are prone to mistake the state of U.S. women’s soccer as the state of all women’s soccer. That might have been truer in the Mia Hamm days, but women’s soccer is an increasingly global game. No longer does the U.S. stomp through the tournament in search of a worthy opponent. Japan, Sweden, France were all contenders at the start of this tournament (Sweden, alas, was bounced this weekend). And mighty Germany — which has given up 2 goals all tournament, and has scored 19 — is doing the stomping, danke very much.

Point B: Quality takes time and financial investment. Last year, I read an extraordinary documentation of how Belgium — tiny, World War doormat Belgium — developed a men’s team that now sits among the world’s elite. In short: They developed a philosophy of play. They imposed that philosophy from the highest levels of Belgian soccer all the way down — down to the kiddies putzing around in their youth leagues. Kiddies can get awfully good within a structure. After a couple years of playing each other, they become world class. Belgium’s garden now blooms with talent, and the Red Devils pluck the best. Now they’re #2 in the world.

Imagine if women’s teams enjoyed those kinds of resources, that intensity of focus. If they got better, making each other better in a process that plays out over years. Instead, women find themselves having to fight just to play international soccer, even fighting (and eventually losing) bizarre and literal turf wars, like not being allowed to play on grass like the men. Every major men’s sport has had decades to get to where it is today. Let’s see what women do with their several decades. Moreover, let’s think of giving women’s sports some serious attention, including the resources and support that men receive, instead of withholding all of this but then concluding that women’s sports won’t ever “catch up” to men’s.

4) My sports plate is already full.

Brian Wong: One of the by-products of the current digital age is that it’s changed the way in which we follow sports. Even leagues that are out of season now aren’t out of the news cycle. The Warriors won a championship only a couple weeks ago and the whole league has already moved on to the draft, followed by free agency, and before we know it training camp starts back up again.

The NFL is especially skilled at this; after the Super Bowl ends in February there’s at least one event per month that keeps people talking about football and the games are still months and months away.

This is just simply to say that to be a sports fan requires more attention and time than ever before. But when it comes to men’s sports I find a way to make a little extra room on the plate for another scoop of whatever looks tasty, while women’s sports simply doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt in the same way.

For example, the Golden State Warriors beat writer tweeted this:

And I am ashamed to say that I watched the whole thing. I watched a non-factor two-guard dance in his old college teammates’ wedding for three minutes.

You want other excuses too? I got ‘em. Not as entertaining. Quality of play isn’t as high. Can’t find them on TV. Nobody else really talks about, or reads about them, so why should I. And of course, my plate is too full. They really do sound hollow when you write them down like that.

Cover photo by Michael Chow via USA TODAY Sports.

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