Women’s Sports Fans: Where the Hell Are You?

When athletes don’t receive serious coverage, potential fans don’t get a chance to respect, and religiously follow, their game.

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Women’s Sports Fans: Where the Hell Are You?

Everything’s a blur for Atlanta Dream veteran Monique Billings. The WNBA’s 2022 season is nearing, and after a grueling schedule of two-a-day practices, adjusting to a new coach, and “mama bear”-ing a host of star rookies, the forward is taking a breather to get her head on straight. While she needs her body to function like a machine, she hopes fans can see both Monique the athlete (a perpetual underdog who’s always been “slept on”) and Monique the woman (someone who wants to “wear a dress and get buckets and be a beast”). All within the last week, she’s celebrated her 26th birthday, announced her first book launch, and promoted LeBron James’ sports nutrition company as a sponsored athlete. The feeling isn’t far from what she felt when she was drafted four years ago: “Is this happening? Pinch me. Am I dreaming?” A couple weeks later, the Dream will win its first game, against the Dallas Wings, and Billings will score six points and 14 rebounds.

But Billings wants more—specifically, more “women supporting women” on behalf of her league. She wants Michelle Obama, or Oprah, or Drew Barrymore in attendance. “I’m trying to see Beyoncé courtside at a game like we saw Jay-Z courtside at a Hawks game a couple of weeks ago,” she laughs. “It’s like, B! Come through, you know what I mean?!” And what she wants extends to the media, too.

Monique Billings of the Atlanta Dream looks on during the second half against the Los Angeles Sparks at Staples Center on August 19, 2021. Image:Meg Oliphant (Getty Images)

The truth is that the occurrence of a woman sports reporter interviewing a woman athlete is still somewhat of a miracle. It’s simple math, really: There are a maximum of 144 players in the WNBA (versus around 500 in the NBA), just 14.4 percent of sports reporters are women, and to that end, both Billings and I seem aware that even this interview’s existence is something to be grateful for. During our call, we exchanged excited squeals over the Empire State Building glowing bright orange in honor of the WNBA draft. But the Empire State Building should’ve glowed WNBA-orange long ago.

Women’s sports are having a year of historic, albeit overdue, firsts. Approved to use the coveted March Madness branding for the first time, the NCAA women’s basketball tournament brought in huge ratings. Collegiate women athletes scored NIL (Name, Image, and Likeness) deals for the first time, with gymnast Livvy Dunne reportedly approaching $1 million in deals. And the first ever woman-headlined boxing matchup landed at Madison Square Garden with a record 1.5 million viewers last month. Even so, coverage of women’s sports remains scant: Just 5 percent of television coverage and 10 percent of Twitter promotion was dedicated to women’s sports in 2019, according to one study.

At long last, the blueprint for women’s sports media, formerly copy-and-pasted as a low-budget version of the playbook that worked for men’s sports, appears to be changing, too. Rather than as a side gig or free labor, women and nonbinary people are getting jobs to cover the full experience of women and nonbinary athletes, and a dozen or so startup media publications founded by women—mostly for women—have cropped up to make women’s sports accessible to anyone whose brain has been blasted with television coverage of the NFL, MLB, and NBA from the time they could crawl across a carpeted living room. But even as this influx of publications hits the fraternized sports world, the hunt for the rumored women’s sports fan remains a ravenous one.

The “Opt-In” Hurdle to Women’s Sports

Frankie de la Cretaz, a freelance journalist who focuses on the intersection of sports, gender, and culture, believes women’s sports are an “opt-in” industry. “I was not really plugged into the women’s sports world,” they told Jezebel. “I had to be like, ‘Wow, I’m really sick of watching and covering sports and leagues that seem to hate me as a person. There’s all these domestic abuses on the field, and people are anti-queer, and this feels exhausting.’ So I pivoted to women’s sports, but it had to be a concerted effort on my part.”

I had to be like, ‘Wow, I’m really sick of watching and covering sports and leagues that seem to hate me as a person. There’s all these domestic abuses on the field, and people are anti-queer, and this feels exhausting.’

But even if someone were to clear the “opt in” hurdle, they’d still find mainstream coverage of women’s sports lacking. While de la Cretaz is optimistic about the uptick in coverage, they note that there are only a handful of beat writers for individual WNBA teams. And they’re right: Take the Los Angeles Times, for example. While there are tabs for the Lakers, Dodgers, Rams, and Chargers on its Sports page, the Sparks are nowhere to be found, apparently a lower priority than “High School Sports.” Buried under a dropdown menu lies Angel City FC, which drew 22,000 fans to their first game. Similarly, there’s no WNBA news section for the Liberty in The New York Times, and the city’s Gotham FC news is folded under a larger Soccer tab. AZ Central, which shares a home with the Phoenix Mercury and the still-detained Brittney Griner, has the team buried under “More,” as does ESPN with the WNBA. Some of the most popular sports podcasts on Spotify are hosted by Barstool Sports, Bill Simmons, Barstool Sports, Jomboy Media, and…Barstool Sports.

Sports Illustrated is one of the few legacy publications that gives women’s sports a hearty look, but when the company announced earlier this week it’d put five WNBA stars on the cover of its upcoming Swim issue, some players and critics (including de la Cretaz) took issue with the heavily vetted femininity on display: Skilled and hot! Nice to watch! But the vast spectrum of gender diversity, a point of pride within the league, was missing.

Katie Taylor of Ireland (black trunks) trades punches with Amanda Serrano of Puerto Rico (white trunks) for the World Lightweight Title fight at Madison Square Garden on April 30, 2022 in New York, New York. Photo:Sarah Stier (Getty Images)

The shoveling of women’s sports under the “More” trap door is a message in itself: Optional. Not a priority. It’s what culture writer Jessica Wakeman called ESPNW, the brand’s woman-centered offering, when it launched in 2015: the “pink ghetto.”

“It can be really easy for women’s sports to be trivialized, and for the coverage to fall into sexist tropes,” de la Cretaz explained of some outlets that do attempt it. “Whether it’s women’s sports or men’s sports, sometimes the tone gets really cutesy, and the angle assumes that the audience is interested in stuff around the sports, rather than the nitty gritty game coverage you get for men’s sports.”

Imagine for a moment that a fan of men’s sports is pissed off about the platform given to problematic athletes (like, say, a running back who got a half-season suspension for domestic violence before skipping back to the league, or a star Nets guard who still refuses to get vaccinated). Pivoting to women’s sports, where athletes loudly advocate for reproductive rights and public health measures, would be the next logical step. But the 2010s never came close to giving them no-nonsense game coverage, instead delivering content assumed to be appropriate for women, like ESPNW’s pregnancy announcements. And when athletes don’t receive serious coverage, potential fans don’t get a chance to respect, and religiously follow, their game.

There Are Better Options Out There for Women’s Sports Fans

When Arielle Chambers tweeted in 2017 that “the WNBA is so important,” she never imagined she’d be spouting that same warcry, even after starting her own sports media platform HighlightHER, five years later. Launched as a vertical of Bleacher Report in 2019, the platform boasts nearly 200K followers, and has become the de facto cheerleader for the WNBA and other women’s sports ranging from softball to competitive dance. And Chambers, a former cheerleader herself, has become a “walking billboard,” promoting all the industry’s unseen excitement with her WNBA-orange hoodie and busy-bee itinerary (when we first chatted last year, she was stressed about getting a Turkish visa to see a basketball player compete overseas). Chambers is at every sideline, every courtside seat, every Wilson panel because she knows the spirit of the game, the spirit of the players, would be missed if she wasn’t.

Growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina, Chambers was able to see former NC State women’s basketball head coach Kay Yow “breeding elite athletes” during field trips to the games. “At seven years old, I was getting to talk to the players. They were so accessible to me back then,” she told Jezebel. After those players eventually graduated to the WNBA, Chambers watched as sports media vacuumed them up and never much talked about them again. “As far as coverage goes, if I go in one way, I want it to lead to wherever the athlete wants,” Chambers, a fangirl first and a journalist second, said. “I break the barriers of traditional journalism in order to really create what I want for the game, or what I think the players want for the game.”

Rather than a media outlet or Instagram page, she sees HighlightHER as a “sisterhood.” Speaking in AAVE to show up as her authentic self and to honor the Black athletes who built the foundation of women’s sports, as opposed to what the white-slathered sports media institution might code as “professional,” she hopes to forge parasocial relationships with fans—to become the big sister that the NC State players were to her. She’s also delivering what she thinks players want: sit-down interviews and behind-the-scenes video content. She once saw herself in Lisa Leslie, not for her god-like athleticism, but because Leslie wore a ribbon in her hair—a detail that showed the athlete’s humanity with its sparks of femininity, and the sort of detail Chambers now highlights as a career.

“We’re coming up on a generation that hasn’t had to live without the WNBA, especially the players,” Chambers said. That, she argues, is about to change everything.

Where HighlightHER is flooded with on-camera interviews led by someone who sounds like your best friend riding shotgun while rapping Megan Thee Stallion at the top of her lungs, TOGETHXR, founded by Alex Morgan, Sue Bird, Chloe Kim, and Simone Manuel, takes a different approach: sharp edges, unabashed activism, and cinematic visuals they believe can tell a story far better than the written word. The brand, just over a year old, says it’s doubled its target revenue for 2022, and with 101K followers on Instagram and 1.7 million followers on TikTok (it’s the largest women’s sports brand on the platform), that strategy seems to be working.

“These women have not been made visible for generations, certainly this generation,” Jessica Robertson, chief content officer of TOGETHXR and formerly of Player’s Tribune, told Jezebel. “So, it’s really important for the stories that we tell that you actually see these women that you rarely get to see.”

For Robertson, that meant highlighting former UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi’s mental health journey through a grainy dreamscape of a mini-documentary. Although Ohashi recounts a toxic relationship with her body and being called “fat” at age 14, the piece focuses on her evolution to a well-rounded poet and creative, rather than glamorizing her pain at the height of her athletic career. “I think it was important for this brand tonally to embrace that there is no neutral anymore. It is sort of an activist brand by nature, literally in its mission,” Robertson said.

These women have not been made visible for generations, certainly this generation.

The messaging around women’s leagues has to be different because the DNA of the leagues is different. The leagues that have survived today are settled atop the ruins of folded leagues like the National Women’s Football League, homophobic sentiment, and a need to supplement player income. Despite Title IX approaching its 50th anniversary this summer, equitable opportunities for women to report on, play in, and make a living from sports are still a pipe dream. Misogynistic politics and reproductive rights aren’t topics that can be avoided to make polite dinner conversation.

Five hundred women athletes signed a legal brief in support of their constitutional right to abortion last year. The women of the USWNT went scorched earth and sued the U.S. Soccer federation to secure equal pay, while the NWSL suspended play to force investigation of alleged sexual abuses committed by coaches. Women in sports don’t have the privilege of silence, all while much of sports media continues to minimize them by using the wrong photos for players, or pronouncing their names incorrectly. Rightful rage is pushing women and nonbinary people—like those of the Flagrant Mag, Burn It All Down podcast, and Goals Sports—to cover sports unflinchingly. Women athletes are here for a fucking food fight, and the new guard of media is attempting to follow suit.

Caroline Fitzgerald says this dynamic, which pushed her to found Goals, is perfectly captured in a quote from USWNT player Margaret Purce during a visit to the White House: “You would never expect a flower to bloom without water, but women in sport who have been denied water, sunlight, and soil are somehow expected to blossom.” So Fitzgerald provided the water, sunlight, and soil by focusing on the business case—like eye-popping viewership stats and increasing interest in merch—as proof that sponsors and venture capitalists do, in fact, have something worth betting on here. If the money follows, perhaps the fans will too.

Converting People into Sports—All Sports—Fans

Increasingly, some sports media startups are looking less to the already avid fan, turning instead to those who were interested in sports but never found their footing. Ellen Hyslop, chief content officer of Canadian startup the Gist, says she and her two co-founders had a lightbulb moment as they noticed sports media ignored anyone who wasn’t already a member of multiple fantasy leagues or digesting daily updates. “The way that sports media is portrayed right now is just kind of gatekeeping,” Hyslop said. “It’s not very welcoming, unless you know everything and you have the ability and capacity to stay up to date on everything all the time, which anyone who has a life just doesn’t have time to do that.”

In 2017, they started the Gist as a newsletter, which has now grown into a podcast, website, and social media outlet, and covers popular men’s and women’s sports, as well as Olympic sports like surfing, curling, and mountain climbing. Hyslop also started a Gist fantasy football contest via FanDuel after realizing none of their former male coworkers had ever invited them to play in their leagues. “We were like, ‘Are they scared?’” The brand’s goal has always been to flip the dynamic by which it presents information to readers. “We want to go bottom up from what our fans care about, versus ESPN, Fox Sports, CBS, who are very top down, like ‘I’m the authority,’” Hyslop said. “We really wanted to be that witty, sports-obsessed best friend that you could turn to to learn more and to hear about sports. You should feel safe and included.”

That sports-obsessed best friend is present in a recent episode of The Gist of It podcast called “Not Gouda: The NWSL’s Field and Scheduling Problems”—where the hosts stopped to define terms and explain historical context of the scheduling snafus—and its Super Bowl podcast preview, “The Rams? Who Dey?” In attempting to erase the divide altogether between men’s and women’s sports, the Gist reinforces that all sports can be covered with a subtle feminist lens without making everything nauseatingly cutesy.

How We Know When We’re There

Men’s sports are a spectacle—eventized number-crunching around the draft, the quickfire stat-spitting, the sizzle of bacon-wrapped victory dogs outside a stadium, fan fights, “Deflate-gates.” And while women’s sports fans have long argued they deserve a similarly commodified fan culture, simply cloning that aura, with its brooding physicality and competitive nature that run parallel to deeply held patriarchal values, will never solve the problem at the bottom of all the bullshit: Men’s sports are inherently problematic.

“I don’t know that we are ever courting any kind of specific fan or listener except perhaps the one who is interested in, even deeply loves, sport but wants it to be better, more inclusive, more labor-friendly, less racist, sexist, transphobic, homophobic, etc.,” said Jessica Luther, the co-host of Burn It All Down, a podcast hosted by a group of diverse women sporting experts and journalists who tackle old-school sports analysis alongside topics like gendered violence in the NCAA and Palestinian liberation in sports.

I don’t know that we are ever courting any kind of specific fan or listener except perhaps the one who is interested in, even deeply loves, sport but wants it to be better, more inclusive, more labor-friendly, less racist, sexist, transphobic, homophobic, etc.

In 2021, U.S.-based searches for ‘WNBA jerseys’ doubled. In 2020, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said, “If 84 percent of sports fans are interested in women’s sports, and women control 85 percent of U.S. spending power, we should be able to really transform the way women’s sports are valued.” Deloitte has projected that women’s sports will soon be a $1 billion global industry, with FIFA, tennis, and the WNBA leading that growth. But the WNBA’s 2022 opening games, as de la Cretaz pointed out, were only offered on Facebook, Twitter, and NBA TV—all requiring prior knowledge and a willingness to putz around the internet to find.

However, vocal feminists—the sort that religiously tune into the Olympics, own a Yankees hat, wake up at the crack of dawn to attend ESPN’s College GameDay, or on occasion repost glossy magazine covers featuring women athletes—still seem hesitant about the “burn it all down” agenda. They want gender equality, but aren’t opting into women’s sports. While the sports outlets we spoke to say they’ve seen more excitement around women’s sports in the last year than ever before, not one seems to have meaningfully penetrated that block of rumored women’s sports fans who might be obsessed with the Bulls, but have never considered buying a ticket to a Chicago Sky game…or those who simply “don’t do sports.” After all, it took the formation of Angel City FC, spearheaded by Natalie Portman and many other celebrities, for Glennon Doyle, wife of retired soccer player Abby Wambach, to finally get engaged in a soccer game.

Luther isn’t at all surprised that some women have found their home within men’s sports fandoms and stayed there: It’s easy and, often, pretty fun. “Anyone who is a fan of men’s sports is always a potential fan of women’s sports if they can get past their societal-engrained biases about women—really, any non-cis man—being athletes,” she said. “But I also think there are potential fans of women’s sports who don’t even realize they’d love sports if it wasn’t drenched in all the masculinity bullshit we often find within sports and, even more than that, the fandoms that surround men’s sports.”

In reality, de la Cretaz noted, there is no one right way to successfully serve the “rumored women’s sports fan” while doing right by women athletes. Potential viewers aren’t a monolith, and from Luther’s perspective, courting fans isn’t so much about enticing them to tune in as it is simply waiting for people to discover the beauty of women’s sports, something Luther is confident will happen in time.

America still appears to be warming up to the idea that, for sport lovers, you don’t have to default to historically shitty leagues marked by men behaving badly. You don’t have to contribute dollars to organizations that toss domestic abusers around like hot potatoes until more damning allegations surface, nor do you have to tune into the sports media dynasties that make no meaningful efforts to cover women’s sports. Instead, you can support leagues that employ athletes like Monique Billings: Monique, who wants the “quiet and shy” Rhyne Howard, number one pick from this year’s WNBA draft, to be profiled in more than just ESPN. Monique, who listens to jazz and R&B on game days. Monique, who misses her dad, who she used to talk to before every game before he passed from ALS. Monique, who shouldn’t have to ask for more coverage.

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