Sunday, May 24, 2009

Women's pro sports: Can gender really be taken 'out of the equation'?

The seven teams in the newly launched Women's Professional Soccer league are about two months into their inaugural season, playing in front of crowds that average about 5,400 and in front of viewers tuning into the Fox Soccer Channel. The league's initial success is just part of the reason for high hopes that this league will thrive, according to Commissioner Tonya Antonucci, who spoke to the annual convention of the Association for Women in Sports Media in Philadelphia on Saturday.
Antonucci suggested that the league's strategy -- controlling costs, marketing to a broader array of fans, and having more realistic goals than the WUSA did before it folded -- will help the league survive.
She also suggested that the way the league was built -- by attracting the best players in the world (including the three-time FIFA player of the year, Marta), is a contrast with men's MLS, and that fans will recognize that. In other words, Antonucci doesn't see the WPS competing with the MLS for fans. (The MLS, which has been around longer, draws an average 14K per game.)
"We almost take gender out of the equation in what our brand stands for," she told the group. She said the league has no plans to use "sex appeal" as a selling point for athletes, either. "You embrace who these women want to be," she said.
Antonucci also suggested that because men's soccer in the U.S. competes against another type of "football" -- the NFL, women's soccer has the chance to grow as a spectator sport at a much faster pace than the MLS has. The WPS is operating on the assumption that participants will turn into spectators. Because soccer is so popular as a sport for girls (and boys), there will be ready-made fan base as these players grow older.
If only it were true.
If only it were true that gender can ever be taken "out of the equation" in regard to sports. And if only it were true that girls who play soccer will turn into women who are willing to spend the time (and money) to consume it in large numbers. And that men ("soccer dads") will turn into enduring spectators of a women's professional league.
But research tells us differently. Popular spectator sports in western culture have always been all about gender performance. In other words, gender can't be removed from any sports equation. That's one reason (among several) that soccer will struggle in the U.S. to ever have a sustained, high-numbers following -- it's a gender-neutral sport, and, thus, is less appealing to fans (logically, this quality gives it more appeal as a participatory sport.)
Thus, it is doubtful that the WPS will thrive after its initial splash (and that hasn't been much) -- it will do well to survive more than a few years. I don't say that to be negative as much as to recognize the realities for women's team sports in the U.S.
The naive hopefulness of Antonucci and other backers of the WPS shouldn't be discouraged, however. We need her and women's sports advocates to keep pushing the envelope. But we have to recognize that women's sports as an institution will not thrive until our ideas about sport and gender undergo a fundamental shift -- only then can gender really be out of the equation.


Stephen said...

Interesting article. I'd argue that Antonucci is coming out against her players being forced into tight fitting pink uniforms. That's what she means by "almost take gender out of sports." Of course though, I agree with your article that gender can't be fully "taken out of the equation."

I'd like to take issue though with your strange assertion that soccer is a gender neutral sport and that somehow, this neutrality hurts the popularity of soccer in "western culture."

How is soccer gender neutral? How is it more gender neutral than baseball, golf or basketball? Isn't gender performative? So shouldn't we look at performances of gender in soccer as perhaps different than performances of gender in say, American Football?

Performances of masculinity are central in European soccer (I hope you consider Europe to be included in "western culture"). American soccer largely takes its cues from English Football, so those gender norms often carry over to the MLS as well. Soccer fandom is certainly a space for homosocial bonding, but that also certainly isn't the only thing that draws fans.

Please elaborate on exactly what unique challenges you think face performing gender in soccer and how they could possibly be overcome.

Erika said...

Hello, Sorry to go off topic but I have found interesting information. Sports were initially to train boys at a young age to be more masculine, and to express their dominance to women. Many had feared that the boys would become too feminine-like, so they decide to teach them sports to make them more aggressive. Girls on the other hand, had to do what men wanted them to do. They had no rights at the time; they were just there to do “women work” like taking care of the house, looking after the children or cooking for their husbands. No woman was allowed to play sports, because many thought it was inappropriate for a woman to play sports. It was not “lady-like” for a woman to play sports because many had an ideal image of a woman, but playing sports wasn't one of them. For most people, since childhood are told and shown that sports are more suited for males than females. They are taught what is right, or ‘the appropriate” thing females should do, and what males should do as well. The views on men are different, through the media they are portrayed as being masculine and tough. The media has this ideal image of how a man should look and act like, and all these ideas are seen through movies, commercials, etc. When these “ideal” images reach the public, it immediately has an effect on them. Boys, at a young age are the ones most vulnerable to these “ideas”. They start to imitate what society thinks men are suppose to be like. In sports men are suppose to be tough and beat anyone, no matter who it is. They think women aren't capable of being tough and ruthless because we are seen are being kind and gentle. So, when women play sports, this image is shattered.
I learned this information because I had to do a research project for my English 101 class about the views society has on both genders and if these views affect their participation in sports.
I believe that these views on women and men aren't always true, but because some people live their lives by these ideal images, show us that the media has a big impact on people. Playing sports takes a lot of dedication and hard work, but when some people hear that it takes hard work, they immediately think that men are only capable of doing this hard work. Women have worked hard all their lives too, but men fail to recognize that doing chores are hard work. The media represents women as being beautiful and delicate through advertisements, movies, and even TV shows. For example, commercials on TV show women wearing short dresses, high heels and make up. This shows other women that they are suppose to look this way and that it would be the only they will be accepted by society. This message goes for the men as well, they make men think that women are suppose to behave and look that way. This might be why so many men don't accept women in sports.
What should be done is to have more unique commercials that show that women aren't just "beautiful and delicate" but that they are capable of so much more. Have more sport programs for girls, so that way they encourage girls to play sports.