So, with the recent Women’s World Cup of Soccer recently ending and having massively high ratings, and with people commenting on the skill level and the quality of those games, there have been a number of articles and discussions about why those events get a lot of fan support but the leagues for women’s sports get no attention at all. On the one side, you have the arguments about how women’s sports just aren’t as entertaining as men’s sports, which explains the discrepancy, and on the other side you have various “patriarchy” arguments about how they really are as entertaining as men’s sports but that men somehow feel threatened by women performing in sports, and that’s why they don’t watch or don’t want to give them the attention they deserve.
I’m going to try to settle the debate.
The first thing to notice that is those arguing for the “It’s just unfair!” line don’t usually appeal to women’s sports being as good as men’s sports. They don’t argue that in general the quality of play in most women’s sports is the equal to that in men’s sports. In fact, they find all sorts of ways to try to dismiss considering that as being any kind of relevant question. They don’t bring up the comparison. They dismiss out of hand comments that the best women’s teams are the equivalent of men’s high school or junior teams as being irrelevant. They handwave at “different styles of play” — which is similar to the reasons why I prefer women’s curling to men’s curling — but ignore that a) this argument is based on assuming that women just can’t do some of the things that men can and that’s why they have to play different (which is not always and bad thing) and b) that women who are able to play that way both end up dominating the sport and end up killing that part of it (which is the main reason I used to like and now hate women’s hockey).
So if they don’t claim that the quality of play is as good, and so by implication accept that judged on that basis alone women’s sports wouldn’t be as entertaining as men’s sports are, what argument do they use? Well, they not unreasonably argue that most people don’t watch sports for the quality of play, at least not primarily. No, they watch it for the competition and the stories and seeing people perform at their peak potential. And since women aren’t playing against men and getting slaughtered, the level of competition is the same as that of men’s sports: we have equally matched teams fighting it out and all of the players performing at their peak levels. And since this is what drives our viewing of sports, and since women’s sports are equal to men’s sports in that regard, there is no reason to claim that women’s sports are less entertaining than men’s sports.
Which is reasonable right up until the point you recall that the level of competition is, at best, the same between men’s and women’s sports. It’s not the case that the level of competition, or stories or how hard the players are playing is greater in women’s sports than in men’s sports. But the quality of play is greater in men’s sports than in women’s sports. And all things being equal, if I can get the same level of competition but if one of two options has a higher quality of play, then I’m going to choose the one with the higher quality of play. This applies to junior leagues, academic leagues … and women’s leagues. So, then, relatively speaking, women’s sports aren’t as entertaining as men’s sports because the competitive drive is equal, but the quality of play in men’s sports is superior. So the only way to push someone, when given the choice, to choose women’s sports over men’s sports is if you can give another reason to do so. This, I think, is the reason that the Women’s World Cup is so popular in North America, because it provides two big reasons for North Americans to watch. First, it’s about national pride. Second, in terms of soccer it’s the only area where the North American national teams have a very good chance to win it all. The American women’s team is ranked #1 in the world, with the men’s team #34. For Canada, it’s even sharper, as the women’s team is #11, and the men’s team is #103. So given a chance to see their country a) play in the World Cup (for Canada) and b) have a not unreasonable shot at winning it, there’s a lot of interest. But take away that story, and try to watch for the competition alone without an additional reason, and yes, people will prefer to watch the English Premier League than a women’s national game that’s relatively meaningless.
The only way to refute this argument is to refute the idea that the men’s leagues, in general, have a greater quality of play overall than the women’s leagues. And that is the argument that those who are claiming that it is unfair for women to get so much less attention are studiously trying to avoid talking about. Thus, I’m not holding my breath.