Women’s Sports

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.

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5 Responses to “Women’s Sports”

  1. Héctor Muñoz Huerta Says:

    There is another argument to be made.

    Men are the main watchers of sports. It’s a predominantly male interest thus it makes sense for men to feel identified with male athletes and teams.

    As aggressive competitiveness is a typical male character trait thus watching bands of males compete in such a way is way more enticing to men.

  2. malcolmthecynic Says:

    Pretty much nailed it.

  3. Andrew Says:

    There are two main reasons to watch sport:
    – because one has a personal interest in the participants
    – because the people you are watching demonstrate a level of skill you can only aspire to

    For most men, the latter reason doesn’t apply to women’s sport. Hector has already mentioned the identification aspect, but I’ll push it – men generally don’t look up to women as proximate heroes. Also, if the sport requires any decent contribution of strength or speed there’s rarely a huge step up between male “capable” and female “elite”.

    I play field hockey (at a relatively low level). I watch my pre-teen kids play field hockey. I never wish that I could take the field in their games; I am stronger, faster and read the play better than even the best of their players could manage. I do not aspire to their level.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I think you’re leaving out an important reason: that you like the sport itself. For example, I simply can’t watch basketball. I can watch it when I have a personal interest in it, but not on its own. I just don’t like the flow of the sport. On the other hand, I CAN watch curling, as I like the flow of that sport.

      For people who just love the sport, they will want to watch the one with the highest skill, or rather that best exhibits what they like about the sport. In general, men’s sports do do that better, and so are the ones that most people without a personal interest will watch.

      I agree that aspiring to be like them is a factor, but know that it isn’t one for me anymore, and I think it’s more important for children than for adults, generally. So I think the other two reasons are the key ones for something that you want to build an adult audience on.

      • Andrew Says:

        The point of #2 is the skill, not the aspiration. If I’m watching X for the experience of X (as opposed to a personal interest in the participants), I want the best X going, and that usually means watching men – as you said.

        When you personally play the sport, this becomes a double issue. If, as we agree, you want to watch the best example going, you’re not going to seek examples where your own playing ability is comparable or superior to the levels displayed. For many sports, this means that for a not insignificant portion of potential male fans, watching women’s sport is watching a lower quality of game than they couple personally achieve. Thus, it’s not only “they could do better” but “*I* could do better”.

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