Overlooked Sports, Overlooked Fans – A Sociological Reflection on Women’s College Basketball Fandom

By: Mairead Carr, PhD Candidate, University at Albany – SUNY

Keywords: gender, basketball, fan culture, women’s sports, media

The dearth of sports coverage of women’s sports is well documented. Even the way we talk about women’s sports trivializes women athletes and their achievements. Yet, at the start of every basketball season, I continue to reflect on my experiences growing up with a love of the University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball team as they became one of the greatest dynasties in sports history. For those who are not sports fans, the UConn women Huskies accumulated 11 national championships and 22 conference tournament wins between their time in the Big East and American Athletic Conferences since 1995. Given that the women were successful, often even greater than the UConn men, I think about the possible effect this had on me and, as a sociologist, I consider the effects they may have had on not just girls but children of women’s college basketball across the state. Still, I also consider what the lack of coverage means not only for women’s teams, but for the fans of these teams.

Although people argue individual interest drives reporting and news coverage that overlooks the impact that culture and institutions have on media representation, the fans of women’s sports, like women’s college basketball, remain passionate and loyal. When I was growing up in the 1990s and early 2000s, the UConn women’s basketball team dominated the sport. Going to games or watching them play live on television was a family event. We rarely missed a game and even persuaded family members, much to their chagrin, to turn on the Huskies when we were at holiday parties. We witnessed heartbreaking losses and nail-biting wins during that time. We were loyal and dedicated fans. 

My family didn’t even let a lack of visual media keep us from supporting the team. While traveling back from a trip to Montana in 2011, my dad and I caught what we could of our beloved Huskies losing in the Final Four to a rival – Notre Dame – on the radio as we were shuttled back to our car at the airport. Following this team is a way of life, and our devoted following of our Huskies is something we share with women’s college basketball fans across the country. Yet women’s sports, and as a result, their large network of fans, are often overlooked. People are not just watching women’s college basketball because they could not get tickets to a men’s game – they love this sport and love their women’s teams. 

Examples of this passion abound. Two years ago, my parents gifted me with the opportunity to see the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight games played in Albany, NY so I could see my Huskies in person again. Since starting a PhD program in sociology, I have not been able to attend games or watch them, which was an at least twice-weekly occasion that took on almost a religious commitment to me up until this point in my life. When we arrived in our seats, a family next to us said that they were Notre Dame fans but that they could not afford to go to Chicago where their team was playing. Still, they didn’t want to miss the chance to attend the tournament, so they paid to attend games in this section of the bracket to see other teams play instead.

When we downplay, or outright refuse to cover, a sport, a player, or a team, we minimize the achievements and the excellence of that sport, player, or team. And the issue is not all about marketing because we also dismiss fans of these sports as illustrated in many conversations about women’s sports. For example, when my husband told a friend that he was going with me and my family to the women’s college basketball Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight games with my family a few years ago, his friend said, “why would you do that?” The insinuation being that the women’s team wasn’t worth the time, money, and effort we put in to go to the games. 

There are always other factors at play other than sexism, but what angers me about our collective mistreatment of women’s basketball teams, and comments made by the public such as “nobody cares” when ESPN, on rare occasions, reports on women’s sports news, is not only how severely we devalue the hard work these athletes put in to perfect their game but also how much it devalues their fans. 

I cannot discount the impact that growing up in an era when women’s college basketball came into its own, when rivalries were berthed and legends were made, had on me. I am sure girls in Tennessee who followed Pat Summitt’s leadership, in New Jersey who idolized C. Vivian Stringer’s teams, and others across the country who saw the athletes that women could be feel the same as I do today about the mistreatment of women’s college basketball players, their teams, and the lack of coverage about their accomplishments.

I was just two years old when the UConn Women’s Basketball team won their first NCAA Championship, and growing up, they were foundational to my desire to play basketball, but I believe they also shaped who I believed I could be. As a sociologist, I understand why this disregard of women’s sports persists, but as I reflect on the young girl that I was growing up in the shadow of one of the greatest dynasties to ever leave its mark on sports, I feel even more strongly that we have a social responsibility to address our trenchant failure to support women’s sports. 

As sociologists, we also need to examine the role women’s sports has on its fans and the ways in which we make sense of their accomplishments and failures, including at the high school level. How does the supremacy of girls’ teams at some schools, such as at my high school, shape the way people think about gender, if at all? If we know that women are often seen as inauthentic sports fans, how do fans of women’s sports navigate “fandom” and “fan culture?” Scholarship considers the role of women players in gaming communities, in the music industry, and in other cultural arenas. But what how do women, who are seen as inauthentic fans, navigating fandom of sports also deemed “inferior?” What is the experience like for men who are fans of women’s college basketball or women’s sports in general? We must consider the role of fandom for fans of women’s sports, an area that receives less focus than how women sports fans engage in fan culture in general.

As consumers, we need to do more to advocate for coverage of women’s sports because it matters not only to the ways we think about sports, but I can personally say it also matters to young girls who are yearning to see themselves, and their icons represented in the way men’s teams are. It is no longer enough to say that these leagues do not have fans. For sports like women’s college basketball, the National Women’s Soccer League, and others, the interest and fandom is already there. It is time we recognize them.

Mairead Carr is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the University at Albany – SUNY. She received her Master of Arts from the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University at Albany – SUNY in 2019. Her dissertation research addresses how individual choices resist and/or maintain systemic inequalities in education by examining school choice and parental decision-making with the case of inter-district magnet schools in Hartford, Connecticut.