Reflecting on Gender Parity in Sports

Women's World Cup
While watching the Women’s World Cup in soccer today, I decided yet again to raise a familiar question.  Why don’t people follow women’s sports like men’s sports? Before I even started thinking about formulating something of an answer, I decided I would not make arguments that cast the distinction in strictly biological terms.  I think they exist, but I don’t think they’re nearly as integral to the issue as we might think.  Our visceral reaction to the action going on before us may provide information that is far more helpful.

Women’s sports tend to emphasize teamwork and basic fundamentals.  Men’s sports are usually focused on skill players and a deliberately flashier style of play.  The eye of the bystander has been trained to expect and follow dramatic action.  Whether it is a star receiver who never drops a catch or a baseball pitcher with a 100 mph fastball, sports fans expect to be wowed, thrilled, and entertained.  Superstars are supposed to stand out from the rest of the pack and win either our adoration or our derision.  Greater attention on the playing field means more money and increased fame.  So, because of all this, there’s a great incentive present to be in the public eye and stay there.

With women athletes, the stakes are not quite so high.  With no financial advantage in the form of multi-million dollar salaries, coveted awards, or even appearances in film and television, women athletes see no compelling need to showboat.  However, this means women’s sports are often perceived as much less visually exciting by an audience accustomed to men’s sports.  Men’s sports have been marketed for decades to appeal to the widest possible audience.  The rules are routinely tweaked to increase, maintain, and grow audience interest.  In a massive understatement, men’s sports are a very lucrative business.  Advertising techniques have also been actively introduced to sell the game.  I should state here that I’m not suggesting female athletes should consider resorting to the same tactics.  If I were wise enough to propose a solution, I’d try to find a way that preserves a unique female standard of play and ethos while making a few reforms here and there to be more in line with their male counterparts.

Above all, the commercialization of men’s sports is one reason why women’s sports do not enjoy the same popularity.  Reversing the lengthy trend of commercialism in any area is extremely difficult, if not impossible.  In the beginning, men’s sports focused more on teamwork and less on individual grandstanding.  Early styles of football focused on the ground game and the brute strength needed to cross the goal line.  The forward pass was an invention not embraced fully until the Twenties.  The shape of the ball was modified from the large, oval, rugby shape designed for quick sideways pitches to one more favorable to forward throwing.  Passing the ball is more exciting to the viewing audience than running the ball.  The same paradigm shift was also true with baseball.  The early days of the game were those of hard-hit singles and doubles, which necessitated a strong infield and cooperation between players.  When players like Babe Ruth started hitting home runs instead, the audience was thrilled by the change, and the entire strategy of the game quickly became very different.

In men’s soccer, particularly at its most competitive levels, players often fake injuries to draw penalties.  This is less prevalent in women’s soccer and may simply be an aspect of hyper-competitiveness.  Wealth is a powerful incentive.  Men draw much larger salaries and can compete for longer in their lives.  The pay for women’s sports is much lower and as a result, women can’t afford to subsist on it.  Women’s players tend to be much younger and have much shorter careers.  In men’s sports, it’s possible to follow the progress of a favorite player for years.  This is not always the case with women’s sports.

Ultimately, to greater parity, fans will have to change a little and the game will need to be modified, too.  There may be no way to preserve the purity that exists when big money does not infiltrate sports.  To obtain gender equality within sports, one might have to make a Faustian bargain or two.  Instead of asking Why can’t women’s sports be more like men’s sports, I might pose something else entirely.  Why would you want them to be?

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  1. Posted June 28, 2011 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    I think this is completely compelling. I think it would be really valuable to think about the effect of motherhood on professional women’s sports or even just individual athletes. However, in the context of this OTHER debate I’ve been eyeing, I think it’s really interesting to think about alternative roles that women can take in professional sports; whereas a woman’s career as an athlete may be shorter based on maternity or any number of other factors, certainly there should be opportunities for the same women as coaches, managers, and officials in a variety of sports — women’s or men’s leagues, as we age, or cope with injury or whatever else.

  2. Posted June 28, 2011 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    “Women’s sports tend to emphasize teamwork and basic fundamentals. Men’s sports are usually focused on skill players and a deliberately flashier style of play. The eye of the bystander has been trained to expect and follow dramatic action. Whether it is a star receiver who never drops a catch or a baseball pitcher with a 100 mph fastball, sports fans expect to be wowed, thrilled, and entertained.”

    I’m not sure if not dropping a catch really constitutes drama — while there are catches players sometimes make that truly are impressive, most of the time that *is* an issue of fundamentals (and even some “normal” passes are dropped, even by “stars.”) Baseball players do throw a faster pitch than softball players, although both types of pitches still rely on the “defense” (teammates) behind them — which does end up being a little flashier/athletic in baseball, but there is still a lot of fundamentals and teamwork that go into it.

    Speaking of teamwork, I think the first sentence deserves validity testing, although many of these kinds of comparisons are apples-and-oranges. The most appropriate test I that comes to mind is to compare the assist percentage for all field goals scored in US pro basketball, using the last complete regular season (NBA: 2010-2011, WNBA: 2010).

    NBA: 52887/91624 = 57.7%
    WNBA: 7143/11940 = 59.8%

    The WNBA’s rate is higher and is statistically significant if we consider each FG as an independent occurrence (which it actually isn’t), but 2% isn’t the sort of difference you want to blow out of proportion either. At least in this one case, the difference is there, but it is also small, probably because it is important for teams to play at an optimal level.

    As for the issue of showboating, it’s grossly overstated in pro sports (which ends up working as a stereotype). Granted, the players who do “entertain” in this way do tend to generate more interest in the form of providing stories to the media, but an overwhelming majority of players pretty much just “do their job.” There is a healthy contingent of players who play with some amount of “flash” during the game, but it is usually done as a matter of necessity.

    “The early days of the game were those of hard-hit singles and doubles, which necessitated a strong infield and cooperation between players. When players like Babe Ruth started hitting home runs instead, the audience was thrilled by the change, and the entire strategy of the game quickly became very different.”

    An individual’s greatness that arises under the preexisting rules does not constitute “commercialism,” or at least not in the sense that the league makes a deliberate choice to make the game more interesting (like with the football example).

    ” In men’s soccer, particularly at its most competitive levels, players often fake injuries to draw penalties. This is less prevalent in women’s soccer and may simply be an aspect of hyper-competitiveness.”

    I don’t really know the women’s game well enough, but Mexico sure seemed to be “playing it up” in its game against England to stall and hold on for a draw. However, to the extent it exists in soccer (men’s or otherwise) is something that I do not believe appeals to fans — men’s soccer seems popular in spite of flops rather than because of them.

  3. Posted June 28, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    I just would like to say that I think, based on my experience as a women’s soccer player both at high school and college levels, I think you’re on to something here. I notice it most when I play co-ed soccer.

    When playing with girls, it seems most about making the good passes, setting up the plays, and executing them when the opportunity presents itself. When I played with guys, it seems more like when I pass it to them, they’ll try to dribble the ball all the way to the goal and make the shot. Never mind that a teammate was open with a good shot or that he loses the ball 99% of the time because it’s really easy to stop a player’s forward momentum if they’re dribbling. The dudes always seemed to want to dribble, want to score, want to be the hero.

    Interestingly, I remarked on this fact to a (female) teammate of mine as we played co-ed mini-matches (5 v. 5) in college:

    Me: Huh. I haven’t seen a guy pass in over five minutes. It seems like all they want to do is score.
    Teammate: Duh, Elle. They’re guys.
    *cue much laughter*

    I will say that I personally like watching women’s soccer more than men’s precisely for the reasons you state. I just can’t do anything but roll my eyes at the blatant faked injuries and prefer to see the passing game and the ways different plays are utilized by the women’s teams. But that’s just me. :)

  4. Posted June 28, 2011 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    I think you’ve greatly mis-characterized sports. I actually have to wonder if you really know that much / follow much of professional sports.

    Basically what I take issue with is your assertion that men try to play flashier, etc. In professional sports, all the matters is results. It’s like capitalism. I can 100% assure you that coaches, other players, management, team owners, etc. do not give 1 shit about how flashy a player or team is they only care about winning. You see flashy plays sometimes but in the end that is a result of demonostrating skill, not playing flashy just for the heck of it. A ton of players have gotten the boot or never made it far in sports for trying to play like this.

    You might be right there is more teamwork in women’s sports but that could simply be that they don’t have the same incentive to win. Also I know alot of female athletes who would take exception to this stance, as they are very competitive just like the men and want to score / be the star just like the men.

    Regarding men always wanting to score instead of passing, etc. – it goes back to what I said earlier. The players who score are the ones who are the most valuable to the team and hence make the most money or stand the best chance to be drafted. Not to mention gain the adoration of the fans. That’s why men want to score, pure and simple.

    And at the end of the day, your statement/position around: “Women’s sports tend to emphasize teamwork and basic fundamentals” seems well, kind of offensive to me. Because really what you’re saying here is simply that women aren’t as competitive as men. That’s what you’re really saying here as far as I can tell. Why else would they focus on anything other then trying to win no matter what by whatever means necessary? And if they do it b/c it’s their best chance to win, then they aren’t any different then men afterall.

    At the end of the day what most fans want is excitement and to watch the best players possible. In every form of competition the world over, be it track and field, to professional sports, to chess, to crossword competitions, etc. the higher level the league/competition the more interest there is in it and the more money involved, more media attention, etc. It’s why the olympics garners more interest then say the commonwealth games. Higher level of competition.

    I think that combined with the fact that women are in general less interested in sports themselves explains the disparity.

  5. Posted June 29, 2011 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    The notion that women’s sports are more team-oriented is an insidious stereotype that tends to deny the agency of star female players. Take UConn women’s basketball. Maya Moore monopolized the heck out of the basketball when she played for the Huskies. If anything she was a bit of a ball-hog, but the confines of the stereotype don’t work there, so people just assume that didn’t happen.

    Where women’s sports are more team-oriented is in areas where the athletic gaps are less pronounced than in men’s sports. We see more passing in women’s soccer because the speed gap between fast and slow players is smaller, and as a result it raises the incentive to play a passing game that focuses on the midfield and crosses, rather than breakaways. That’s more “winning oriented”, though, as has been described above. It’s not about valuing the team, it’s about doing what is best to produce a positive result.

  6. Posted June 29, 2011 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Friends, as much as I really don’t want to respond here, I feel I must.

    One must look at the larger trends here, and not nitpick about the exceptions to the rule. Most criticism centers around two or three of my points, and does not take into account the entire post as a whole. I see what you’re saying here, but you have to take everything into its proper context.

    One person in particular has used assumptions against me that are hurtful. But based on his prior commentary, I would not invalidate the worthwhile remarks he has previously made to prior posts of mine. Please stop the hairsplitting.

    • Posted June 29, 2011 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

      Okay, but your core argument tried to remove biology from the argument entirely, then focused on styles of play that are influenced by biological advantage. How do you reconcile that?

      Consider the 100m dash. More people watch the 100m dash in the Olympics than DIII NCAA. More watch DIII NCAA than a local high school. The reason they do this is simple: the upper levels have faster runners. But then factor in biology, and the fact that the men’s 100m dash is significantly faster than the women’s. Are the men “flashier”, or are they just faster? And if faster is more compelling, do men just have an advantage there?

      Considering how influential speed and strength are in a variety of sports, I think you’re trying to dismiss biology, but then repackage it as “flashiness” to diminish the merit of that line of reasoning.

  7. Posted June 30, 2011 at 5:46 am | Permalink

    I think you’ve misunderstood the term “flashy”. I use it as a means to show off. It’s slight-of-hand, not related to strength. It’s a means to draw attention to oneself, pure and simple.

    • Posted June 30, 2011 at 10:29 am | Permalink

      By what objective measure do you claim that men’s sports involve more showing off, though? Could it be that noticing these moments more in men’s sports is simply a result of a heightened competitive environment, along with an existing stereotype that creates confirmation bias?

  8. Posted June 30, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    I have watched several of the games, and I notice that certain teams like Brazil do have a showier style of play. And they are inclined to fake injuries and play more aggressively. But these seem to be the exceptions, based purely on my own observation.

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