Playing (Fantasy) Sport with the Guys

By Sarah Winslow and Rebecca Joyce Kissane

In the next week, we will have crowned a new World Series Champion, thus ending the MLB season, NFL football is now in full gear, and both NHL hockey and NBA basketball are a few weeks into their seasons. If you’re one of the nearly 57 million people in the United States and Canada who play fantasy sports, it’s likely that your enjoyment of these events is accompanied by the excitement of drafting, monitoring, and competing with your fantasy sports team. But does this experience differ for men and women? Both men and women play fantasy sports, frequently competing against one another in a context in which the presumed physical differences between males and females are seemingly irrelevant, conditions that may make gender irrelevant as well. Yet, our research demonstrates that is not the case. Women are treated as outsiders and consequently challenge, to varying degrees and in varying and sometimes contradictory ways, how they are treated and perceived.

Final “Bro League” standings, image by Grace Greene

In fantasy sports, individuals build virtual sports teams comprised of real athletes who accumulate points based on their performance in actual games. The majority of participants compete in fantasy football, baseball, and basketball, although fantasy sports leagues exist for a wide range of sports. Although recent attention has been focused on daily fantasy sports, with some states moving to declare these activities illegal, the majority of players—and those that we focus on in our work—currently play in traditional fantasy sports leagues like that depicted in the popular FX series The League; this means they create and manage their teams over the course of an entire sports season and compete against other managers doing the same in a virtual league.

Despite its skyrocketing popularity, there is a dearth of research on fantasy sports, and little serious attention has been given to how gender operates in this space. We know that since the 1972 passage of Title IX, women’s and girls’ participation in athletics has substantially increased, female athletes have become cultural icons, and a few women, like baseball player Kelsie Whitmore or NBA assistant coaches Becky Hammon and Nancy Lieberman, have made inroads into male-dominated sports. Yet, we also know that women’s sports still receive less attention from fans and the media than men’s, female athletes are often treated as sex symbols, sports largely remain sex-segregated, and women in sports still garner lower financial rewards and hold fewer positions of power than men do. As an example of the contradictory position occupied by women in sports —simultaneously celebrated for their accomplishments and cast as outsiders and publicly denigrated when they veer too far into what has historically been men’s domain – on October 6, 2015, two-time Olympic Gold Medal-winning softball player Jessica Mendoza, already a regular analyst for ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball,” made history when she became the first woman to call a nationally-televised MLB playoff game. Touted as a major step forward for women in sports, the event was also swiftly met with what can only be described as sexist, misogynistic backlash.

Our research on fantasy sports suggests that, much like women entering other male-dominated domains who have to work twice as hard to prove themselves worthy of recognition or legitimacy, female fantasy sports participants also have their competence and ability to “hang with the boys” questioned at every turn (even after they win their leagues). They are told that women don’t know much about sports or have the requisite experience in sports to compete against male players; that they make decisions about their teams based on how “dreamy” the professional players or how cute their uniforms are; and, accordingly, that competing against the teams women manage results in “easy wins” for their competitors. Female fantasy sports players respond to their position as outsiders in a number of ways—sometimes pushing against their perceived status as lesser players by explaining they are indeed skilled, knowledgeable sports fans and proving themselves capable as they “crush the boys.” Some use being underestimated to their advantage such that their male competitors “never see the ass kickin’ coming.” Other times, though, female players ignore or choose not to confront these negative assumptions, deeming them part and parcel of sports, while others retreat entirely from hostile fantasy sports environments and interactions. Interestingly, we also find that some female players emphasize how they are “atypical” women, and, we argue, thus reinforce stereotypes that the average woman isn’t capable of competing with men in the sports domain. Additionally, some women rely on men to better their fantasy sports experience by, for example, having the men intervene when sexist language is used amongst league members.

Thus, even in a sport that does not require women to compete physically with men, it seems men reign supreme, as female fantasy sports players are presumed inferior and cast as outsiders. Moreover, just like in the “real” sporting arena, our female fantasy sports players respond in varied, and often contradictory, ways as they seek to play the hobby they love and gain legitimacy and acceptance in a highly masculinized domain.

Sarah Winslow is Associate Professor of Sociology at Clemson University. Her work on gender inequality in couples’ earnings, academic careers, and fantasy sports has been published in Gender & Society; Journal of Marriage and Family; Journal of Family Issues; Social Currents; Community, Work, and Family; and the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social ScienceRebecca Joyce Kissane is Associate Professor of Sociology at Lafayette College. Her work on families living in poverty, nonprofit organizations that serve the poor, the Moving to Opportunity housing mobility demonstration, and fantasy sports has been published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, Sociological Perspectives, Society and Mental Health, Social Service Review, the Journal of Poverty, and Social Currents.The authors are currently collaborating on a book tentatively titled Game On! Inside the Gendered World of Fantasy Sports. Their article, “You’re Underestimating Me and You Shouldn’t”: Women’s Agency in Fantasy Sports, can be found in the October 2016; 30 (5) issue of Gender & Society here


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