Sportista, by Andrei S. Markovits and Emily K. Albertson

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This summer my husband and I had Olympics fever. We watched NBC’s tape-delayed broadcast every night and live online coverage of our favorite sports (gymnastics for me, track and field for him) during the day. But our viewing habits diverged in one significant way: he likes to fast-forward through all the fluff.  What’s “fluff?” It’s the pre-recorded and packaged segments about an athlete’s training or family history designed to tug at the heartstrings. I like knowing about who to root for and the athletes’ stories matter to me.

According to Andrei Markovits, professor of comparative politics and German studies at the University of Michigan, and Emily Albertson, my love of fluff and my husband’s disdain for it is not at all surprising. In their new book, Sportista: Female Fandom in the United States, Markovits and Albertson examine the development of female sports fans since the passage of Title IX 40 years ago. Just as we have more successful female athletes than ever before—60% of the American Olympic medal haul, and two-thirds of the golds, were won by women—we also have more Sportistas than ever.

Sportistas differ from their male counterparts in terms of numbers and substance. (And, no, it’s not that they watch sports just to spend time with their husbands, as a recent study by two Communications professors reportedly found.) Markovits and Albertson present evidence that one of the ways male and female sports fans differ is that starting in childhood girls are more likely to focus on narratives than boys, which continues into adulthood. Hence, I like fluff and my husband doesn’t, affecting the type of sports coverage I prefer.

Despite the fact that I regularly write about women and sports, Markovits and Albertson would not regard me as a Sportista because I don’t religiously follow and have expert knowledge about what they label “hegemonic sports”—the Big Four of baseball, basketball, football, and hockey. So Sportistas like Albertson almost always focus on male sports and on sports that offer very few professional opportunities for female athletes. Albertson knows her sports history and has even been accepted into the fraternity of University of Michigan undergraduate football fans, despite never playing football herself. According to Markovits the purpose of Sportista is to explain how a young female like Albertson becomes credentialed as a Sportista in the 21st century.

Andrei S. Markovits

Andrei S. Markovits

To understand the creation of both recreational and professional Sportistas (female sports journalists) Markovits and Albertson draw on interviews with 66 women. Half of those are with fans like Albertson who seriously follow one of the “hegemonic sports” and display expert knowledge about them, like stats and strategy. The other half are with women who work as sports journalists on the radio, television, or in print. The authors also analyze specific events in female sports fandom, like the introduction of ESPNw and the American women’s soccer team’s 1999 World Cup victory. (Another new book, journalist Timothy Grainey’s, Beyond Bend It Like Beckham: The Global Phenomenon of Women’s Soccer tackles the women’s World Cup too, though with less analysis and more reporting.)

The biggest knot Sportista tries to untangle is why so many women now play sports, but more don’t consume sports. Men generally learn when they enter high school that they aren’t ever going to make it to the pros, but they don’t lose all interest when they get cut from the team. Instead they become serious consumers of the sport. Women, on the other hand, often don’t even follow the professional versions of the sports they play; this was true even for female University of Michigan athletes the authors spoke with who are Division I players, but not true for their male counterparts. Markovits and Albertson present research explaining that females still generally value athletic prowess less than males, so being a successful athlete is less tied to popularity overall, and it is less important for women to demonstrate sports knowledge into adulthood.

Despite sports generally being less important in female peer groups, some women do become serious sports consumers—they become sports journalists. In their discussion and analysis of female sports journalists Markovits and Albertson are at their best. They discuss the differences among women who report sports, women who analyze sports, and women who cover sports for print and radio and those who do so on television. They explain that while numerous studies have found that attractiveness helps build credibility in spheres like politics and business, for female sports reporters attractiveness is actually a liability. The earliest female sports reporters were known for their beauty and not for their knowledge (one was actually Miss America), a criticism that haunts female sports journalists to this day. Today some women create a niche for themselves by covering sports that aren’t part of the Big Four as a way to overcome the numerous barriers to entry, promotion, and credibility that a professional Sportista must face.

To readers without a social science background it is the later chapters of Sportista, including the one on female sports reporters, that will be of most interest. Markovits and Albertson write clearly, though they often digress from their main arguments on tangents that, while interesting, can be confusing. At the same time the wide range of knowledge presented helps contextualize the development of female sports fans and lends them credibility as authorities on this subject.

I’ll likely never be a female sports reporter or a Sportista, though I will continue to watch the fluff when I watch sports, and thanks to Sportista I’ll view the women who present the fluff pieces, and the women who are the subject of the pieces, with a more critical eye.

Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD is an affiliate of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is a sociologist who studies childhood, competition, and beauty and she frequently writes about women and sports on her blog, Playing to Win. More from this author →