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Peer Reviewed Articles Psychology Department
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Sex Differences in Sports Across 50 Societies
Robert O. Deaner
Grand Valley State University, [email protected]
Brandt A. Smith
University of Texas at El Paso
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7Cross-Cultural ResearchDeaner and Smith
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1Grand Valley State University, Allendale, MI, USA
2University of Texas at El Paso, El Paso, TX, USA
Corresponding Author:
Robert O. Deaner, 1 Campus Drive, Department of Psychology, Grand Valley State University,
Allendale, MI 49401, USA
Email: [email protected]
Sex Differences in
Sports Across 50
Societies
Robert O. Deaner1 and Brandt A. Smith2
Abstract
Sports have been frequently explored in cross-cultural studies, yet scant atten-
tion has been paid to female participation. Here we coded the occurrence of
sports and related activities for males and females in the societies comprising
the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) probability sample. We then tested
several predictions derived from evolutionary theory. As predicted, in all 50
societies with documented sports, there were more male sports than female
sports; hunting and combat sports were almost exclusively male activities; and
the sex difference in sports was greater in patriarchal than in nonpatriarchal
societies. These results show that a robust sex difference in direct physical
competition co-occurs with meaningful variation in its expression.
Keywords
evolutionary psychology, anthropology, athletics, competitiveness, gender
differences, aggression, universal
A game can be defined as an organized activity where two or more sides
compete to win according to agreed-upon rules (Chick, 1984; Guttmann,
2004; Roberts, Arth, & Bush, 1959). Games occur in most or all societies
(Chick, 1984, 1998; Craig, 2002; Sutton-Smith & Roberts, 1981), and, from
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2 Cross-Cultural Research XX(X)
a cross-cultural perspective, they are the most extensively studied expressive,
noninstrumental aspect of culture (Chick, 2000). Previous studies have
revealed, for example, that games of chance are associated with supernatural
involvement in human affairs (Roberts et al., 1959), combative games cor-
relate with the frequency of homicide (Chick, Loy, & Miracle,1997) and war-
fare (Sipes, 1973; see also Chick et al.,1997; Schlegel & Herbert, 1989), and
games of strategy are associated with the severity of child training (Roberts
& Sutton-Smith, 1962) and societal complexity (Chick, 1998; Roberts et al.,
1959; Roberts & Barry, 1976; Sutton-Smith & Roberts, 1970).
Surprisingly, the sex of game participants has received almost no attention
in previous cross-cultural studies (but see Schlegel & Herbert, 1989). This
neglect might be due to assumptions that only males substantially participate
or that there is insufficient information available for coding participants’ sex
in most societies. In any event, the present study is designed to redress this
gap. In particular, we will systematically code participants’ sex in games and
related activities for the 60 societies in the Human Relations Area Files
(HRAF) probability sample (Lagacé, 1979; Naroll, 1967). We will then test
predictions regarding sex differences in participation and attempt to link vari-
ation in sex differences to social structure.
For two reasons, our study focuses on games that require physical skill,
which we hereafter call “sports” (see Loy & Coakley, 2007). First, sports are
by far the most common kind of game across societies (Chick, 1998; Roberts
et al., 1959; Roberts & Sutton-Smith, 1962). Second, the theoretical predic-
tions regarding sex differences seem strongest for sports (see below).
Nonetheless, we will code other kinds of games, and some of our predictions
address them.
We note that Schlegel and Herbert (1989) assessed the occurrence and
importance of competitive games for male and female adolescents in the
186 societies that comprise the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample (Murdock
& White, 1969). They reported that competitive games for males were doc-
umented in 60% of societies, whereas competitive games for females
occurred in 30% of societies. Although highly valuable, this study did not
differentiate kinds of games (i.e., sports, games of chance, games of strat-
egy) or report whether there were any societies where female participation
was similar to or greater than male participation.
In the next section, we provide the theoretical rationale for a hypothesis of
a pronounced sex difference in sports participation and develop specific pre-
dictions to test it. We conclude the Introduction with a section explaining
why variation in sex differences can be predicted to correlate with social
structure, especially the empowerment of women.
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Deaner and Smith 3
Sex Differences
Numerous functions for sports have been hypothesized, all of which appear
mutually compatible (Chick, 1984; Lombardo, 2012; Schlegel & Herbert,
1989). However, from an evolutionary perspective (i.e., linked to survival
and reproduction), three hypotheses seem plausible (Lombardo, 2012). First,
sports may function as culturally invented courtship rituals that reliably
advertise quality to the opposite sex (de Block & Dewitte, 2009; Miller,
2000). Second, sports may function as physical competitions for status, dif-
fering from unrestrained combat or warfare because they reduce the risk of
physical harm to competitors and more publicly and efficiently reveal the
competitors’ underlying competitive qualities (de Block & Dewitte, 2009;
Faurie, Pontier, & Raymond, 2004; Lombardo, 2012; see also Miller, 2000).
Third, sports may function to build skills necessary for physically demanding
activities, especially combat, warfare, and hunting (e.g., Chick et al., 1997;
Craig, 2002; Lombardo, 2012; Sipes, 1973).
To the extent that these hypotheses hold, especially the second and third
hypotheses, it can be further hypothesized that, compared to girls and
women, boys and men will, on average, have a far greater motivational pre-
disposition to participate and monitor sports, especially sports involving
combat-relevant skills and/or team play. This hypothesis follows from the
following points. First, throughout human evolutionary history and during
contemporary periods, men have been substantially more likely than women
to engage in contests involving extreme physical aggression (Archer, 2009;
Daly & Wilson, 1988; Walker, 2001), between-group raiding and warfare
(Adams, 1983; Gat, 2006; Keeley, 1996), and cooperative hunting of large
game (Marlowe, 2007; Murdock & Provost, 1973). Second, this history is
revealed by pronounced sexual dimorphism in strength and related attri-
butes (Lassek & Gaulin, 2009; Mayhew & Salm, 1990; Seiler, De Koning,
& Foster, 2007). Similarly, men (but not women) possess secondary sexual
characteristics (e.g., beards, pronounced jaws, deep voices) that function to
threaten rivals (Neave & Shields, 2008; Puts, 2010). Third, another legacy
of this history is a predisposition(s) to behaviorally prepare for physical
contests, both individually and in groups. This is indicated by the fact that
in all societies studied so far, boys engage in more rough-and-tumble play
and play-fighting (DiPietro, 1981; Geary, 2010; Whiting & Edwards, 1973,
1988). Studies also consistently indicate that boys are more likely to form
large same-sex groups, to differentiate roles within such groups, and to seek
competition with other groups (Geary, 2010; Lever, 1978; Rose & Rudolph,
2006). Fourth, several kinds of evidence indicate that these sex-differentiated
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4 Cross-Cultural Research XX(X)
play patterns are due, at least in part, to boys’ typically greater exposure to
androgens prior to birth (Berenbaum & Beltz, 2011).
There is considerable evidence for the hypothesis that males have an inborn
predisposition to be interested in sports. First, studies in large contemporary
societies ubiquitously report greater male interest in participating, watching,
and excelling in sports. Evidence comes from self-reports of interest (summa-
rized in Ellis et al., 2008) and from actual participation (e.g., Larson & Verma,
1999; Lunn, 2010; Stamatakis & Chaudhury, 2008). There is even a large sex
difference in sports interest and participation in the contemporary United
States, a society where great efforts have been made to equalize opportunities
for females (Deaner et al., 2012). Second, females with congenital adrenal
hyperplasia (a disease characterized by heightened prenatal androgen expo-
sure) are more likely than typical females to show strong interest in stereotypi-
cally masculine sports (Berenbaum, 1999; Berenbaum & Snyder, 1995; Frisén
et al., 2009). Third, historical reviews of sports in large, literate societies docu-
ment that many societies had substantial female participation, but males are
reported as being substantially more involved in most or all cases (Craig, 2002;
Guttmann, 1991, 2004). Finally, as noted above, cross-cultural ethnographic
studies of sports appear consistent with the prediction of greater male participa-
tion (e.g., Chick, 1984, 1998; Chick et al., 1997; Roberts et al., 1959; Sipes,
1973), and this is true of the one study that provided the most direct evidence
(Schlegel & Herbert, 1989).
For the present study, it would be desirable to obtain data on the frequency of
sports participation, but this cannot be extracted from ethnographic materials.
Instead, we will focus on documenting the number of games and sports described
in each society and whether males, females, or both regularly participate. To
address the possibility that a larger number of male games might merely reflect
ethnographers focusing more attention on males, we will also code nonsport
games and noncompetitive play activities (i.e., amusements: see Roberts et al.,
1959; Schlegel & Herbert, 1989). If there is substantial ethnographer bias, the
sex difference should be similar in sports and in these other activities.
Additional predictions can be derived from the hypothesis of an evolved
male tendency to be interested in sports. First, the sex difference should be
especially pronounced for combat sports, such as wrestling and boxing, and
for hunting sports, such as archery and spear throwing. The basis for this
prediction is that combat and hunting generally have been male activities dur-
ing human evolutionary history (see above). Nonetheless, sports that do not
involve actions directly related to combat or hunting are still expected to
show greater male participation because males appear generally more predis-
posed to engage in direct competition of almost any kind (Campbell, 1999,
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Deaner and Smith 5
2002; Deaner, 2012; Niederle & Vesterlund, 2011). Furthermore, many sports
that do not require actions patently used in combat or hunting require related
skills. For example, baseball, although not a hunting or combat sport, involves
running, overhand throwing, and tracking projectiles.
A second prediction is that the sex difference should be especially pro-
nounced for sports involving physical contact between opponents. This pre-
diction follows because combative sports invariably entail aggressive
physical contact and even noncombat sports often involve this. Thus, males
are expected to participate relatively more in sports involving physical con-
tact, even after combat and hunting sports are excluded.
A third prediction is that the sex difference should be especially pro-
nounced for team sports rather than individual sports. This prediction follows
from the male predispositions hypothesis because team sports require both
motivation to engage in physical competition and motivation to engage in
cooperative group challenges, especially in between-group contexts. Both
kinds of motivation apparently are greater in males (Campbell, 1999, 2002;
Geary Byrd-Craven, Hoard, Vigil, & Numtee, 2003; Puts, 2010; Rose &
Rudolph, 2006; van Vugt, 2009). However, individual sports require only one
kind of motivation, whereas team sports require both, suggesting that the sex
difference should be larger there.
Female Power
Although we anticipate that males’ sports participation will be substantially
greater than females’ in most or all societies, there is evidence of appreciable
female sports participation in many of them (Craig, 2002; Guttmann, 1991;
Schlegel & Herbert, 1989). Although we know of no existing framework to
predict the cross-cultural variation, the three functional hypotheses outlined
above provide a useful starting point.
If sports function, first, as culturally invented courtship rituals (de Block &
Dewitte, 2009; Miller, 2000) or, second, as physical competitions for status that
publicly and efficiently reveal underlying competitive qualities (de Block &
Dewitte, 2009; Faurie et al., 2004; Lombardo, 2012), then females might be
expected to participate in sports more in societies where females compete more
to be chosen as mates or to gain status. There is a problem with this hypothesis,
however: The qualities females mainly advertise when seeking mates or com-
peting for status are physical attractiveness (e.g., youthfulness, femininity,
health) and personal integrity (e.g., good sexual reputation; Campbell, 1999,
2002; Cashdan, 1996; Schmitt & Buss, 1996), and these qualities do not seem
emphasized in most sports, which generally involve direct (i.e., simultaneous)
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6 Cross-Cultural Research XX(X)
competition and potential physical contact. Indeed, playing sports is associated
with greater attractiveness and higher status for males but not for females
(Holland & Andre, 1994; see also Brewer & Howarth, 2012; Chase & Dummer,
1992). Similarly, physical dominance (a typical correlate of sport success) gen-
erally increases the attractiveness of men but not of women (Bryan, Webster, &
Mahaffey, 2011; Sadalla, Kenrick, & Vershure, 1987). Although there are judged
sports (e.g., figure skating, gymnastics, cheerleading) that emphasize physical
attractiveness and do not involve direct competition, these sports apparently
only occur in large nation-states and thus will be largely irrelevant for the HRAF
probability sample.
The third functional hypothesis, that sports function to build skills needed
for physically demanding activities, might also seem improbable for explain-
ing cross-societal variation female sports. The reason is that this hypothesis
was developed by evolutionarily oriented scholars in reference to warfare and
cooperatively hunting large game (e.g., Chick et al., 1997; Lombardo, 2012;
Sipes, 1973), and females rarely participate in these activities in any society
(Adams, 1983; Gat, 2006; Keeley, 1996; Marlowe, 2007; Murdock & Provost,
1973). Nonetheless, if this hypothesis is conceived more broadly, namely that
sports foster skills for physically or socially demanding activities, then it
becomes quite plausible (see Schlegel & Herbert, 1989). In fact, in large soci-
eties with organized sports, both historical and contemporary, there have been
countless claims that sports promote physical and social development, includ-
ing “building character” (e.g., Guttmann, 2004; Eccles, Barber, Stone, &
Hunt, 2003). Although it has proven difficult to establish causal relationships,
many studies document that sports participation correlates with a variety of
positive outcomes outside of the sporting arena, and this holds for both males
and females (Eccles et al., 2003; Rees & Sabia, 2010; Stevenson, 2010).
This “sports as training” hypothesis generates the prediction that female
sports participation should be relatively greater in nonpatriarchal than in
patriarchal societies. The logic for this prediction is that patriarchal societies
can be generally considered low in female power, which can be defined as the
capacity for women to control resources and exert political influence (Low,
1992; Yanca & Low, 2004). We will define patriarchal societies as those char-
acterized by both patrilocality and patrilineality (Yanca & Low, 2004; see
also Hrdy, 1999; Low, 1992; Smuts, 1995).
Methods
We used the electronic HRAF materials (eHRAF: http://ehrafworldcultures.
yale.edu) and focused on the probability sample of 60 societies. The probability
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Deaner and Smith 7
sample is a cross-cultural sample designed to ensure representative coverage of
traditional and peasant cultures of the world. Its developers randomly selected
one well-described culture from each of 60 world regions (Lagacé, 1979;
Naroll, 1967). We searched with three Outline of Cultural Materials (OCM)
codes: 524-games, 525-gambling, and 526-athletic sports. For each society, we
included information from all time periods and resources in HRAF. We did this
to maximize the number of potentially coded activities and because it was often
unclear from what time period the patriarchy information was derived from.
Including information from all time periods means that some coded activities
might seem unusual for a particular society (e.g., baseball in Copper Inuit).
We obtained data on descent (patrilineality) and residence (patrilocality)
from Levinson and Wagner (1986). We classified a society as patriarchal if it
was coded as both patrilineal and patrilocal; any other combination (e.g.,
matrilineal, neolocal; bilateral, patrilocal) was classified as nonpatriarchal.
Activity Coding
We followed Roberts and colleagues (1959; see also Chick, 1984, 1998) in
defining games and kinds of games. A game was defined as an organized
activity where two or more sides compete to win according to agreed-upon
rules. A game of chance was defined as one whose outcome depends entirely
on nonrational guesses or the operation of a mechanical device, such as a die
or a spinning top. A game of strategy was defined as one that depends on
players’ moves (choices among alternatives), although it may also involve
chance; examples include chess and poker. A sport was defined as a game
that depends on physical skill, although it may also involve chance or strat-
egy. We counted guessing games (“hide the moccasin”) as games of chance,
despite that they may involve bluffing or assessing body language.
For the sake of comparison, we also coded the occurrence of three activities
that bear similarities to games. These were sham combats, duels, and amuse-
ments. Following Chick and Loy (2001), we defined a sham combat as a com-
bat-like activity that does not meet the definition of a game because there are
no criteria for determining a winner. We defined a duel as a formalized com-
petition between two individuals that is undertaken to formally determine sta-
tus or honor and purposely features the potential for lethal violence. Because
we only documented four cases of sham combats and one duel (all with only
male participants; see Appendix), we did not analyze them here.
We defined amusements as recreational or play activities that do not
meet the above definition of a game. Examples include hide and seek,
playing house, tag, sledding, and jumping rope (see Roberts et al., 1959;
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8 Cross-Cultural Research XX(X)
Schlegel & Herbert, 1989). Amusements potentially could be defined very
broadly and thus might entail nearly boundless coding effort. Therefore,
we focused on children’s amusements involving physical activity. For
example, we did not code (noncompetitive) adult dances, courtship rituals,
or verbal games.
In some cases, two or more described activities were highly similar or
even were explicitly described as being variations of the same game or
activity. In such cases, we considered these activities to be one activity. We
generally only coded activities that were described with sufficient detail to
be confidently classified as an amusement, sham combat, duel, game of
skill, game of luck, or a sport. However, when an ethnographer labeled (but
did not describe in detail) an activity as being identical to one that occurs in
large nation-states, we considered the label to be sufficient for classifica-
tion. Examples included “hide and seek,” chess, and ice hockey. We only
coded activities where the ethnographer had indicated they had observed an
activity that was common in the community. The participants’ sex in some
coded activities could not be determined; although this information was
retained, these activities were not analyzed in this study and are not included
in the Appendix.
Sport Coding
Among sports, we made several classifications. First, we classified each
sport as a combat sport, a hunting sport, or “other” (see Chick & Loy, 2001;
Chick et al., 1997; Sipes, 1973). A combat sport was defined here as one
emphasizing actions that would occur during actual combat for the purpose
of subjugating an opponent and/or inflicting substantial physical harm. The
most frequently occurring combat sports were wrestling (24 occurrences),
boxing (7), and stick fighting (4; see Appendix). Sports such as arm wres-
tling and tug of war were not classified as combat sports because their
actions are not generally employed in combat.
A hunting sport was defined as one involving actions and equipment that
would occur during hunting (or possibly combat) in that society. The most
popular one was archery (19) with nearly all the others involving throwing
darts, stones, sticks, or spears. In all cases, the target could not be another
person; if it was, the sport was considered a combat sport. Actions involving
equipment substantially different than that which would be used in hunting
were not considered hunting sports. For example, the sport played in many
contemporary societies, often in pubs, where small darts are thrown at a
hanging target would not be considered a hunting sport.
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Deaner and Smith 9
“Other” sports included a broad range of activities; the most frequently
occurring were foot race (10) football/soccer (8), tug of war (7), baseball (6),
boat race (6), hockey (6), marbles (6), darts (5), and shinny (5). Although
some of these sports undoubtedly require skills that would be relevant for
combat or hunting (see Sipes, 1973), they were not classified as combat or
hunting unless they met the definitions above.
We also classified sports according to whether they included physical con-
tact. In contact sports, individuals make direct bodily contact with an oppo-
nent (e.g., American football, rugby, arm wrestling, tug of war, hair-pulling
contest) or else make contact with an opponent’s body with a projectile (e.g.,
rock throwing) or implement (e.g., stick fighting). All combat sports were
classified as including physical contact. Sports where participants make con-
tact with a common object but do not regularly direct it towards an oppo-
nent’s body (e.g., tennis) were not considered contact sports. Among sports
with physical contact, we further classified them as requiring contact, fre-
quently involving contact, or rarely involving contact. Examples of sports
requiring contact are noted earlier in this paragraph. Examples of sports fre-
quently involving contact were football (or soccer), basketball, lacrosse, and
hockey. An example of a sport rarely involving contact is baseball (or soft-
ball); pitchers may target hitters or runners may deliberately collide with
fielders, but these events are rare.
We also classified sports and games according to whether they were individ-
ual or team sports. Team sports required that two or more individuals compete
against one or more opposing teams. In some societies, the same general sport
activity is described as occurring among individuals and teams. In these cases, we
classified it as both an individual sport and a team sport. All sports could be clas-
sified as team, individual, or both, save canoe racing in the Andaman.
We initially sought to code activities according to whether they were done
by children, adolescents, adults, or by more than one age group. However, we
found that there was often insufficient information to make such a determina-
tion. Thus, the analyses below pool individuals of all ages.
Variation Across Societies
To assess variation in sex differences in sports across societies, we calculated
what we call the ratio of female to male sports (hereafter F:M sports), which
is defined as the number of female sports (female-only sports plus sports
played by both males and females) divided by the number of male sports
(male-only sports plus ones played by both males and females). The F:M
sports could be calculated for 50 societies and varied from 0 to 0.57.
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10 Cross-Cultural Research XX(X)
Reliability
Initial coding was done independently by the two authors. Agreement was
modest for identification of candidate activities of all kinds (i.e., amuse-
ments, sham combats, duels, games of chance, games of strategy, sports):
ROD coded 473 activities, BAS coded 458, and 334 were common to both;
nearly all of the common ones were included in the final list of 509 activities
(see Appendix). Most disagreements involved, in descending order, the iden-
tification of amusements, distinguishing amusements from …
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When it comes to gender equality, is women’s sports coverage comparable? For sporting
events and sports news, are women catered to as a consumer of sports media?
With the rise of women’s team sports such as women’s basketball, women’s soccer teams and
women’s hockey is the media landscape accommodating and adjusting to this change in
viewer habits?
We look at recent trends in women’s sports – tracking how the cultural and consumer
landscape is shifting.
What’s inside the report?
This report on women’s sports dives into female viewership, profiling a diverse range of fans
and pinpointing key insights.
Download it now to uncover:
As sports viewing moves online what role does televised sport play for female fans?
What are their key attitudinal characteristics, and preferred brands?
How do sports preferences differ amongst age groups, and across global regions?
Which are the surprise hits of online sports that could present opportunities?
Learn about the most watched women’s sports and the most popular women’s sports, in our
global trend report.
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CLOSING THE SPORTS FAN GENDER GAP
Women make up less than half of global sports fans. But many sports are closing the fan
gender gap, some by more than 40% since 2017.
This Sunday marks International Women’s Day, and an opportunity to reflect on and celebrate
the massive strides over recent years towards parity for women in the world of professional
sports.
While we have seen significant progress in terms of increased female representation on the
field and across sports media, increasing (though not consistently equal) pay and prize money,
greater sponsor engagement, and sporting feats of individual brilliance by female athletes, the
reality is that many sports still attract a predominantly male fan base.
in Sport (http://thegembagroup.com/gemba-news/?cat=sport)  March 6, 2020

News

Home

Has the recent increased focus and exposure for women’s sport helped reduce the gender
imbalance among sports fans? Are we closing the sports fan gender gap?
There are many positive signs that sports around the world are working to be more accessible
and appealing to a wider, more diverse audience. Many sports see this as critical to their long-
term sustainability – sports can’t expect to focus on a traditional “pale, male and stale” fan base
and hope to grow sustainable revenues, attract new fans, and continue to build participant
pathways.
From shorter formats (e.g. T20 cricket), more entertainment around a sporting event (e.g.
Formula 1 Grand Prix, Australian Open tennis), and marketing campaigns that speak to different
and diverse fan segments, the sports fan experience has become increasingly accepting (and
acceptable) for all fans.
But which sports are most balanced in terms of gender among passionate fans? Which have
the biggest fan gender gap? And which sports and regions around the world are moving the
needle the most to close the gap?
APPROACHING PARITY
If success on gender parity in sports fandom is that the population of sports fans reflects the
gender split in the overall population, we should be aspiring to a roughly 50:50 split
(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population#Global_demographics) of males and females
among passionate sports fans.
In 2020, according to Gemba Insights global sports fan research, across a basket of 13 of the
world’s most popular sports, women make up 47% of highly engaged, passionate sports fans.
This is up from 45% three years ago, so the fan gender gap is closing.
However, these figures mask some larger gender gaps in specific sports and regions. A relatively
high proportion of female fans in Swimming, Tennis and Volleyball (especially in China) skew the
data closer to parity.
Globally, football (soccer) has only 42% of its fan base being female, almost unchanged since
2017 despite the success of the Women’s World Cup tournament, won by the USA, in 2019.
And in key markets around the world, including Australia, the UK, Japan and the US, sports
fandom remains largely the preserve of men, although the fan gender gap has closed by as
much as 40% in some sports over the past three years.
A NATIONAL SPORT LENS
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population#Global_demographics

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We might expect that the biggest sports in each country could be the ones that appeal most to
female fans; they have more existing fans, more people talk about them and it’s almost
impossible to miss them in the media – hence we’d expect the major national sports to be at
the vanguard of closing the fan gender gap.
In the US, the fan base of American Football (gridiron) is strongly male dominated, with almost
two-thirds of fans being male. Notably, this has not changed since 2017 – the NFL is not closing
its fan gender gap. Yet Basketball, starting from the same level as American Football in 2017,
closed the fan gender gap in 2020 from 11 percentage points to just 7 points – a 36% reduction
in the gender gap to parity in just over three years.
It is no coincidence that Basketball has seen continued growth in both cultural relevance and
commercial outcomes during this time (a key commercial lesson to all rights-holders – expand
your appeal).
Cricket is a major sport in Australia, India and the UK. As a sport, Cricket has closed the fan
gender gap in Australia by 21% since 2017 (from women making up 31% of fans, to 35% in 2020),
and by 27% in the UK (from a low base of 28% up to 34% of fans being female). The strength of
the local women’s leagues (WBBL, for instance) has contributed greatly to the increasing
interest in the sport amongst women. In India, where Cricket is akin to a religion, the gender gap
is much smaller – 47% of Cricket fans there are female.

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Football is perhaps the sport with the most compelling global story to tell around female
engagement over the past few years, with a highly successful World Cup, positive publicity and
strengthening women’s leagues around the world. This has led a narrowing of the gender gap in
Brazil, the US and the UK.

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SPORTS BUILDING PASSION AMONGST FEMALES
We’ve observed a number of other patterns emerging from the data. Gemba’s global research
in 2017 covered 10 countries (Australia, UK, US, Brazil, China, Italy, Spain, Germany, India and
Japan) – though the study has now expanded to 20.  When we looked at each country, we
largely saw what one might expect given the frequent gender bias reported in sport. While there
was an overall male skew, we saw certain sports presenting a larger gender imbalance. American
Football, Boxing and Rugby Union present higher skewed fan profiles toward males, while others
such as Tennis, Volleyball and Swimming demonstrated a more balanced profile.
And in the three intervening years we can demonstrate some positive shifts in this pattern. In
the 13 sports shown in the chart below, the average proportion of female sports fans increased
by 3 percentage points closer to parity, and has increased for all sports apart from Swimming
and Tennis (two sports that already had an equitable fan gender balance).  Rugby Union, Rugby
League, American Football and Boxing – largely archetypal male supported sports – all
experienced a balance shift in favour of females and closer to parity (though their fan bases
remain predominantly male).

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CHANGES BY MARKET
What about the fan gender gap at the country level? In 2017 all countries we analysed apart
from China and India had large fan gender skews towards males. The biggest gender gaps were
in Australia, the UK, the US and Japan.
When we look at the same countries in 2020, most countries have attracted a larger proportion
of females into their fan base. Impressive gains were noted in the UK, the US, Italy (all +5
percentage points closer to parity) and Germany (+6 points closer to parity). In Germany there
is an increasing push to include women in sport – and a recognition of previous under-
acknowledgement of past achievements.  It now honours the country’s best female footballers
in a Hall of Fame, and 2020 marks 50 years since a ban on women’s football was overturned in
Germany.
The overall shifts noted means that women are increasingly more engaged in sport and express
a growing passion toward it.

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A GENERATIONAL SHIFT
The shift in fan balance is a positive outcome for all the hard work currently being undertaken by
the emerging sports stars and administrators alike.  Not all women’s sports are achieving the
attention of Football or Cricket, yet the perseverance to grow the game needs to be
acknowledged.
There are a range of reasons why a person becomes involved in a sport – sometimes it is a
parent taking a child to a game; sometimes it’s kids talking about the sport in the playground or
simply being unavoidably exposed to it if it’s a national pastime.
But there is one sure way to grow passion for a sport and that is to be able to see yourself in the
faces on the sporting field. The last three years has experienced unprecedented growth in
female sport, with more leagues and greater exposure and airtime – and we’ve seen the
emerging passion of female fans as they can increasingly see female athletes on the playing
field.
Those sports that embrace the growth in women’s participation and fandom will continue to
build a new, more diverse generation of fans that will sustain the sport for years to come.
Find out more about Gemba’s global sports and entertainment research at
www.thegembagroup.com/insights (http://www.thegembagroup.com/insights)
http://www.thegembagroup.com/insights

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Research parameters:
Fandom defined as 4 or 5 on a 5-point self-rated passion scale for the given sport
Age 16+
Sample size n=1,000 per country per year
Surveys conducted in each market October/November 2017 and January 2020
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A
Dr. Bri Newland
and
Dr. Ted Hayduk
FEMALE SPORT FANDOM
Insights from the growing female market
Contents
i | Executive Summary
1 | What We Know
2 | Female Fandom Matters
3 | We Need To Know Them
4 | The Players
6 | The Findings
9 | The Insights
10 | Broader Insights
12 | The Wrap Up
13 | References
14 | Appendices
20 | Acknowledgments
i
Understanding female sport fandom is not only important to teams who want to increase
attendance and merchandise sales, but also to brands and sponsors interested in connecting with
this demographic. In the most lucrative North American professional leagues (NHL, NASCAR,
MLS, NBA, MLB, and the NFL) females account for between 37% and 45% of the total market.5
Furthermore, women purchase 46% of official NFL merchandise, spend 80% of all sports apparel
dollars, and control 60% of all money spent on men’s clothing.7 Clearly, being a ‘sport fan’ is no
longer exclusive to men. However, sport organizations still struggle to effectively manage the
female fan experience and cater to their specific behaviors, attitudes, and motivations.
The purpose of this white paper is to help practitioners in the sport industry enhance their
understanding of this consumer segment. To do so, we gathered and analyzed a dataset of 1796
female sport fans from all geographies, age groups, socio-economic backgrounds, and households.
They are fans of a wide range of professional sports – including stalwarts like the NFL, NBA, and
MLB, and niche sport organizations like MLS, eSports, and stock car racing. This group likely
represents the most diverse and representative sample of female fans gathered.
Highlights from the data analysis and the relevant implications for sport practitioners include:
• The following subgroups of females reported more frequent consumption behaviors, more
fervent attitudes about sport consumption, and stronger motivations for consuming sport.
eXeCUtIVe sUMMARY
– Young women and girls
– Women living in urban communities
– Minorities (Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, or Other)
– Working females (employed full time, part time, or self-employed)
– Single females
• The number of children in the household had little to no bearing on female fans’ consumption
behaviors, attitudes towards sport consumption, or motivations for consuming live sport.
This means that fan traits like passion for their favorite team and intent to buy tickets did not
dissipate with children and family obligations
• The consumption behaviors most reliably predicted commonly referenced digital and mobile
technology. These behaviors included consuming online content, learning about, engaging with,
and finding content about their favorite teams, listening to podcasts, and streaming live games.
• Women commonly reported that their sport consumption behaviors were ‘dependent upon’
technology and that technology was essential to their sport fandom. They also reported engaging
with brands via a wide range of social media platforms.
1
Despite the ubiquity of sport
fandom in the United States, there
are far too many assumptions about
and limited research conducted on
female fandom.1 Understanding
female fandom is not only important
to teams who want to increase
attendance and merchandise sales,
but also to brands and sponsors
interested in connecting with this
demographic.
According to Repucon2, 46% of women
are ‘interested’ or ‘very interested’
in sport, with 41% interested in
watching live sport events and 39%
interested in watching sport on TV.
Being a sport fan is no longer exclusive
to men. With the passing of Title IX, a
law that prevented sex discrimination
in schools, girls, and women were
afforded vastly expanded opportunities
to participate in sport.3
Assumption: Women only go to sport
events to be with their husbands or
boyf riends
Assumption:
Women are only
superficial fans;
they don’t know
the technical part
of the game
Assumption: Women only watch sports to socialize.
WHAt
We
KnoW
Unfortunately, while participation
in sport grew, females as major
athletes, employees, fans, and
sport consumers have often not
been taken seriously.1
FeMALe FAnDoM MAtteRs
Female fandom is growing, but their needs
are not being met as sport consumers,
which results in sport organizations and
brands missing critical revenue streams.4
Females make up a significant percentage
of the sport consumer market – ranging
from 37% to 45% for the NHL, NASCAR,
MLS, NBA, MLB, and the NFL.5 However,
sport organizations fail to counteract the
narrative that women are only at games
to spend time with friends, to appease
for women, ignores the myriad interests,
needs, and wants of the female sport
fan.8,9
While some teams are moving away from
everything pink, many of the women’s
jerseys are highly sexualized or cut for
thinner, more petite women. Women
who don’t prefer this sizing have limited
options. Much of the decisions tied to
consumer products are tied to gender
schema theory, where there is a
husbands or boyfriends, or to take their
children – mainly boys.6
Sport organizations should also care about
women because of their purchasing power
in the household. Women purchase 46%
of official NFL merchandise and spend
80% of all sports apparel dollars.7 Further,
women control 60% of all money spent
on men’s clothing.7 Therefore, marketers
who take the time to learn about female
consumers will likely be able to engage
fans beyond gimmicks like pink jerseys,
tiaras, and boas. The ‘shrink it and pink
it’ mentality, where men’s products are
reduced in size and changed in color
tendency to classify everything as male
or female.10 So, assumptions are made
about products for women based on
gender stereotypes rather than asking
what they want.4 While there have been
efforts made to broaden the merchandise
offerings for women, there is still much
that needs to be done in relation to the
female fan experience.4 When the imagery
in venues and ads are of highly sexualized
cheerleaders or ‘hot fans’, clearly the
intended audience is for males, not females.
Teams need to consider what female fans
want in their fan experience.2, 11
3
We neeD to KnoW tHeM
As women gain more control over their activities, including sport, gender is
less likely to influence consumption of sport.12 Therefore, marketers must
move past assumptions and stereotypes about the female fan. Sexism and
stereotypical role expectations of women are omnipresent in sport. Academic
studies as well as posts on mainstream social media suggest that women are
viewed as inauthentic fans who are less knowledgeable and only follow sport
for their partners or social interaction (see figure).2, 11 Therefore, its essential
to understand the interests and behaviors that identify female fandom; and
to realize that it will not look like the traditional male fan behavior.4
The purpose of this study was to chart the trends
that characterize female sport fans’ consumption
behaviors, at titude s, and moti vations.
4
tHe PLAYeRs
This section contains an overview of the female
fan characteristics and the insights. In an effort
to streamline the information and ensure that
relevant details are communicated effectively,
the more technical aspects of the analyses and
findings are included as footnotes.
Of the 1,796 total female participants in the
study, 76.2% were white, 8.7% were black,
6.7% were Hispanic, 4.4% were Asian, 2.2%
were Native American, 1.1% were ‘other’,
and 0.8% preferred not to answer. Over 45%
were married, 37.7% were unmarried (single,
divorced, widowed), and 17% were underage
or did not respond.
T h e f i g u r e s b e l o w i l l u s t r a t e t h e o t h e r
demographic details of the female sample.
76.2% white
45.2% married
18.5%
kids in
house
hold
41.9%
income
over
$50k
5
The first goal of our
analysis of female fans
was to build a general
modeli that sought
to predict a series of
behaviors, attitudes,
and motivations most
commonly associated
with sport fandom. In
this stage, we used eight
demographic variables
to predict 40 individual
We wanted answers to
t wo key que stions:
1. Which ch arac te r is t ics
could predict female
fans’ consumption
behaviors?
2. Which c ate gor ie s of
female fans’ behaviors
can be predicted?
behaviors and 15 attitudes
toward sport consumption, and
12 motives for consuming live
sports.
The second goal of this analysis
was to develop a deeper
understandingii of the trends
highlighted in the first portion
of the analysis by exploring
how groups and subgroups of
females differed in fan behaviors,
attitudes, and motivations.
i Fifteen attitudes, 12 motivations, and 13 behaviors produced cross sectional data that were examined using OLS
linear regression with fixed effects for community type, ethnicity, employment status, marital status, annual
income, and geography – region. Number of children in the household and age were treated as continuous
variables. Another 28 behaviors were analyzed as dichotomous outcomes, phrased in such a way as to allow us
to model the likelihood that a female fan would engage in the consumption behavior at least once per week.
These 28 behaviors were modeled using a logistic model specification.
iiThis stage of the analysis involved using a series of ANOVAS and post-hoc tests to isolate group differences.
6
FInDInGs
7
There were a handful of insights that broadly inform
this study’s main research questions. Table 1 depicts
the 40 outcomes related to sport consumption
behaviors. Each column represents a predictor variable
included in the model. Purple blocks connote that the
predictor was useful,iii while the white boxes
Table 1. Predictive Sport Consumption Behaviors
iii Statistically signficant at the .05 level or better
Strong Predictor Weak Predictor
A
cc
ur
at
el
y
P
re
di
ct
ed
Le
ss
A
cc
ur
at
el
y
P
re
di
ct
ed
indicate no bearing on the outcome. To clarify the interpretation of the tables,
the eight demographic predictors are arranged from left to right in order of most
to least predictive. Additionally, the outcomes for each category are arranged
from top to bottom in order of most accurately to least accurately predicted.
8
Table 2 depicts the 15 outcomes related to sport consumption attitudes. As
with Table 1, each column represents a predictor variable included in the
model – purple indicating a useful predictor.
Table 2. Predictive Sport Consumption Attitudes
Finally, Table 3 depicts the 12 outcomes related to sport consumption
motives.V
iv Statistically significant at the .05 level or better
v Statistically significant at the .05 level or better
Table 3. Predictive Motives for Live Sport Consumption
Strong Predictor Weak Predictor
Strong Predictor Weak Predictor
Le
ss
A
cc
ur
at
el
y
P
re
di
ct
ed
A
cc
ur
at
el
y
P
re
di
ct
ed
Le
ss
A
cc
ur
at
el
y
P
re
di
ct
ed
A
cc
ur
at
el
y
P
re
di
ct
ed
9
InsIGHts
Younger female fans reported stronger fan
behavior and positi ve at titude s than older fans
Younger female fans displayed stronger
moti ve s for li ve sport than older fans
Urban female fans use technology to consume
sport more than those outside of citie s
Minorit y female fans believe li ve sport is more
authentic to watch than white fans
Minorit y female fans use more technology to
consume sport than white fans
10
Several broad themes appear from the model.
1 Female fans’ age was the strongest predictor with
younger females most associated with stronger and
more frequent fan behaviors, more positive attitudes,
and stronger motivations for consuming live sports. For
example, younger female fans are more likely to consume
general online content, stream games, use technology
sources to learn about their team, and follow their favorite
team on social media.
2 Community type – whether the participant lives in an urban, suburban, or rural
community – was the next strongest predictor. Urban fans were more likely to attend
ancillary events and watch on demand programming about their favorite team and
were more technology dependent. Urban fans also were highly motivated by live sport
programming.
BRoADeR InsIGHts
Minorit y fans cle arly stand out in the data – e specially
related to moti ve s to watch sport li ve
3 Female fans’ race predicted female fans’
motivations especially, in addition to quite a
few behaviors and attitudes. For the ethnicity
variable, respondents indicated whether
they were white, black, Latino, Asian, Native
American, or other. Minority fans were
highly motivated by live sport content than
white fans. In particular, watching live made
the fan experience more memorable, helped
them to feel part of a greater community, and
was the most thrilling way to consume sport.
11
4 For working status, follow
up analyses found that working
females (employed full-time,
self-employed, and employed
part-time) engaged in more
frequent consumption behaviors,
significantly more favorable
attitudes, and significantly stronger
motivations for consuming sport
than did non-working females
(students, unemployed, and retired).
Working female fans consume online content,
watch sport li ve, and buy merchandise more than
non-working fans
5 The number of children present in the female fans’
households is an important predictor. This is important for
female fandom because children can have two differing
effects on consumption kids can cause: (a) time and attention
tradeoffs that reduce consumption, or (b) opportunities for
the transference of fandom (parent to child) that can increase
fandom. Surprisingly, the number of children in the household
had little to no bearing on female fans’ consumption behaviors,
attitudes towards sport consumption, or motivations for
consuming sport.
Female fans with children reported the same
levels of passion and fan identit y as those
without children
Female fans with children reported higher levels of sport
consumption addiction than those without children.
12
Women, and sometimes especially girls, tend to be discounted as a target market by sport
practitioners based on traditional gender norms and expectations.10 Sport consumption can be
‘branded’ using traditionally masculine qualities in the news media and popular press, but the rapid
dilution of traditional gender norms has motivated a new crop of young sport consumers, many of
whom are female. 2, 4, 9 Thus, sport practitioners would do well to prioritize this market opportunity
to a greater extent than they have to date. Women and girls can be incorporated into organizations’
Women watch sport li ve because:
• it builds a sense of communit y
• it’s an authentic way to watch
• it’s the most thrilling way to
consume it
• it provide s re al drama in their
li ve s
• they can witne ss histor y
target audience using updated marketing
frameworks that de-gender sport
consumption, or especially by creating brand
and marketing materials that speak directly
to this segment, their interests, and their
motivations.
The urban setting was highly predictive,
especially of technology consumptive
behaviors. Given the closer proximity to
teams in the urban setting, it is unsurprising
that female fans in these areas would express
more sport consumption behavior. However,
region (west, midwest, south, and mideast)
was not at all predictive. Meaning female
fans tend to manifest these behaviors
Antiquated notions of gender stereotypes
around females in sport have long
dominated the thinking about what it
means to be a female in sport.1, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9,
10,11,12 Practitioners in sport organizations
can leverage these insights by creating
opportunities for females to engage in
the ways that they prefer. Moving beyond
stereotypes, providing a fan experience
that is catered to them specifically, and
listening can enhance the relationship
sport organizations have with a major
household decision-maker and spender.
Doing so can enhance revenue streams,
cultivate stronger relationships with
build a fanbase that is truly there for their
own leisure experience.
tHe WRAP UP
13
1. Pope, S. (2017). The feminization of sports fandom: A sociological study. New York, NY:
Routledge.
2. Author Unknown (2017). Women and Sport: Insights into the growing rise and importance
of female fans and damela athletes. Repucom. Retrieved February 2020 from http://
nielsensports.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Women-and-Sport-Repucom.pdf.
3. Staurowsky, E. J. (2019). The impact of Title IX and other equity laws on the business of
women’s sport. In (Eds.) Lough, N., & Geurin, A. N. Routledge Handbook of the Business of
Women’s Sport. New York, NY: Routledge.
4. Harrolle, M. & Kicklighter, K. (2019). Women are sport fans! An examination of female sport
fandom. In (Eds.) Lough, N., & Geurin, A. N. Routledge Handbook of the Business of Women’s
Sport. New York, NY: Routledge.
5. Funk, D. C., Alexandris, K., & McDonald, H. (2016). Sport consumer behaviour: In (Eds.)
Mothersbaugh, D. & Hawkins, D. Consumer behavior: Building Marketing Strategy. New York,
NY: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.
6. Lange, J. (2018, September). Women love baseball, why doesn’t baseball love them back? The
Week. Retrieved from, https://theweek.com/articles/793920/women-love-baseball-why-
doesnt-baseball-love-back.
7. Watson, C. (2015). Fanbase Economics: Engaging female fanbases. Futureof.org. Retrieved
February 2020 from http://futureof.org/sports-2015/fanbase-economics/.
8. Brown, B. & Nutler, B. (2019). Authentically communicating with women consumers:
examining successful (and non-successful) branding and marketing efforts. In (Eds.) Lough,
N., & Geurin, A. N. Routledge Handbook of the Business of Women’s Sport. New York, NY:
Routledge.
9. Newland, B. (2019). The delivery and management of women-only sport events and their
future sustainability. In (Eds.) Lough, N., & Geurin, A. N. Routledge Handbook of the Business of
Women’s Sport. New York, NY: Routledge.
10. Staurowsky, E. J. (2016). Women and sport: From liberation to celebration. Champaign, IL:
Human Kinetics.
11. Sveinson, K., & Hoeber, L. (2016). Female sport fans’ experiences of marginalization and
empowerment. Journal of Sport Management, 30(1), 8-21.
12. McGinnis, L., Chun, S., & McQuillan, J. (2003). A review of gendered consumption in sport and
leisure. Bureau of Sociological Research-Faculty Publications, 2.
ReFeRenCes
http://nielsensports.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Women-and-Sport-Repucom.pdf
http://nielsensports.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Women-and-Sport-Repucom.pdf
https://theweek.com/articles/793920/women-love-baseball-why-doesnt-baseball-love-back
https://theweek.com/articles/793920/women-love-baseball-why-doesnt-baseball-love-back
http://Futureof.org

Fanbase Economics

14
APPenDICes
This section provides a brief snapshot of the preferences of female sport fans by favorite sport,
favorite sport to watch live, interest in sport by favorite athlete or team, and self-reported fan
affinity for sport generally and their favorite sport. The key takeaways are as follows:
• All generations chose the NFL as their favorite, with strong interest in the NCAA basketball and
football, and MLB (for older generations).
• All generations enjoy watching NCAA basketball and football as well as motorsport live. Older
generations enjoy watching MLB live.
• Female Gen Zs and millennials had the largest portion that felt more attached to their favorite
athlete than team. However, all four generations follow the team more than the athlete.
• When asked to rate their fan affinity, all generations felt they were an average fan, generally.
However, Gen Zs rated their general sport fandom as a ‘strong fan’, as well.
• When asked the same question about fan affinity about their favorite team, all four generations
rated themselves as ‘strong fans’ on average. Very few rated themselves as obsessed or addicted
fans, which is consistent with their passion findings – most were found to have harmonious
passion over obsessive passion or addiction.
15
GENERATION X FAVORITE SPORT
16
GENERATION X FAVORITE SPORT TO WATCH LIVE
17
GENERATION X FAVORITE ATHLETE OR TEAM
18
GENERATION X GENERAL FAN AFFINITY
19
GENERATION X FAVE SPORT FAN AFFINITY
Dr. Bri Newland
and
Dr. Ted Hayduk
Special acknowledgements to Ben Valenta and FOX Sports for
sponsoring this research partnership
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
WHAT WE KNOW
FEMALE FANDOM MATTERS
WE NEED TO KNOW THEM
THE PLAYERS
FINDINGS
INSIGHTS
BROADER INSIGHTS
THE WRAP UP
REFERENCES
APPENDICES
Acknowledgments




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