The Real Score: Women face few fan gear options

KATIE SVEINSON

KATIE SVEINSON

Published: 11-16-2023 5:56 PM

As the holidays approach and Black Friday deals abound, you might consider starting your gift shopping. A great idea for sports enthusiasts is to give them gear or items related to their favorite team.

Wearing sports fan clothing is crucial for expressing loyalty to favorite teams and players, according to studies. Yet, finding the right style, fit, or design is often challenging, and there can be a general shortage of options. My research highlights that this is a common issue, especially for women who are sport fans.

More and more women are becoming sports fans. For instance, in the National Football League (NFL), women and girls aged 8 and above make up 46% of the fanbase. In the U.S., women constitute 46% of the women’s soccer fanbase and 38% of the men’s soccer fanbase. However, despite this growth, my research shows that many women feel frustrated with the available clothing options.

In my interviews with women fans of men’s major league teams, a common issue was dissatisfaction with available clothing. Many disliked items that were pink, bedazzled, sequined, low-cut, or too fitted. They felt that feminized clothing made it seem like their gender was more important than their fan identity. Specifically, if the clothing didn’t match the team’s colors, it created a sense of disconnection. Due to limited options, many women would gravitate to and purchase items from the “men” or “youth” sections.

This isn’t just an issue for women who are fans — it extends to negative reactions when overly feminine items are marketed to girls. In another study, I looked at people’s responses to a U.S. Soccer tweet promoting girls’ apparel. The clothes were pink, sparkly, and labeled with terms like “cutie.” Out of the many tweets analyzed, a whopping 99% were negative. People felt these items implied girls lacked athletic skills and focused too much on appearance, accusing the organization of sexist marketing. This goes to show that sports clothing is more than just what fans wear; it holds symbolic meaning. The backlash reflects consumers’ values on gender equity, affecting how they see the organization.

In a different study, I explored five National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) teams’ online stores for how clothing was marketed and designed for men and women. After looking at 280 items, it appeared that women’s fan clothing often sticks to traditional ideas of how women should look as fans, including a feminine shape and lower necklines. The way these clothes are sold tends to focus more on how they look, with being a fan coming second. While the men’s clothing also followed the typical ideas of how men should look as fans, such as having a uniform look and not much variety, the overall marketing of these items focused more on showing an explicit fandom and ensuring comfort and function with team clothing.

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What implications does this have for holiday shoppers seeking to purchase team gear for the women fans in their lives? It’s important to remember that women are not “one-size-fits-all” and have varying needs and wants. My research suggests that some women want to show their fandom without having to put their gender first. Spend time looking for those items that come in varying sizes, have the team colors, and allow the fan in your life to showcase their strong connection to their team while feeling comfortable.

Though some fans may want items that are sparkly or fitted, other women fans may want items that are commonly found in men’s or youth’s section of stores. Think about what clothing will make the fans feel and look good by their own standards, and consider looking at alterative stores for fan clothing, such as Artisan options on Etsy and local or small businesses that offer more variation than Fanatics. And of course, keep the receipt!

Katie Sveinson is a PhD Coordinator and Assistant Professor of Sport Management at the University of Massachusetts. Katie can be reached at ksveinson@umass.edu.