Bleachers Full of Women? The question of gender equality in MLS supporters’ culture

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Recalling the 2014 Independent Supporters’ Council meeting, Cidne Christensen, then president and now secretary/treasurer of Real Salt Lake’s Rogue Cavaliers Brigade supporters’ group, says that it was her “and probably just two other women around the table.” Since then, that number has slowly begun to climb. This year, Christensen could count almost 10.

“Women have been involved. They’ve come to the table. They want more,” she said about the change.

There’s no longer any denying that there is inequality in the men’s and women’s games, both nationally and internationally. One of the most widely cited facts is that the U.S. women’s national team was awarded $2 million in prize money for winning the World Cup — the same tournament in which the U.S. men’s team won $9 million for finishing 11th. The former were also forced to play turf games while the latter never did.

At home, the maximum salary for a senior roster player in the National Women’s Soccer League ($37,000) is just over half the minimum salary for a senior Major League Soccer player ($60,000 in 2015 increased to $62,500 in 2016). And just this week, the U.S. Soccer Federation spent seven figures on a marketing campaign surrounding their new crest — a crest that is only really for the men’s team, since the women’s crest will still keep their stars to reflect their three World Cup wins. (The crest unveiling is even tagged under only “MNT,” not “WNT,” on USSoccer.com).

However, the question still remains whether there is more equality for those who watch as opposed to those who play. Is it still a “man’s game” as much on the bleachers as it is in players’ treatment and financial records?

Is it still a “man’s game” as much on the bleachers as it is in players’ treatment and financial records?

Gilt Edge Soccer Marketing’s “Soccer in America 2015” summary report says that U.S. supporters’ culture is almost evenly divided: 51% male and 49% female. And 28% of fans are more into soccer now than they ever have been before, which is exactly the trend Cidne Christensen cited to account for not just the general growth of interest in soccer but the growing interest of women specifically that she noticed at ISC.

Ami Rivera, President of Philadelphia Union’s supporters group Sons of Ben, also said she has noticed that “while I think most supporters’ groups are still predominantly comprised of men, [female members] have steadily increased in numbers particularly following the attention and success of the 2015 Women’s World Cup.” And as Christensen and Rivera’s prominent roles show, women’s presence not just within supporters’ groups, but also on their boards, is increasing as well.

But female fanhood isn’t just a question of numbers.

NYCFC’s Blue Ladies SC, a self-described “social group for NYCFC’s female supporters,” have around 1,200 Twitter followers and host regular and well attended meet-ups and watch parties. Though the Blue Ladies told Hudson River Blue that they are happy to have made “something for every female supporter of NYCFC,” that the female supporters felt they needed something, or something else, might signal the problems underneath the surface equality. As member Mei-Ling Hyler said, women on the Third Rail’s page (NYCFC’s first and largest independent supporters’ group) would sometimes be asked if they were single in response to their posts — or they wouldn’t post anything at all, for fear of being mocked.

“[The Blue Ladies] is just about making a safe place for ladies to talk about football without being judged by dudes,” member Kaetlin Perna added.

These are, perhaps, just growing pains. The Dallas Beer Guardians used to have a similar setup, the DBGG, where the girls could get together and do stuff on their own — although President Bailey Brown explains that the group hasn’t been touched in years.

In fact, gender is such a non-issue in the Dallas Beer Guardians that last season they had a full-female capo stand, meaning all the capos for one half of the game were females, for the first time. It wasn’t planned, nor was it a publicity stunt; it was just how the rotation of the capos fell, and there are enough female capos that it has happened in several games since.

“That was huge. It’s what the cameras see,” Brown revealed. “It shows that ‘hey, it’s not just boys running the show, it’s everybody.’”

However, Brown does concede that gender is not a non-issue in supporters’ group culture as a whole. “I do find that sometimes, when some people find out I’m a supporter, they ask me if I had a boyfriend that I went to the games with. But I can tell them, ‘No, I became a season ticket holder and a supporter on my own.’”

Being a supporter in general might raise these questions, but it is promising that neither Brown, nor Rivera, nor Christensen said they ran into any issues as female leaders — even though both Brown and Christensen were the first female presidents of their respective groups.

Within their groups, they are supporters and leaders, without gender coming in to play as a qualifier or adjective at all. When criticisms do come in, they are always about the welfare and direction of the group.

In their tenure as members and leaders, the three women have seen more and more join them in the group and on the board as women begin to gain more interest in soccer and in getting more heavily involved. So while Brown and the Blue Ladies members will certainly not be the last to have their roles as independent supporters’ questioned on the basis of their gender (or their relationship status), at least U.S. supporters’ culture is getting closer to becoming a place where, as Brown describes the Dallas Beer Guardians, “everybody just belongs.”

Follow Gaby Kirschner on Twitter @GabyKirschner.