Bleachers Full of Women: Are American clubs treating women as fans or products?

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A month ago, Howler explored how female fans are treated by other fans. But how are they treated by their clubs?

On Thursday afternoon, NASL club Miami FC tweeted a short video of two women — actually, “babes” — excited about their weekend plans to attend the club’s home opener in order to sell tickets to the match. “Join these babes,” it encouraged before offering a ticket link. “Join these babes,” it encouraged — not the players, the team, or the other fans. The question that lingers after reading is not “how much are tickets?” but “what exactly is the team selling?”

Over the years, U.S. clubs have incorporated women into their marketing strategies in a variety of ways. Having cheerleaders is one. The Cosmos Girls, which their club’s official website boasts are “the first cheerleaders for a soccer team in the world,” are also considered “enthusiastic team ambassadors.” The Fort Lauderdale Strikers have a dance team, as well. Though certainly a staple of American sports, and though not specifically a marketing tool, the question of whether the existence of cheerleaders at all is sexist has long been debated.

A now defunct group by a similar name is the Revs Girls, who were the New England Revolution’s promotional group from 2009 to 2015. Though they were not cheerleaders in the same way the Cosmos Girls are, the Revs Girls had some similar duties, rallying the fans during halftime and “running promotions at games.” But what was under the surface?

As former Revs Girl Jamie McIntyre explained, “I mean, when it’s all said and done, I believe we all knew deep down that part of our purpose — or really [the purpose of] any promo team for that matter — is to have ‘pretty’ [and] ‘young’ girls in the community to attract the male fan base.”

Jaime Kavanagh, another former Revs Girl, added: “I really enjoyed being a Revs Girl, [but] I wish it [had been] more dance-team based as opposed to just standing and looking nice at the games.”

Even though several of the women were soccer players or fans themselves before joining the organization, and though most of them cited their favorite days being those they spent doing charity — former Revs Girl Allison Bergon’s favorite days were at Boston’s Children’s Hospital and Jaime’s best memory is of the Buzz Off for Cancer — that’s not what they were seen or remembered for. Now, the co-ed Battalion has taken their place and, as more of a street team and less of a dance squad, seems to be much more well received.

Of course, representing women in soccer as such surface level participants — even if what is actually being presented is much deeper, as in the case of the Revs girls — is not universal. Mostly, marketing within U.S. Soccer has been gender inclusive or gender-less (take MLS’s promotional video for the All-Star game, for example) and both male and females fans still turn up. But when that isn’t the case, a very important line is blurred: the difference between marketing to women and marketing women. The distinction lies in who is being marketed to, who is being asked specifically to come to the games. And in the case of the latter, it is men.

Double Standards

Besides the fact that using pretty women to sell a product isolates the half of the human population they’re promising will be in attendance, it exposes the double standard underlying what men and women are allowed to find appealing. The trope that women only like sports to impress men or because they find the players attractive is the oldest one in the book. It permeates every sport, not just soccer (for example, baseball most recently). A New Times article offers, almost incredulously, that “contrary to the common belief, it is not just to gawk at the attractive and well-toned bodies of football players like Christiano [sic] Ronaldo or Neymar; they are actually passionate about football.”

While women’s supportership is often laughed off because of these stereotypes, Miami’s marketing campaign is debatably offering time with women more than it is selling you on an actual soccer game. Ironically, the women being used in the campaign would more quickly be derided for only supporting in order to attract men than men responding positively to the campaign would be derided for only supporting to meet women. A campaign whose message is essentially “if the sport wasn’t enough on its own, it will be if we include women,” or the use of pretty women at halftime who dance or throw T-shirts, still does not undermine the fact that men’s love for the sport itself is assumed, while women often are told to prove that they do truly like the sport and not just the players in order to earn the same respect.

It is true that objectification can go both ways, and that of course any woman is free to participate in any advertisement or organization she so chooses just as Ronaldo is free to pose as much as he wants in his underwear. But this brings women one step farther away from being viewed as just fans. They used to be there just to watch men, and now they are there to be watched by men. Such a narrow view of how and why women participate in sports is a trope that needs to be destroyed, not multiplied, because while being a soccer fan comes with a lot of emotions, lust doesn’t need to be one of them.


Follow Gaby Kirschner on Twitter @GabyKirschner.


Originally published at www.howlermagazine.com on April 9, 2016.