Imagine a scenario; you’re a football fan. It’s the 89th minute of your favourite football team’s game against your biggest rival. It’s 1-1 and they have just been awarded a penalty. How do you feel? Tense? Maybe even stressed? What if they then go on to score that penalty…
Research has shown that the ‘anxiety hormone’, cortisol, is released in football fans’ brains during moments of high stress in a game and the ‘happy hormone’, dopamine, is released when their team wins. The emotional roller-coaster of the highs and lows experienced by sports fans whilst watching their team play can be both emotionally and physically draining.
But what is it that drives people to invest so much time and energy into watching sport? Can this be different for men and women? Could motivation to watch sport explain the disparity between male and female engagement in sport?
The sense of belonging
When exploring what motivates people to watch sport, Populus found a crucial reoccurring theme; sport provides a sense of belonging and a connection for like-minded people. This feeling of connection can be seen as the catalyst for negotiating your place within the group – if you know about football, then you can connect with others that know about football; essentially, being accepted into the ‘group’. The desire to feel a sense of belonging is a universal emotional need and human motivation. Whether it is family, friends, religion or sport; we have a tendency to be drawn into groups to be a part of something greater than ourselves.
However, this feeling of belonging within sport is something that women struggle with. 48% of women do not believe they fit in with sports groups compared to 32% of men. Furthermore, 50% of men said that sports make them feel part of something, in comparison with only 29% of women.
When looking at young women in particular, the idea that sport doesn’t feel inclusive goes even further with half (47%) of 18-24 year olds finding sports teams ‘very cliquey’.
Many female sports fans struggle to be taken seriously and feel that they are regarded as less committed than male fans simply because of their gender. Women are frequently patronised for enjoying sport; regarded by their male counterparts with suspicion and even occasionally tested, a familiar question is – so what is the offside rule then?
Building a community
There is an opportunity to reach out to a wider audience by appealing to women who would have previously never considered watching sport. By shifting the narrative to focus on attracting women (rather than just men) and using language that is more inclusive of all women, sport can begin to create a sense of connection and belonging. Ultimately, we need to build a sporting community that women want to feel part of.
I think we need to make [women’s sport] its own brand so it can appeal to different people.
Maggie Alphonsi, MBE