Nearly Half Of All NFL Fans Are Female, Yet 63% Face Harassment. What Will The League Do To Change This?

As part of their push to diversify and expand their fanbase, the NFL in March 2020 announced that women now make up 47% of all football fans in the US. Celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8 by releasing this statistic seems like it is signaling the dawning of a new era. As shared by who reported on the news from the NFL earlier this year, “more women watched Super Bowl LIV than the Grammys, Oscars and Emmys combined.”

But how is the league ensuring their female fans are treated equally and not being subjected to typical “locker-room”-type platitudes or harassment, because data shows that many of these women experience sexism quite often when it comes to their favorite pastime. And it’s not just the NFL, but hockey, baseball and basketball leagues that also see rife sexism toward female fans.

To learn more about this area, recently surveyed over 1000 women who follow one or more of the 4 major sporting leagues to find out how they are treated by other fans.

Female Fan Favorites

Ciara inspired women and girls in 2019 when she became part-owner of the Seattle Sounders soccer team. In a social media post, Ciara proudly announced she is now one of a handful of female sports team owners. Who are a few of the others? Four of the women belong to the NFL: Virginia Halas McCaskey (Chicago Bears), Patricia Rooney (Pittsburgh Steelers), Norma Hunt (Kansas City Chiefs), and Martha Ford (Detroit Lions).

While Major League Soccer (MLS) has recently grown in popularity, nearly 52% of the female fans in our study followed the NFL. One in 5 were MLB supporters, 17.8% were behind the NBA, and about 10% were hockey fans.

The Women’s World Cup broke viewership records, but as our findings confirm, that’s not the standard. Only 12% of female fans said they follow women’s sports leagues. Tom Brady and LeBron James were the favored players among women in our study, and only men (Aaron Rodgers, Stephen Curry, and Drew Brees) made the top five.

Harassment Experiences

Playing on the field is intense, but sometimes, things can get a little hectic in the stands. Twenty-three percent of female fans reported experiencing harassment at sporting events, with football fans experiencing it more than female fans of any other league.

Any behavior that threatens or offends someone is defined as harassment. Female fans in our study experienced disrespectful comments more than any other type of undesired conduct (78.4%), and MLB fans were most often the victims. Meanwhile, about 58% of female NBA fans heard sexist comments.

Women experienced harassment at stadiums (68.2%) more than they did at bars (59.2%) or on social media (34.3%). Thirty-six percent of NFL fans encountered harassment on social media, but 81.4% of MLB female fans were forced to deal with unwanted behavior at the stadium.

Are Female Fans Respected?

Being a sports fan could be about many things: honor, passion for a home state, placing bets, and respect. According to our findings, the majority of female fans felt respected, but many were quizzed about their team and game knowledge, with 20% of women being called “fake fans.”

Female fans of the NHL were the most likely to be questioned about their team knowledge (37.7%), compared to 40.4% of MLB fans who were quizzed on their understanding of the game. Nearly 70% of women were asked to name their favorite team’s players, making it the most common question. Following the name game, female fans were asked what position their favorites played (57.4%) and current season stats (54.9%).

Women in the Stands

Sports have been male-dominated for years, but our findings show that female fans are aplenty. Women enjoy watching their favorite teams play, and they engage with other supporters at stadiums, bars, and on social media. However, a significant number of women prefer cheering on their teams from home because they fear harassment. As major leagues consider the inclusion of women in sports matters, creating safe spaces for them to enjoy the game, online and offline, may need to be considered.

If the numbers of female fans continue to grow as recent years have shown, throwing money at initiatives like Breast Cancer Awareness, celebrity clothing lines and other accessories (like the NFL has done) will not be enough. As Jane Goodell, wife of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in 2017, it makes business sense for sporting leagues to better understand the culture of rife sexism and take a stand against it.

“If you think about it, 45 percent of the fan base of the NFL is women, that’s growing, so it kind of makes sense to me,” Jane Goodell told USA Today at the time. “It’s an opportunity for the league to listen to what their fans want, to focus more on women.”