By Nicole Fernandes
Riding the subway, Rania Elhilali was wearing a hoodie repping one of her favourite sports teams, the Toronto Raptors.
She could feel the eyes of a group of guys occasionally glancing in her direction. Eventually, she picked up on what one of them said.
“Sports merch has become a fashion statement.”
Elhiali approached and confronted them. “Excuse me?”
“It’s true,” the guy said. “You probably took it from your brother’s closet.”
Elhilali, a Grade 11 student at Gibraltar Leadership Academy, tried to explain her love for basketball. Despite showing him that she knew her stuff, the guy dismissed her.
“You like them because they’re tall and hot,” he added.
“It was awful,” Elhilali said. “The fact that I had to prove my love for sports.”
Being forced to justify their passion for sports is an exhausting process that female fans have unfortunately gotten used to. Stereotypically, men are believed to be more “authentic” fans. However, statistics show that the ratio of men to women in fan bases isn’t as unbalanced as people think.
In 2017, women made up 45 per cent of the National Football League (NFL) fan base, according to a study by Athletic Business, a company that conducts studies for professional sports leagues. That’s nearly half of the league’s fan base, but sexism is still apparent in sports culture and women are constantly judged, mistreated, and invalidated.
Men tend to believe that women only watch sports for attractive players. To Jessica Pincente, a third-year sport media student at Ryerson University, this stereotype is the most troubling one of all.
“That assumption is inherently sexist and that’s detrimental to female fans who just want to be a part of sports culture,” Pincente said.
“You probably took it from your brother’s closet”
Women also get questioned about their knowledge of sports, which only adds to the sexism that exists in sports culture.
“When I was in high school there would be guys who were like, ‘Oh, you’re a big fan of the Leafs? Who’s their second pairing?” Pincente said. “All that stuff that people make memes about, that actually did happen.”
As a result, some women keep their support to themselves to avoid confrontation from men.
“I tend to watch myself more with what I say,” said Patricia Dumlao, a first-year practical nursing student at Humber College. “I’m scared that some guy would come in and be like, ‘Oh, you’re wrong.’ That’s something I never want to experience.”
While hiding their interest may be easier for some women, other fans are unconditional about their love for sports, regardless of the comments and gazes from men.
Alesia Bianchi, a first-year funeral services student at Humber College, is a proud Montreal Canadiens fan who doesn’t let men get in the way of her love for hockey.
“When I hang out with a lot of my friends, we do mostly talk about sports,” Bianchi said. “We talk about hockey, the playoffs, the stats.”
With that being said, there have been a couple changes to start supporting and empowering female fans.
In Toronto, Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment (MLSE) has celebrated International Women’s Day at games in the past. This year, they introduced a new initiative to show love to their passionate female fans.
“Sports is known for being a guy thing. But we enjoy sports, too.”
The Maple Leafs, Raptors and Toronto FC will each host a Powered By Female Fans game this March. “Powered by Female Fans is intended to bring women who love sports together and hopes to change the narrative around how professional sports leagues view female fandom,” Shannon Hosford, chief marketing officer at MLSE, wrote in an email.
Hosford said it’s more about “evolving” how female fans are treated in and outside of the arena.
Victoria Marji, a second-year human resources management student at York University, was on the verge of tears when she thought about the initiative.
“I get taken back by it because we’re not just seen as girls who think athletes are cute,” Marji said. “We actually appreciate them and see their hard work.”
Things are starting to move in the right direction with initiatives like this. Still, there’s room for more improvement to make experiences better for female fans in the future.
“We don’t want to be shut out all the time,” Bianchi said.
“Just keep an open mind,” Marji said. “Sports is known for being a guy thing. But we enjoy sports, too.”
Sports allows a diverse range of people to unite for a single cause. Anyone can enjoy them, whether they have minimal or vast knowledge. Whether they’re passionate or quiet. Whether they’re male, female, or any other gender identity. For Elhilali and others alike, that shouldn’t matter.
“We‘re not fangirls,” Elhilali said. “We’re fans.”