Examining Gender and Power in Fantasy Sports

This week in North Philly Notes, Rebecca Joyce Kissane and Sarah Winslow, co-authors of Whose Game?, discuss fantasy sports and a COVID-19 world without sports.  

Over the last few weeks, sports fans have witnessed the cancellation and postponement of nearly all sporting events and seasons. Colleges and universities took the lead, with the Ivy League cancelling their basketball tournaments on March 10, 2020. Others (e.g., the Golden State Warriors) moved from announcing plans to play games without spectators to pausing, delaying, or cancelling specific events and/or entire seasons. The NBA suspended the 2019-2020 season on March 11th after a player tested positive for the virus, and on March 13th, the NCAA cancelled March Madness and all its basketball championship tournaments; the NHL suspended its 2019-2020 season; U.S. soccer cancelled women’s and men’s national teams matches for March and April; the PGA cancelled its March tournaments; and the MLB cancelled spring training games and delayed the start of the regular season by at least two weeks. All this left sports fans and reporters wondering how to survive a world without sports and suggesting ways to cope with this sudden loss

Whose_GameCOVID-19, however, also directly impacts a parallel sporting universe important to millions of Americans—fantasy sports. The absence of live and televised sporting events also means the absence of fantasy sports, which depend upon the performance of real athletes to determine scoring, and, thus, wins and losses. In our book, Whose Game? Gender and Power in Fantasy Sports, we focus on everyday participants’ perspectives on traditional fantasy sports—those fantasy sports in which the players manage their teams over the course of an entire season alongside people they typically know. A key motivator for playing fantasy sports is entertainment, but we find that the hobby is more than just a simple source of enjoyment for players. This is particularly so for men who numerically, ideologically, and structurally dominate the hobby and often render women outsiders. Fantasy sports offer a personalized, competitive fandom that gives participants more potent and direct feelings of control over and connection to the successes of real-life athletes than being a regular sports fan does. White, highly educated, professional men (who represent the average player) can use fantasy sports to achieve and perform an expanded yet legitimate form of masculinity we call jock statsculinity. Jock statsculinity contains elements of traditional masculinities, as men utilize fantasy sports to exert control, compete, and exercise dominance. But jock statsculinity also has a nerdy quality, insofar as competition and dominance in this space center on testing and demonstrating intellectual acumen and knowledge of statistics and sports. Additionally, jock statsculinity involves a boyish element, as men play, act juvenilely, and relive their childhood dreams of being involved in professional sports. Finally, we find that jock statsculinity is about escape—as men use the hobby to blow off steam and avoid demanding aspects of work and home.

What’s more, fantasy sports provide participants with a reason to interact with others and a valued topic of conversation. Men make greater use of and depend more fully on fantasy sports than women to “stay in touch” and bond with, typically, the men in their friend groups. Notably, this bonding frequently rests upon trash and dominance talk, which further support masculine hierarchies and, at times, create discord. Sometimes, too, men express getting overly emotional, lashing out, and finding their day or week “ruined” by fantasy sports disappointments.

Given our findings, the (hopefully temporary) loss of sports and fantasy sports in the wake of COVID-19 mean more than just a loss of entertainment and a leisure activity. For men, it means the loss of a key vehicle by which they can perform and accomplish masculinity. We see suggestions of this throughout social media as men lament having to spend “the evening with my girlfriend watching Real House Wives of New Jersey” [sic] instead of participating in the appropriately masculine world of sports. Moreover, fantasy sports’ virtual platform make it ideally suited to keeping people socially connected while maintaining physical distance. Without sporting events, this potential is unrealizable. This may be particularly challenging for men, who rely heavily on fantasy sports to bond and keep in touch with family members and friends. This suggests that they will feel the socially isolating effects of COVID-19 more so than women who are more likely to have other outlets for connection. Lastly, Whose Game? demonstrates how fantasy sports provide a key respite from the demands of work and, particularly for men, home. As work and home meld, particularly for the typical highly educated fantasy sports player likely to now be working remotely, the loss of fantasy sports will leave many scrambling for other ways to relax and connect.

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