The Utah gymnastics team opened their season earlier this month with a crowd of 13,339—a good 2,500 or so more fans than the Runnin’ Utes men’s basketball team drew to any game up to that point. Granted, the gymnastics opener featured the “Red Rocks,” No. 3 in the national polls, going up against top-ranked rival Georgia, while the hoops program is going through a rebuilding phase. Gymnastics tickets are also a bit cheaper ($5-$25 for men’s basketball, $4-$20 for gymnastics including some no-cost seats), and there are fewer gymnastics meets than basketball games.
Still, it’s not every campus where more people will show up to watch pixies doing flips in Spandex instead of sweaty guys throwing a ball through an iron ring. What explains the ability of the gymnastics team to draw such crowds? Three words: Chicks dig it. Although we live in an age when women can participate in nearly any sport men can, when it comes to which sports most women will watch other women participate in—calling it “girl-on-girl viewing” makes it seem more exciting—ratings for the summer and winter Olympics usually bear out that sports like gymnastics and figure skating draw viewers with two X chromosomes. In other words, sports where appearance and apparel play a role and contestants are judged by comparing them with other women.
What in the name of Title IX is going on here? When the U of U women’s basketball team takes the floor at the Huntsman Center, they seem to exemplify everything that particular law was designed to bring about when it was passed in the 1970s. They are athletic, determined, confident and competitive while working together as a team. They defy stereotypes and demand to be taken seriously on their own terms. They break down barriers in an area previously dominated by men. And they typically play in front of crowds of just over 1,000 even though their most expensive tickets are $5.
That lack of support isn’t only the fault of those fueled by testosterone. I spent several years covering men’s and women’s high school and college sports, and at any women’s event, I could always count on seeing more men than women in the crowd. It’s been my experience that men will show up to watch women’s sports and take them seriously, if the athletes are people they know. While men could certainly do a better job of supporting women’s athletics (please, no athletic-supporter jokes about athletes who don’t wear them), for many of the women who do choose to spend a night out at a sporting event, it’s petite girls who get their hair done before the meet who take precedence over feminist icons.
A similar phenomenon could be seen in politics recently, when Hillary Clinton broke into tears at a campaign stop in New Hampshire. While many men cringed at the thought of an open weeper negotiating nukes with Iran, Hillary’s campaign was propelled to victory in that state because women who had previously been eyeing Obama and Edwards jumped on the Clinton bandwagon so fast they left the pollsters and pundits bewildered. It seemed a significant number of ladies weren’t interested in the fact that Hillary’s really got some balls. They wanted to know she was really one of them.
Translating over to sports, while the female basketball players who play tough man-on-man defense may be the sisters other women most admire, they seem to have a much stronger identification with the petite princesses who compete while accompanied by music.
Geoff Griffin confesses to being a male who has no idea why women do anything.
U of U Women’s Basketball
vs. New Mexico, Wednesday, Jan. 23 @ 7 p.m.
vs. Colorado State Saturday, Feb. 2 @ 3 p.m.
U of U Men’s Basketball
vs. TCU, Saturday, Jan. 26 @ noon
vs. Wyoming, Wednesday, Jan. 30 @ 8 p.m.
U OF U Gymnastics
vs. Minnesota, Friday, Feb. 1 @ 7 p.m.