In 2015, Casey Bednarczyk fell in love with the sport of soccer. A decade after quitting her Illinois town’s soccer league, 18-year-old Bednarczyk watched a match of the 2015 Women’s World Cup at a friend’s urging. And then another. Then another. Soon, she and her friend were texting about the tournament regularly — and were there to cheer the U.S. women’s national soccer team when it won the whole thing.
The World Cup ended, but Bednarczyk’s appetite for soccer didn’t. She attended a Chicago Red Stars match at SeatGeek stadium with a friend who didn’t know anything about the sport. “I was worried that I’d have to explain soccer to her,” Bednarczyk recalled, not yet acquainted with the rules. “But I was excited to be in that environment of people who supported women’s sports.”
Bednarczyk couldn’t have known it then, but SeatGeek stadium would soon become the nexus of her romantic, social, and professional lives. Now, most weeks during the soccer season, you can find Bednarczyk in Section 126, chattering with other season ticket holders — including her girlfriend, whom she met in the stands. She now even works as a communications intern for the Red Stars.
“A lot of my free time is spent watching soccer or talking about soccer. But it goes beyond just the sport. It’s actual camaraderie and friendship,” Bednarczyk told Refinery29.
For women and men alike, sport spectatorship can be a source of fulfillment and fun. “It’s lent a sense of drama to my life,” Bednarczyk said. Within SeatGeek stadium, Bednarczyk found a community of sports-lovers with whom she can ride the season’s highs and lows.
But actually finding that community, as a woman sports fan, can be a challenge. The first time Twanna Hines, a 46-year-old sex educator and founder of Funky Brown Chick, walked into Smithfield Hall in New York at seven in the morning to catch a Manchester United game, the bar’s predominantly male spectators jumped to their usual conclusions.
“When I showed up, they didn’t think I was there because I wanted to watch the game and was a huge supporter. They assumed I was either someone’s girlfriend or I was there to pick up a guy,” Hines said.
In fact, Hines had been a die-hard Manchester United fan since the late ‘90s, back when she was living in London and working as a bartender. Like Bednarczyk, the World Cup was a gateway to general soccer fandom. “I got World Cup fever. I got bored by the idea of not having anything to watch for four years, so I started getting into Premiere League,” Hines said.
Eventually, it became obvious to everyone that Hines could keep up with the other Man U fans watching the games at Smithfield Hall. She joined in on the fan chants and interjected her own opinions in fevered game commentary. “I became friends with them. They could say, 'Not only she knows what the fuck is going on in the game, she knows who the players are, she knows who used to play in the game, who used to be in the team, she’s absolutely a fan.' They know I’m legit.”
Still, to gain entry, Hines had to prove herself. The implication of the bar-goers’ first reaction, of course, is that these aggressive, team-based sports aren’t meant for women fans. A woman cheering on a gymnastics floor routine during the Summer Olympics? Sure. But keeping up with a soccer game? Yeah, right.
“I don't want to call out the fragile male ego, but sports has always societally been a ‘guys’ thing.’ They don't want women to come into their space like that,” Emily Morgenstern, a 22-year-old avid soccer and baseball fan, told Refinery29.
So what happens when women fans do come into that space? Morgenstern is used to guys at bars calling her love for the Chicago Cubs “cute.” But interactions can be more charged — like the time in 2016 when a man at a bar overheard Morgenstern remark on the game and said she probably wasn’t actually a Cubs fan. “I rattled off more stats and info than he could keep up with, and he walked away,” Morgenstern said.
Most women fans have a similar story. When Jennifer De La O was in her early 20s, she went into a sports bar in Florida to catch a soccer match. In no time, the chattering began: “‘She’s here to pick up a dude. Or she’s here to impress a guy. What does she know about soccer?’” De La O recalled.
It’s been nearly a decade, and De La O hasn’t returned to a sports bar by herself since. “You’re just inviting harassment. I’d go to my hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant by myself to watch a game because I know everyone there and it’s like family,” De La O said.
Alternatively, some women fans find defying expectations its own kind of sport. Karen Anderson, a 47-year-old former professional squash player and coach based in Jamaica, tends to avoid sports bars — but when does go, she can’t resist joining in on men’s conversations.
“I love throwing a statement every now and then just to see the lightbulb turning in their head and the wheels spinning,” Anderson said.
This kind of friction between men and women fans isn’t limited to sports. “It’s very typical when women express interest in what is typically male dominated spaces,” De La O said. She’s bonded with her friends that are fans of comics or Star Wars about one particularly grating of aspect being a woman fan: The quizzing.
Knowing random trivia becomes the measure of a woman fan’s worth and legitimacy. Angela Sullivan, a 24-year-old soccer fan (who’s also a part of Bednarczyk’s crew), describes the typical torrent. “There’s an onslaught of questions. But they don't care about my answers to the questions — they’re just curious about how much I know,” Sullivan said. “It’s definitely harassment because there's no letting up once it starts.”
Playful oneupmanship is a part of fandom, but the game adopts a different tone depending on who’s asking who — and why. “When men quiz each other, It’s like let's find out who’s the biggest fan. When they quiz a woman it’s like let’s find out if you have ever even watched a game before, actually. We’re fighting to be let into the circle at all. They're fighting to see who's at the top of the pyramid,” Ashley Locke, a 27-year-old soccer fan based in Nashville, TN, said.
Women who aren’t prepared to steel themselves and prepare for bar fights may be dissuaded from getting into sports at all. “Shaming people for not having the same knowledge as you is alienating and a way to convince people that they shouldn't be fans,” Locke said.
They're fighting to see who's at the top of the pyramid. We’re fighting to be let into the circle at all.
There’s a flip-side. Often, when women fans not being quizzed for statistics or asked to spell a coach’s name, they’re being flirted with. After all, being able to follow a game is one of the key ingredients of being a cool girl. Perri Konecky, a 27-year-old writer at PopSugar, can always pinpoint the exact moment her date finds out she’s a “real” fan.
“They’ll lean in,” Konecky said. “They’ll think it’s the coolest thing. But I’m not trying. It doesn’t mean for it to be an asset. People don’t pick their looks. I don’t pick my interests.”
Whether they’re treated positively or negatively, what women sports fans are receiving the same: Attention. “It’s dehumanizing in a way,” Locke said. “Having someone so focused part of your personality that to you isn't special. There are other things about me that are way more interesting that the fact that I watch a game on TV.”
In the face of these reactions, many women find a sports community in more private places, where they don’t have to explain their passions, prove their fandom or deal with unwanted advances. At World Cup viewing parties in her apartment, Locke shows off her collection of World Cup jerseys dating back to 1999. Now based in D.C., Hines has yet to check out the area’s Manchester United fan bars (she doesn’t want to start at square one) and instead watches in her living room. Bednarcyzk and Sullivan gather with fellow Red Stars fans in the back of Chicago’s A.J. Hudson's bar, where they’re insulated from the hooligan atmosphere in the bar’s front room.
“You’re creating a hedge of protection against people who think they know more than you,” Sullivan said.
In these forged communities, both online and in-person, women are also recruiting more fans — their women friends who were discouraged, one way or another, from becoming sports spectators long ago. “I'll find girls that don't know much about sports asking their female friends more questions than boyfriends and guys,” Morgenstern said.
Many other women play an active role in opening a door that may have been closed for their women friends. From a young age, girls are discouraged from feeling welcome in the sports world – either playing or watching. “It starts as early as grade school, if you look at the quality of physical education programming. You learn that this is not for you. If you’re interested in sports it’s a deviation from the norm,” De La O said.
These die-hard fans represent a model for female fandom that doesn’t current exist in pop culture. “I can't think of an example of a female fan other than the wife in the stands,” Elliot said. When they go to games, these women aren’t recreating Remember the Titans, cheering on their boyfriend.They’re watching sports simply because they like to — just like the guys in bars.