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Study finds that gender and sexuality predict sports fandom

About 60% of heterosexual men identified as passionate sports fans, compared to about 40% of both heterosexual women and lesbians. About 30% of gay men reported being passionate sports fans.

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Nearly nine out of 10 people – well, at least in the US – say they enjoy sports at least a little, but heterosexual men more commonly identify as passionate sports fans.

This is according to a new study that surveyed nearly 4,000 adults, and which found that only 11% said they did not identify as sports fans at all. Over 40% were passionate fans, identifying themselves as being “quite a bit” or “very much so” sports fans. The study, published this week in the Sociology of Sport Journal, was led by Rachel Allison, associate professor of sociology at Mississippi State University.

About 60% of heterosexual men in the survey identified as passionate sports fans, compared to about 40% of both heterosexual women and lesbians. About 30% of gay men reported being passionate sports fans.

Survey data came from the National Sports and Society Survey (NSASS), sponsored by Ohio State’s Sports and Society Initiative. The survey was completed by 3,993 adults who volunteered to participate through the American Population Panel, run by Ohio State’s Center for Human Resource Research. Participants, who came from all 50 states, answered the survey online between the fall of 2018 and spring of 2019.

Because NSASS participants are disproportionately female, white and Midwestern, the researchers also weighted the survey results to reflect the US population more accurately. This resulted in modest increases of about 5% in the population estimates of the number of passionate sports fans.

While there has been growing attention to women’s sports, and to gay and lesbian participation in sports, there hasn’t been good data on how a variety of gender and sexual identities are reflected in the larger sports fan community. This study gives a preliminary look. About 27% of those surveyed identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or a sexual identity other than heterosexual. About 3% of respondents identified as nonbinary.

Overall, heterosexual men tended to identify as “quite a bit” of a sports fan, the findings suggest. In contrast, heterosexual women, lesbians and gay men were more likely to say they were “somewhat” of a sports fan on average.

While heterosexual men are clearly more likely to be big sports fans than gay men, lesbians and heterosexual women have similar interest in sports, according to the results.

“Identifying as lesbian does not seem to discourage sports fandom like identifying as gay does for men,” Allison said.

The researchers also explored whether early childhood experiences shaped sports fandom in adults. As expected, people who said they thought of themselves as athletes during childhood and who frequently thought about sports were more likely to be fans as adults.

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People who said they were mistreated in sports-related interactions during their lifetime – such as being called names or being bullied – were less likely to be sports fans as adults.

But the researchers did not find that childhood sports experiences or mistreatment accounted for gender and sexual identity differences in how much adults identified as sports fans.

The researchers said it is clear that the historic masculine, heterosexual culture of sports is changing. But Allison said the results of this new study suggest it may not have changed enough to make some women and sexual minorities comfortable to identify as sports fans.

“We’ve clearly moved beyond the era of open hostility to women, lesbians and gay men in sports,” Allison said. “But the extent to which we’ve moved from tolerant to fully inclusive cultures isn’t necessarily clear. We may be in this period of transition.”

The researchers said sports organizations on all levels, from professional to youth, still need to do more to be inclusive to individuals with different gender and sexual identities.


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