In mid-June, a sports reporter tweeted that ESPN would be planning a two-hour special with commissioners from the National Basketball Association, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, the Major League Soccer, and the Women's National Basketball Association about returning from sports while the pandemic. Within an hour, his mentions were full of angry fans:
"Um … the @NWSL?!"
"The NWSL also exists and comes back before one of these leagues."
"Nice to see that @espn continues the tradition of ignoring @NWSL."
These are typical reactions from fans of the National Women's Football League, which was the first contact sports league to return to the game with its Challenge Cup during the COVID-19 pandemic. Delete the league from US sports coverage as many do and they will be after you. The fan base is enthusiastic about the league, is committed to its growth and is extremely online. Results are also being achieved: In response to the turmoil among fans and internal pressure, ESPN added an interview to the special with NWSL and the star of the US women's national team, Crystal Dunn.
"I absolutely think it makes a difference," said Leah, an NWSL fan who tweeted as @mengesfc. "They have a very outspoken group, which is smaller but wants to grow the sport and knows that people care about it."
Although it is arguably the best and most competitive women's football league in the world and home to global stars such as Rose Lavelle, Christine Sinclair and Debinha, coverage of the NWSL is limited. Overall, women's sports receive only 4 percent of the sports media coverage, and in May 2020, according to an analysis in the Power Plays sports newsletter, only 7 percent of the sports reports in major US newspapers focused on women. Two previous attempts at a women's pro league in the United States, both of which failed after three seasons, had similar problems. Large sports shops only seemed to watch out if something went wrong.
Without the mainstream's attention, NWSL fans and supporters turned to social media platforms like Tumblr and Twitter to build their own reporting and push for the kind of recognition and awareness they know about the needs of the league. “The league has never really been on TV. So you're watching games online, ”said Meg Linehan, who reports for The Athletic on the NWSL and the US Women's National Team (USWNT). "When I want to look up something about women's football that I honestly don't know, my first stop is sometimes the Twitter search bar."
“The league has never really been on TV. So you're watching games online. "
Social media also helps fans create a sports culture that is different and more inclusive than that in mainstream men's sports. It offers a space to challenge stereotypes about female athletes and to develop a new idea of what a sports fan looks like. Fans and supporters protect this culture extremely, even if they enjoy the league's growth.
"I don't want to sound like a cheesy old white woman, but there's really something so beautiful about it," says Leah. "I see all of this growing and I see it right in front of my eyes."
North Carolina mutant Crystal Dunn slips past Chicago Red Stars' Morgan Brian in the preliminary round of the NWSL Challenge Cup.
Photo by Alex Goodlett / Getty Images
Leah, 17, who lives outside of Cincinnati, went all-in with the Portland Thorns in Oregon after seeing midfielder Tobin Heath in a USWNT game in 2016. (She asked me to only use her first name because her parents didn't – I don't know about her Twitter account. "It's one of those things that you may not fully understand. It's very much just my thing." , she says.
Her Twitter feed reflects her strong loyalty to the Thorns, although she lives over 2,000 miles away and had to navigate some suspicious streaming services like Go90 to see her play. She tweets through games, plays on the North Carolina Courage (multi-year league villains), transfers her love for players like Emily Menges and Gabby Seiler and has created interpretive dances for particularly dramatic player tweets.
The NWSL culture is waiting for someone to say something * really * stupid so that @mengesfc can shadow them through interpretive dance.
– Aleena Garcia (@aleena_garcia), March 6, 2020
Much of the current online women's football fan culture has its roots in Tumblr, says longtime women's football reporter Kim McCauley.
Fans tended to use Tumblr to talk about their love for individual players, think about their lives, and share fan fiction. The platform was particularly popular in 2012 and 2013 – at the same time that WPS, a former women's professional league, collapsed. The fans also gathered on Twitter, where they talked more about the games and the sport itself.
"People were still big fans of the players and the women's team, but there was no professional league." There was not much regular coverage of these players, so fans had to take it on, ”says McCauley.
Eventually, some fans started migrating from Tumblr to Twitter. The funny, sarcastic tone of women's soccer Twitter came partly from the fandom's Tumblr page today, Linehan says. "It is very important that we make fun of ourselves, but you mustn't make fun of us."
American Soccer Meme Power Ranking:
1. NWSL memes (a friend just told me that NWSL fans "grew up in the Tumblr pits").
2. USL memes
3. MLS memes
– Pablo Maurer (@MLSist), May 27, 2020
A representative example: Last week, fans created almost a dozen Twitter accounts for some of the more absurd elements of the Challenge Cup. The playground behind the goal line in the stadium has an account and is spoken regularly to an account for the Utah sunset that falls over the night games. Another points out the moments when the setting sun shines directly into the cameras that stream the games.
The online fan community is one of the league's greatest assets, says Lindsay Barenz, president of NWSL Media. The fans make everyone responsible – news agencies, broadcasters and the league itself. "One element of a very online fan base is accountability," she told me. "Mistakes don't go unnoticed. It's a weapon and a shield." During the pandemic, it was also easier for the league to adjust to a world without personal events. "We were already there. While the sport was discontinued, the teams did not intuitively flourish online, ”says Barenz.
Supporters who organize themselves online have found creative ways to support the teams this month because they cannot personally participate in games. This week, for example, the nearly 20,000-strong Facebook group NWSL Supporters raised over $ 5,000 to cover the players' coffee orders in the tournament's hotel-owned coffee cart.
Since the fan base and the league are still small, in-jokes and memes usually filter through the entire community – even down to the players. For example, for a women's soccer fan, “knee injury” is a code for pregnancy. When Sky Blue FC and USWNT star Carli Lloyd announced they'd miss the Challenge Cup because of a minor knee injury, she was joking. "For those who think I'm pregnant when I'm …, Twitter will be the first place I announce it," she tweeted.
Really amazed to miss this and super excited that my teammates are competing! You will do great. For those who think I'm pregnant when I'm … Twitter will be the first place I announce it https://t.co/bB01g79A8q
– Carli Lloyd (@CarliLloyd), June 21, 2020
The interactions give the fans the feeling that they really know the players. But that can blur the line between the kind of player interactions that are okay and the kind that could be invasive – and the two sides sometimes compete directly.
The Orlando Pride had to withdraw from the Challenge Cup after some players and staff tested positive for COVID-19. A handful of younger players had reportedly gone to bars that were open in Florida, where they may have discovered the virus. Within a few hours, fans had searched Venmo and Instagram to identify the players they thought were the culprits – and blew them up on social media without confirming that they were actually involved.
About a day later, an Orlando Pride fan who tweeted as @kriegsleroux put the fans together to put together a website with personalized notes for each player on the team to show how much fans still supported them. "We were so angry," she told me. "But afterwards it was heartbreaking to see her upset. They had worked so hard. "
Midge Purce of Sky Blue FC and Darian Jenkins of OL Reign meet in the preliminary round of the Challenge Cup.
Photo by Alex Goodlett / Getty Images
Another type of sports fan
For Leah, the NWSL fandom helped her steer her father's fight against cancer and her own mental health problems. Another fan looked at the league after getting out of an abusive relationship, and she told me that the league had helped her find joy again. Every fan I spoke to emphasized how welcome the fandom is, especially on social media. It is home to people who may not necessarily feel welcome in other sports, such as women and members of the LGBTQIA community. It helped Leah to understand her own sexuality.
"I'm gay and I didn't know it before," she told me. “It was never something that came to my mind, but then I was in this world where being gay was the new street. It was very impressive for my trip with all of this. "
Research shows that women and fans of women's sports build online communities with different functions than men. "Women use (social media) as websites to develop different types of fan practices," says Kim Toffoletti, who studies female sports fans at Deakin University in Australia. They use the spaces to promote the sport of women and athletes. Fans use Twitter for intelligent, in-depth analysis of games and players – but don't turn your nose up at anyone who is not at this level and avoid the toxic gatekeeping of men's sports.
Okay, let's try again. If you need help paying for CBS All Access to see and support the NWSL, respond with your v * nmo / c * shapp and the players you're most looking forward to! I can help around 15 other people https://t.co/9knT5xAHP5
– k / bIm (@capsauerbrunn) June 26, 2020
"I found the soccer community online and they just accepted broadly and they weren't worried about how little I knew or how much I knew," said Layonnie, who tweeted @probablyatypo and lives in Virginia . "I found the fandom online and it was weird because everyone was so inviting," says Hope Ellenberger, who started watching football during the 2019 World Cup.
This also applies offline. Each team has a dedicated supporter group that participates in games and has the same inclusiveness. "There are many people who have this contempt for women's sports, so there is a kind of" we against the world "mentality," says Maggie Dziubek, organizer of the Chicago Red Stars supporter group Chicago Local 134. "We want to create this other World, a world we want to live in. "
"We want to create this other world, a world we want to live in."
The quest for a more inclusive world is fundamental to the fandom and reflects the fact that women's sport is political in and of itself. "As long as we call women's sports women's sports, it's inherently political," Linehan says. Leagues like the NWSL and the WNBA as well as all athletes have to fight for the attention, reporting and payment they deserve. Fans who are pushing for progress on these issues are also open about LGBTQIA rights, police brutality, and racism. "I appreciate the activism of the athletes. And I also appreciate our community of fans driving this activism, ”said Layonnie.
Fans organized to sign petitions and donate to various organizations, and many were disappointed by white players who made no strong statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. They are based on players like Megan Rapinoe, who was the first white athlete to kneel with Colin Kaepernick. "It seems we should do that," says Leah. They monitor which players are kneeling and which are not during the Challenge Cup national anthem and call on the league to stop the game altogether.
However, football in the USA is a predominantly white room; The NWSL is 75 percent white. The fan base cannot only welcome white queer women. It needs to be expanded to include everyone, Linehan notes. "There is a lot to do there, to be more inclusive and to appeal to Latinx and Black fans."
Let the game grow
The NWSL is in its eighth season and it is the only professional women's football league in the United States that has made it this far. The NWSL continues to grow: This year it signed a three-year TV contract with CBS, which is the first time that professional women's football has been broadcast on a large broadcast network. The opening match of the Challenge Cup, which aired on CBS, attracted 572,000 viewers – a league record and a larger audience than the men's Premier League games the same week.
The fans are incredibly invested in the league's continued growth and survival. Barenz says that they use their online presence to promote NWSL sponsors, knowing that they are vital to health. "My mentions are full of tweets that say," Secret, I bought this deodorant because you are a sponsor of the NWSL, "she says. The league's social media team cuts off all of these tweets and uses them in pitches for potential new sponsors. "Our fan base is critical to any conversation with a potential partner."
Therefore, more companies should promote women's sports. Fans absolutely adjust their spending habits. https://t.co/8hRZdLcs4A
– Meg Linehan (@itsmeglinehan), July 9, 2019
The fans have the feeling that everyone is there together. Rivalries between clubs are cruel, but they take a back seat when it comes to expanding the league and the sport. "I think that's what makes it special and strange to understand that everyone really has to work together for this to work," Linehan says.
Leah believes that she will close her Twitter in the next few years. She has just finished her junior year in high school and could create a more professional account before leaving college – where she is thinking about a major in sports marketing. The community she found through @mengesfc will always mean everything to her, she told me.
"So I went from this little child who thought she was straight to this very outspoken young woman who really appreciates standing up for what is right and really saw the power of the Internet firsthand."