Men, Women and Football

One traditional male fan (Roger Titford) and one relatively new female supporter (Claire Saul) compare views on the differences of what men and women get out of football.

Q. How much football did you play as a child?

R. From the age of about eight until 22 I played pretty much all the time – in the school playground, in the park, in the gym, during work breaks and lots of Subbueto too.  That old thing about spending 10,000 hours on an activity to achieve expert status – it didn’t quite work for me.

C. None. I was sporty - I played lots of netball and tennis in particular, but football wasn’t on the radar.

Q. What was your awareness of professional football as a child?

R. I was first aware of football clubs at the age of seven through radio commentaries, my Dad doing the football pools and free gifts in boys comics, I saw my first Reading game at eight and by nine I was absorbed in the whole world of British football.

C. Through my Dad. He didn’t go to matches but always followed the results. I have vivid memories of the scores being read out at Saturday teatime television (you could always predict the score from the cadences in announcer Len’s Martin’s voice, couldn’t you?). I can remember watching big matches such as the FA Cup Final, presumably because Dad wanted to see them and we only had one telly in those days. One of my elder sisters had a ‘thing’ for Allan Clarke so I was certainly aware that Leeds had a team!

Q. What motivates you / your gender to become a regular football follower – is it an interest in the game itself, an affection for a particular player, support for a club, a relative?

R. For me it was an interest in the game itself.  Reading were one of my seven (!) favourite teams and, until I was 14, the club was for me just the nearest place I could watch football.  I do understand that some boys and girls come into the game through the hero worship of a particular player (Lineker, Beckham) and this is more common nowadays.  Something else that has changed I feel is parents taking the lead and trying to influence their children to follow the same club (pleads guilty at this point!).

C. I can only speak for myself. For me, it has been an unexpected development, coming through my family. About eight years ago my husband and I started bringing our eldest son along to the MadStad as he was a keen footballer and we thought he’d enjoy watching a live match, as opposed to a televised one. He loved it, so we started to make the most of the tickets which were available for certain games through his school. I came to a few and really enjoyed the vibe. As it was our local team, I always kept an eye/ear open to see how they were getting on.  When son number two came along, we did the same once he was old enough to appreciate it. I’d guess we came to half a dozen matches in the course of the season.

Son number two switched allegiance to Sheffield Wednesday about two years ago, much to the delight of my husband, who has supported them since he was a lad (he’s also from that area). So we have something of a divide going on in the house. It makes Royals v Owls match days rather tense!

My elder son (now 13) and I are season ticket holders. Aside from the enjoyment of coming to so many games, for me it has the added bonus of being a way to spend quality time with him, one to one, although I’m not sure how long he’ll remain happy to be seen sitting next to his mother. It is a great surprise to me, when I look back over the past few years, that I’ve become so hooked, and especially that I’m happy to allow it to take up so much time of already busy weekends and weekday nights in our household.

I suppose that the bond has also been strengthened by the fact that both sons are in the development system with Reading FC, having been scouted while playing for their local clubs.

Reading FC-loving relatives have also been the channel for other ladies I have talked to. I’d expect geographic location to play a part too - my elderly mother still supports Saints, as she lived in Southampton for almost 40 years. I’m sure that both these channels must account for a significant number of male supporters too.

Q. What RFC-related merchandise or products do you usually have around your person?

R. I have a URZ-branded key-ring from 2000 and my season ticket in my wallet.  I’m not a great one for official merchandise or anything with a sponsor’s logo on it.  The idea of any kid having to get into bed, after a home defeat, in his club-crested pyjamas and under a club-crested duvet fills me with horror.

C. I’m actually sitting here in my Reading FC hoodie and on my desk is my tea in my Royals mug! I have four Royals tops and t-shirts, a scarf, gloves and beanie for chilly match days, a key ring and my car has a RFC sticker too.  Oh, and I stole my son’s stationery set.

R. You’re out-bidding me here!  I’ve got a drawer-ful of old T shirts and retro kit stuff.

Q. What do you like and dislike about the “match day experience” at the MadStad?

R. It’s safe.  I appreciate the fact that I haven’t been punched in the face at a match for 30 years now and parking the car is less of a lottery than it was at Elm Park. Getting tickets and getting in is unbelievably efficient now.  The rest of it - Kingsley, Queensley, back the boyz, Meal Deals, the flag-waving guard of honour, the moving ad boards, the modern football schtick – leaves me cold at best.

C. I love the vibe! The anticipation of it all is great. I love the camaraderie in the stands and the fact that with each year we know more and more faces in and around the ground. It is great being part of the club, that sense of (presumably tribal) belonging to something really big and exciting. The thrill of a goal is fab and even the long trudge around ¾ of the stadium to go down the hill for another long trudge back to the car park is fine when you are doing it with three shiny new points under the belt.

There’s little I dislike really, other than the berks who constantly yell idiotic remarks or chat as though they are watching the match on the telly (and I’m not talking about the female fans, here!).

I know the club is working hard to make the match day experience even better, listening to fans and doing what they can to address their wishes and gripes. In fact, that’s another like – club staff, web site, social media, Radio Berkshire’s match day programming are all accessible and informative and huge efforts are made to engage the fans. We always listen to Ady and Tim to and from the MadStad!

R. I absolutely agree with you about the camaraderie and the vibe when things are going well.  The term ‘match day experience’ belongs to club marketing in my mind.  I think fans are already engaged but not necessarily with the things the club wants them to be.

Q. What do you like and dislike about going to away matches?

R. Having done The 92 Club I pick and choose now, no more than half a dozen a season unless we’re doing really well.  Away games are a more alive, exciting experience and also have more of a traditional feel.  Different places, meeting different people, our own fans as well as theirs, making a trip of it perhaps taking in something else on the way – the Tate Modern and Millwall is always a good combination.  Living in a small village I have to start the journey on my own but I don’t mind that.  I always bump into people I know on the way or at the game.

C. We will be attending our first two away games over the next few weeks. I’ll let you know! My son is desperate to go to an away match. It’s hard though, trying to juggle the extended time with all the other demands on our weekend.

I’m sure Wembley doesn’t count here, but I wanted to say how amazing that day was. I loved all the build-up and was like an over-excited puppy by the time we parked at the MadStad ready to join the coach convoy. The vibe was at full tilt on Wembley day. I wish I could have bottled it! Someone actually came and shook my hand in Sainsbury's car park that morning, while I was buying snacks for the trip (I was wearing my club top) and asked me to shout for him as he couldn't make it. Inside, a customer asked me if I was going to the game and gave me the thumbs up.  I was so proud of our lads that day and won’t ever forget the sight of the blue and white there, or the roar when we scored our goal. There was nothing I disliked about that day, save the endless wait to get out of the car park!

Q. Have you ever been to a match in a group solely composed of female friends? What is that / would that be like?

R. No, I have been to matches with girlfriends, my wife and daughter but never a group of just females.  It would be odd.  If they were regular football-watchers it would be less odd but I still be concerned they might want coffee.

C. No. Thinking of the female fans I know, I can’t see that there would be much difference.

Q. It is said that women are much more likely than men to identify with a particular player and channel / focus their support on him – what do you think?

R. I think traditionally this is true.  You talk to women of a certain age, who probably haven’t ever played football themselves, and you do see this focus on individuals – the Jimmy Quinns and Keith McPhersons rather than the Luke Chadwicks and Sammy Igoes.  The game, for them, is less of an event if the hero is absent.  American broadcasters looking to reach a larger female audience re-designed their Olympic coverage towards a personal-narrative arc (“will X win? What it means to their family if they do”) rather than just showing the events live.  There was predictable and righteous outrage.  But our female fans didn’t go and follow Peterborough when Quinn moved there – they found another Reading hero.  Whether this hero-focus applies to younger women who have played football themselves I don’t know.  I hope not.  The team is the thing.

C. I can see why that might be said. I’ve certainly had my favourites over the past few seasons, but for various reasons. For example, one former player spent a long afternoon with a terminally ill young son of some friends of mine and he was wonderful with him. Another, we used to see every week as our kids attended the same swimming lesson and he’d always chat or wave (or pull faces at my youngest, who once reminded him of a missed penalty!) My son and I cheer louder for one of the current team squad whom we’ve met as he used to go to my son’s school. We both love other players for their skills on the pitch. And yes, other players maybe catch my eye for other ‘qualities’!  Equally though, there are other players I have been quite happy to see depart for other clubs. But it is all about the team on match day.

Q. Football support has always been a “male space” that allows women in (and it used to be for free!).  Even over 100 years ago 10-120% of the crowd was female.  Do women find the “maleness” of football attractive or unattractive?  Is football becoming less of a “male space”?  Do men feel that the presence of women encroaches on their enjoyment of the game, if they really do see it as a male domain?

R. Yes, football is less of a male space.  It hasn’t become overtly and directly more female.  It has become much more of a family entertainment space.  I think some women do find the maleness of certain activities very attractive – heavy metal music, motor-bikes, even being around armies going into battle, so why not football?  There’s a difference between the maleness of players (attractive) and the maleness of spectator behaviour which is sometimes beyond current social norms.  That’s where the problem of encroachment lies.  Whose space is this? I don’t think it’s wrong for me to shout ‘oh for fuck’s sake’ when a player or referee mucks up (because I’ve been doing it all my life, because that’s what others say too and because it was a terrible mistake) but a mum with a seven year-old sitting nearby might disagree.  So too might a steward and the Football League bad language campaign.  Yet you can hear far worse from young kids in supermarkets!  The only answer is not to treat all fans equally but have different tolerances or codes of behaviour for different parts of the ground.  But good luck with permitting and enforcing that!

C. I don’t think anyone has to worry about hanging baskets appearing on the crossbar just yet! Yes it is predominantly still a ‘male space’ but I am perfectly happy being in it, I can still be me. I live in a houseful of males – even the cat is a boy – where football is part of my life every single day, either in person or on the TV. I can handle it!  If we are talking testosterone on the pitch then seen at its worst it's extremely unattractive. Seeing grown men behave like brats appals me and they are the ones our kids look up to.

I can see why some women might find football intimidating. I’d love to get them to come along to a match and for them to realise how enjoyable it can be. To be honest though, I’m sure that it would be the weather and the cold that would be more a deterrent than the make-up of the crowd.

I can’t see that women fans behave any differently to the men at matches, or that our presence would make men feel that their enjoyment of match days was impaired in any way. I might have to contradict this argument if my son ever decides it’s far too uncool to be seen sitting with his mother, though!

Q. The number of women watching Reading is at least x20 that which watches Reading Women. Why is that? How big a future do you see for women’s football as a spectator sport?

R. It’s partly down to logistics as they played in Farnborough.  But it’s also down to the basic attractiveness of watching men play team sport.  I can’t think of any sport where the female version is more popular.  You can’t say that with the extensive coverage women’s football has had over the last few international tournaments, including the Olympics, that it hasn’t had a pretty fair shot lately.

I don’t think it has a huge future as a spectator sport unless it can draw from a new audience that doesn’t watch live football now or unless it makes radical changes to the way it presents itself.  It’s in a growth spurt now and it’ll be interesting to see where attendances / gate revenue end up this year.  The much more important thing is that it has got more women playing and being interested in football.  Football in general could do with a boost.

C. I’m surprised that there aren’t more women among the crowds at Reading Women, but hopefully that has changed after last year’s World Cup?
I sat up and watched those matches purely because of the Fran Kirby connection and I know that many families from local schools did too, as Fran had been taking training sessions with the girls and had developed something of a young fan base in them. Girls’ football is surely a growing sport – both of my son’s clubs have girl teams - so maybe that it is evolving.

They don’t play at the MadStad, do they? I’m not sure why not but if they did, surely those matches would benefit from some cross promotion by the club.

Q. Could the club do more to engage more women supporters?

R. I think it could in the sense of treating women as women or groups of women.  I won’t risk suggesting how.  I think it does enough in engaging with them as mothers and daughters.

C. Yes I think they probably could, certainly from a marketing and PR point of view. Women aren’t the core demographic of the club but there is huge potential out there.

Q. Has the arrival of Lady Sasima made any tangible difference to our impressions of the club?

R. Not yet.  Full marks to her for taking on 4,000 chanting Leeds fans which her introductory speech.  She seems to have the potential to be an unusual and positive figurehead.

C. We have a lot to thank Lady Sasima for and her contribution evidently goes beyond the ££s. Whether you like the new club song or not, you have to congratulate her good intentions and her spirit of engagement. I really applaud her bravery in taking to the mic before kick off at our first home game this season to address the fans and the razzle-dazzle of the shooting flames appealed to the showbiz streak in me!

R. Give me a Bovril any day!

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