Fandom (and sports fandom in particular) is often more complex than conventional wisdom would suggest. We are currently in the midst of the 2023 Women’s World Cup, and the USWNT is taking center stage of the sports world.
The USWNT is also taking center stage in the marketing arena. Nike is touting Megan Rapinoe as an “American Hero,” Subway is featuring multiple players, and Fox is promoting the team as unstoppable. The marketing and promotion push is reminiscent of the Olympic basketball Dream team in 1992. Reminiscent, not equivalent.
The USWNT is a fascinating marketing and fandom story. The team is composed of household names, but the sport struggles when the USA is not on the jersey. The team is also perceived as incredibly political, with some viewing them as champions of equal pay and others viewing them as anti-American.
The mainstream narrative about the USWNT is that this is a breakthrough team with broad appeal with all but political conservatives. The team is also portrayed as feminist icons. This is the narrative, but what does the actual data suggest about fandom for the USWNT?
The figures below show fandom ratings for Michael Jordan and Megan Rapinoe collected in our “Next Generation Fandom Survey.” The first figure shows overall fandom ratings for a sample of 2,468 individuals (1204 Male, 1228 Female, and 36 Other) on a 7-point scale.
A Few of observations:
The long-retired Michael Jordan scores much higher than the controversial Rapinoe. No surprises on this point as Jordan was a bigger star who enjoyed much greater coverage.
Jordan scores higher with both Male and Female respondents. The Jordan-Rapinoe gap for Female respondents was 1.31 points compared to 1.39 for Male respondents. Let’s state this directly. Men express greater fandom for Megan Rapinoe than Women. Furthermore, I’ve seen this result in multiple years of data.
The second figure presents fandom ratings for Jordan and Rapinoe based on respondents' political ideology.
Jordan scores higher across the political spectrum. Jordan’s scores are relatively flat at 4.8 for Liberals, 4.72 for Moderates, and 4.87 for Conservatives. The famous quote about Republicans buying sneakers comes to mind.
Rapinoe’s scores peak with Liberals at 3.73 compared to 3.31 for Moderates and 3.4 for Conservatives. Rapinoe doesn’t appear to be particularly loved by Liberals or hated (in a relative sense) by Conservatives.
The USWNT is a fascinating sports and marketing story. In fact, it’s a much more fascinating story than what the media portrays. It’s a mix of feminism, politics, and the peculiarities of sports fandom. It’s a case study on how fandom can come from multiple sources (USA on the jersey, dominant performances, and narrative storytelling in the media). There is also a cautionary tale translating fandom to marketing (is Subway selling more sandwiches?).
Watch/listen to this week's podcast, which features discussion of the USWNT, here: