The girls in the bleachers: phantom fans – lesbian fans of professional women’s basketball

Michele Kort

They’re hooting, they’re hollering, they’re yelling at the refs. They’re styling with team jerseys and high-tops to make them feel united with their heroines. You can easily spot them in the stands because they’re usually in pairs or groups, with hardly a guy among them. Watch out, sports world: Here come the lesbian hoops fans, and for them, women’s pro basketball is the hottest game in town.

At the first Long Beach StingRays home game on October 17, for instance, even the lowest-frequency gaydar would have recognized that nearly half of the 3,000 fans who showed up for the American Basketball League contest were gay women. At the Women’s National Basketball Association games this past summer, there were even more lesbian fans in the stands (the league draws more fans in general, averaging 9,000 per contest). Indeed, anyone who spent halftimes imbibing at the smoky Forum Club at Los Angeles’s Great Western Forum, where the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks play, must have felt as though he or she had just walked into a lesbian bar.

“It’s just so much fun, and there’s an incredible amount of energy, ” says a Los Angeles high school basketball coach and Sparks season-ticket holder, who asked that her name not be used. “It’s a great place to network with other women — to see friends and meet other people. I even enjoyed the families at the games — I loved seeing young boys cheering for women role models.”

It’s a given that the ABL and WNBA, both of which were formed in 1996, partly owe their early success to a loyal lesbian fan base. But while the ABL actively courts the lesbian crowd, it downplays their presence in the stands. And getting the WNBA to acknowledge the support of gay women seems tougher than a shot from the three-point line.

Backed by the deep pockets of the NBA and sponsors such as Nike, the WNBA hasn’t had to aim at any particular niche in its personality-based marketing blitz. “The ABL needed to market to the lesbian community,” says a lesbian employee of one WNBA team, “I don’t think the WNBA needed to do that. This is a business. Do lesbians sell? “

The same employee says gay identity has been of little concern to players or staff (though it’s obviously a touchy enough subject that she wanted to remain anonymous). “The word lesbian never even came up,” she insists. “I couldn’t even tell you who was a lesbian on our team.”

When asked in Newsweek about gay support, Rick Welts, NBA executive vice president and chief marketing officer, said, “I’m not aware of that. We don’t take attendance that way. The league does not discriminate.”

Yet observers say the presence of lesbian fans at women’s basketball games is obvious. Viewers at home would never know that, however, because television coverage ignores the cheering lesbians in the stands in favor of pom-pom — waving kids. And at every possible opportunity cameras zero in on such images as Houston Comets player Sheryl Swoopes’s new baby, not so subtly asserting the heterosexuality of WNBA players.

“They’re attracting another kind of family that they don’t want to acknowledge,” says Pat Griffin, professor of social justice education at the University of Massachusetts — Amherst and author of the forthcoming book Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbians and Homophobia in Sports. “There are three kinds of families at the [New England] Blizzard games I’ve been to — families of the players, straight families with their kids, and lesbian families. “

Alice McGillion, WNBA director of communications, says the league markets to three groups: the female fan; kids, ages 7 through 17; and the hard-core basketball fan, who tends to be male. Asked how lesbians fit in, McGillion says it isn’t an issue: “We just welcome everybody.”

And even though the ABL has directly marketed to gay women by advertising in lesbian newspapers and by setting up booths at gay pride festivals, lesbianism still isn’t locker-room chatter. “We don’t talk about it,” says a lesbian employee of the league who asked not to be named.

Still, individual teams appreciate their lesbian supporters. ABL’s San Jose [Calif.] Lasers ran a newspaper ad after their first season thanking lesbian fans. And says Lark Birdsong, general manager of the Denver ABL team, the Colorado Xplosion: “They are definitely part of our market.”

The Xplosion hasn’t surveyed its audience by sexual preference, but they know that 70% of their fans are women. A simple visual survey tells the team that lesbians are an important niche market, as are African-Americans. “We know that gay men and lesbians are part of our community, and we need to market to them, ” Birdsong says, “just as we’d be foolish not to market to the black community, since seven of our 11 players are black. “

Even if lesbian involvement in the sport is being swept into the shadows, whether the villain is homophobia or the closet is a matter of debate. But at the very least, some observers say, keeping silent about the sport’s sapphic presence denies lesbians credit for empowering other women. “The role of lesbians in promoting women’s professional basketball is basically the same as it’s been in the women’s movement and society at large, ” says sociologist Gilda Zwerman, author of Lives of Notable Gay Men and Lesbians: Martina Navratilova and coauthor of Eliminating Homophohia in Women’s Sports. “Lesbians pioneer new spaces for all women, and then when all women are able to take advantage of those spaces, lesbians and lesbianism are relegated to the back of the bus, basically.”

The issue of lesbians in the stands parallels that of lesbians on the court. The unspoken pact to not mention the lesbian presence in the WNBA is familiar in all women’s sports. On highly competitive Division I college basketball teams, lesbianism is often treated as a family secret. “It’s something everyone on the team knows, and it’s fine, but no one wants the lesbian players to be public because that would affect the team’s image, ” Griffin explains. “It’s much more OK to be a woman athlete now but no more OK to be a lesbian publicly. Heterosexual women athletes now talk about how they won’t be intimidated by homophobia, but you don’t hear from the lesbian players. Lesbians are still expected to be mysterious, in-the-background people. “

No professional women’s basketball player has come out yet, and Griffin doubts anything will change when the first one does. “Martina and Muffin [Spencer-Devlin] certainly didn’t change anything in their sports,” she says of the lesbian pioneers of tennis and golf, respectively. “It’s almost like people who come out to their parents and then their parents pretend that nothing’s changed.”

Even if the girls in the bleachers start getting a little impatient for one of their heroines to do an on-court Ellen, lesbian hoops fans will probably be happy just to keep seeing big strong women playing the game. “To see the women — they’re so joyous,” says WNBA season-ticket holder Maxine Lapiduss, a coproducer for Ellen. “It’s an ‘everybody hang’ — which is why I think it’s so wonderful.”

COPYRIGHT 1997 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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