The way people enjoy sports has changed. On Twitter, fans are watching games together, interacting directly with their favorite athletes, and engaging with their teams beyond a logo and a collection of players. Each team’s account has its own voice and personality that they exhibit across platforms.
For men’s professional sports teams, it can be easy to assume that the person behind the keyboard shares certain characteristics with the players they’re tasked with representing — namely, their gender. But it’s becoming increasingly more likely that the person behind your favorite team’s social media account is a woman. Often considered a “pink-collar industry,” social media’s female-dominated workforce has naturally extended to the traditionally male-dominated sports industry, too. Women are not only excelling in these roles, but as the online voices of sports teams, they’re finding themselves insulated from the kind of harassment and abuse that plagues many of the more visible women in the sports industry (and outside of it). For women who want to create sports content without being subjected to misogynist vitriol, a role in sports social media — at least for now — can be an ideal solution.
The feminized nature of social media work has to do with its “characteristic invisibility, lower pay, and marginal status” within the tech industry, say Brooke Erin Duffy, an assistant professor of communications at Cornell, and Becca Schwartz, a researcher at the University of Oxford. The inequity they describe in a study published last year in New Media & Society can easily be compounded as it spreads to industries like professional sports, which already often devalues femininity. (A recent study from the software and data company Payscale also shows the sports world suffers from the same gender wage gap issues as most other industries.)
But as social media becomes a more and more powerful tool, so do the people behind it. And in sports, that’s created a subversive dynamic: the women who have been historically excluded from the major leagues, both behind the scenes and on the field, are now in charge of their voices and public-facing personas.
“Having women-run men’s sports team accounts helps fight every terrible internet comment or snide remark women have ever heard about not knowing sports,” says Olivia Witherite, social media director at the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN), the broadcast home for the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals. “It’s so satisfying to know that we, as women, can use the platform of social media to inform people [and] engage with fans.”
“It’s fascinating … because, in one sense, [these women] have access to the field where they want to work, but they’re essentially working in a role where they get [no] credit,” says Duffy. “The whole virtue of social media, to do it well, [means] the role of the content creator is to be invisible.”
While the invisibility of these roles is often seen as a negative because “invisible work tends to be dismissed,” Duffy says that when it comes to sports social media jobs, invisibility can actually be a positive. Given the vicious harassment, online misogyny, and very public vitriol women often get as they make inroads into traditionally masculine industries like sports, especially in public-facing roles — a challenge documented last year in the Peabody Award-winning video #MoreThanMean — Duffy suggests that “maybe these roles provide a value in terms of a level of protection” when it comes to “inoculating female social media workers against the kind of harassment and hatred that seems to flourish in these spaces.”
Negativity, of course, will always inevitably be lobbed at teams’ accounts, and not internalizing that can be hard, says Amara Baptist, the digital content manager for the Portland Trail Blazers and co-host of Social on the Sidelines, a podcast about the business of running sports social media accounts. Eventually, Baptist realized “that when people are tweeting horrible things at the team account, they’re not tweeting them at me.”
In her case, sexist assumptions that the person running an NBA team’s account is male have even served to protect her from harassment. She says that when she commented on the Memphis Grizzlies Instagram account (where she worked for two seasons) as the team, many followers assumed she was a man. “I would clap back at people [talking trash] and show the trolls that we’re reading the comments, and almost every commenter thought I was a guy,” she says.
In Samantha Wood’s experience as the director of digital and social for the Philadelphia Eagles, fans are more concerned with the quality of the product than the identity of the person producing it. “Fans care far more [that] the person behind the keyboard is knowledgeable, fair, and creative,” she says.
This season, 44 percent of NFL teams’ social accounts are run by women. Four of the big five teams in Boston have women running their social media — a significant stat both because Boston is one of the largest sports markets in the country and because it has some of the country’s most passionate, and critical, fans.
“It’s definitely a surreal thing, being the ‘voice’ of a historic organization,” says Sue Jo, the social media coordinator for the Los Angeles Dodgers. It’s a high-pressure role for anyone to be in, and the fact that women are trusted with representing men’s sports teams in this way on such a large platform is a big deal.
It also speaks to something else that has been ignored by the sports world for a long time: the fact that fan bases of men’s sports aren’t just men, and those fans want to see content that speaks to them and reflects their interests. Women make up 45 percent of the NFL’s audience; an estimated 86 million women watched the NFL in 2017. As of 2013, MLB and the NBA had audiences that were about 30 percent female, and the NHL and Major League Soccer’s audiences were 32 percent female.
“If you have a team full of white men, you’re not going to be in tune with certain things or know when things sound tone-deaf,” says Baptist. “The people bringing new, creative ideas to the table are women [and] minorities. A lot of basketball fans are female, and I don’t think people realize that. Bringing [us] to the table … brings a totally new tone that [resonates with fans].”
In fact, Baptist says that was part of her pitch when she interviewed for the job with the Trail Blazers, which she started three months ago: she aims to not only appeal to male sports fans, but to reach a broader audience as well. That can mean leaning into animal content or simply “not being afraid to use hearts.” It also means “not being afraid to be softer in your tone, and not being always super-aggressive all the time.”
That might seem counterintuitive, given the intensity often associated with sports, but it’s working. In an interview with Strategy + Business, NBA commissioner Adam Silver estimates that 1.4 billion people are engaging with the NBA in some way, and he indicates that the league was at the vanguard when it came to experimenting with new media.
The number of women in sports social media is indicative of the growing gender diversity in the field as a whole. (However, racial diversity is not growing nearly as fast, and people of color are still woefully underrepresented in sports jobs.) The NBA is also the industry leader among men’s sports for racial and gender hiring practices, according to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) 2018 report cards.
But while social media jobs are often considered a “pink ghetto” — a term coined by writer Alana Hope Levinson in 2015 — many of the women working in sports social media think that the reasons women are doing so well in the field has less to do with the jobs being thought of as “feminine” or “invisible,” and more with the field of social media being so new that it is not beholden to tradition, as many other industries or departments might be.
“Part of it is that, in social media, there isn’t an established long line of hires in any particular role, so you never get someone who had done Instagram Stories for three decades,” says Arielle Castillo, the former senior manager of social content for Major League Soccer. “I think that helps in that it’s open for people who are younger and for women as well.”
But being relatively uncharted territory also has its drawbacks. Some of the biggest issues that have come up in Duffy’s research about gender and social media jobs is that these jobs are traditionally undervalued, first socially, in terms of colleagues recognizing the value these positions bring to the company, then economically, in terms of how that value is then translated to salary and expectations. “I’ve been struck by the amount of time and labor this entails — [people are] expected to be available around the clock,” says Duffy, who also wrote the book (Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love: Gender, Social Media, and Aspirational Work.
One woman who runs social media for an MLB team, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says that, during the 162-game baseball season, she’s working about 20 hours of overtime each week (though, as an hourly employee, she does get compensated for it). On an episode of Baptist’s Social on the Sidelines podcast from earlier this year, Wood says that the shorter football season (16 games) was a huge motivating factor to accept the job with the Eagles over the Flyers (82 games). “I don’t even know how MLB people do it,” she said.
It helps that the women in the sports social media (#smsports) community have created networks to lift each other up and help each other succeed in a male-dominated industry. And for women who might want to get into the industry, it helps to have examples of people who have come before to let you know it’s possible. Baptist credits other women who already do this job, like Megan Julian with the San Antonio Spurs and Julie Phayer with the Golden State Warriors, as her inspiration to go for it. “They were women in this field already, and they were making a name for themselves, so I already had my eye on the prize,” Baptist says.
Witherite thinks that has something to do with the nature of social media, which, at its best, is about bringing people together and finding support. “While many careers are so much about individualistic accomplishments,” she says, “social media is such a great place to learn from others, get encouragement and grow as a unit.” It’s allowed some of the people in the field to use it as more than just a backdoor into the sports industry, but as a way to forge a career in social itself.
Wood began her career as an intern at the New England Sports Network, which led to another internship with the Boston Bruins, and then, after college, a job with the Philadelphia Flyers. She landed with the Eagles a little over two years ago. Witherite turned her college internship at MASN in 2011 into a career, having worked her way up the ranks. Baptist leveraged her experience with the Grizzlies to get a job with the Trail Blazers, which she says has a larger digital team and more resources on the digital side of things.
“I would love one day to stop being reached out to about articles like this,” Wood says, “and I look forward to the day that it’s business as usual, and my gender has nothing to do with how I do my job.”