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Siren Sport / By Kasey Symons

Growing women's basketball fan community highlighted at recent World Cup in Sydney

The 2022 FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup ended last weekend with Team USA predictably, and impressively, taking out the gold.

However, the Australian Opals winning the hearts and minds of basketball fans everywhere with their inspirational and moving bronze-medal performance will be the legacy of this tournament.

Fans from far and wide descended on Sydney for this international event that brought the best players in the world to our shores.

While capturing the imagination of new fans and young, aspiring basketballers through a team that put the Opals back to their best, the World Cup also provided a space for the thriving women's basketball fan community to come together.

Fan communities around women's sport are rich with passionate people who not only love the game, but advocate for it.

These fans want the sport to thrive. They want to make genuine connections with other fans and feel part of a community that is welcoming, safe and celebratory.

Some of these fans work very hard to create and sustain spaces for their sport, and to bring more fans into the community they love being a part of.

Podcasting and pick-up games

Mary Mankarios and Paul Camillos are long-time basketball fans and have championed the coverage of women's hoops through their media relationship with the Sydney Flames, providing content, live streaming and social media.

During the pandemic, they took their passion of women's basketball and co-founded the Shooting The Breeze podcast.

They added former WNBL player and commentator Jacinta Govind to the mix and broadened the scope to cover everything to do with women in basketball.

The team say that they're "fans first and podcasters second".

In the lead-up to the FIBA Women's World Cup, the pod squad saw an opportunity to bring some of the guests who had appeared on their show, and hoops fans in general, together by organising a pick-up game.

"It became an event that we just sort of put out there, anyone [who] had been on the pod or anybody that we really connected with in terms of our Twitter friends, and it just became a bit of a thing," Mankarios said.

"It was wonderful to meet people again, two and a half years of podcasting during COVID and then to actually see people back on a court was just really super special.

"And such a diverse group of people coming together, because that is actually what basketball is. I'm really proud of that."

All the way from Manchester 

Caroline "Cazzy" Bullock travelled from Manchester, England, to experience the World Cup in Sydney.

Cazzy is passionate about growing the women's game and doing what she can to ensure women basketballers in Britain get the coverage they deserve.

She co-hosts the Focus Hoops podcast and also commentates for the Manchester Mystics in the WBBL, the top-tier women's basketball league in the UK.

"We love the game in England. It's not covered massively," she said.

"And we love the players so much. We just want to push it, and get it out there so people can see what we see: how great it is."

Part of what helped Cazzy decide to make the epic journey to Sydney was the community she knew was waiting for her there.

She'd already connected with the team at the Shooting the Breeze podcast, previously appearing on the show.

And she knew she'd be able to make new friends and meet online friends — such as Liz Mills, the first female basketball head coach to lead a men's team at a FIBA continental championship — at the pick-up game they'd organised.

"I just think it's super welcoming, and super accepting," Cazzy said of the community.

"The fans are so supportive of the teams. Everyone's happy to have a chat and talk.

"Everyone I've sat next to, we've just been able to speak like we've known each other forever."

Content creators, merchandise makers

Loz is a hoops fan and blogger on a mission to visit all 30 NBA cities and see as much international basketball as possible.

He is a keen listener to the Shooting the Breeze podcast and went along to the pick-up game to connect with other fans like him.

"I found the podcast a while ago, and I've just been listening to it leading up to the World Cup," he said.

"I really liked Jacinta's [Govind] energy and I think I've seen myself in her and how she's just like a true fan. And she's just very interested in growing the game."

Loz not only wanted to be part of the community the Shooting the Breeze team have helped to shape, but to contribute to it in a way that meant something to him.

"I made a zine as a way to build some excitement, or it's more of a talking piece to allow me to go up to people.

"I prepared the zine for the pick-up game so I could, sort of, give a souvenir to people who were there and, after, I would see certain people tweeting, so then I would try to reach out to them.

"I have used zines and, obviously, just my fandom in general to build connections with people, and it only appeals to certain types — people who are open to meeting a stranger, open to someone having a chat with them.

"Some people are there just to watch the game but, for me as a fan, that's the festival vibe that I personally search for and that's what I like about the community."

Fandom into fashion

For hoops fan Lily, her fandom is about wearing her basketball-loving heart on her sleeve, literally.

Lily uses her artistic flair to show support for the players — who don't have as much merch available for sale — by making her own custom-creations.

"As much as I love Lauren Jackson and grew up with [her], there are so many Jackson jerseys around, and it's just nice to have the players that don't get much court time like [Anneli] Maley and Wally [Kristy Wallace]," she said.

"I tie-dyed some shirts for me and my mum and my boyfriend.

"We're huge WNBL Caps fans — so all the Opals that have represented the Canberra Caps — and then I have a denim jacket with every single Opal on it from this World Cup line-up."

The items Lily makes for herself and family show the lack of merchandise availability for fans of many women's sports, and the lack of understanding by sports to accommodate diverse fan bases.

Lily also creates women's hoops fan art and has made impactful connections to athletes through her work, most notably with a piece that celebrated former Opals captain Jenna O'Hea's retirement.

Women's sports fandom should be the rule, not the exception

Fandom of women's sport is different to what we've come to know of most men's sports, that are rooted in rigid fan practices and only allow acceptance into the community based on certain knowledge or behaviours.

For those who want to express their fandom differently, it can be a jarring and exclusionary experience.

Women's sports fan communities embrace everyone as they are, not how they should be in sporting environments.

It's this atmosphere that brings in so many who don't feel the same when going to men's games.

For 14-year-old Lachlan, this is really important for feeling safe attending the sport.

"I appreciate the family friendly atmosphere at women's basketball, and I always feel comfortable at games."

Kristin — who had planned to volunteer at the event until COVID-19 kept her at home — reflects on the space she wished she could have been part of.

"The biggest difference I see is just [the] attitude of the fans. There is a lot less macho atmosphere in women's basketball culture," she said.

"It is also a lot more welcoming and I have found people genuinely like to connect with each other and have good discussions about basketball."

We can learn so much from the fan communities of women's sport, not only how to continue to grow women's sport, but maybe perhaps to change some aspects of sport in general that haven't always welcomed everyone in.

ABC Sport is partnering with Siren Sport to elevate the coverage of Australian women in sport.

Kasey Symons is a Research Fellow in the Sport Innovation Research Group at Swinburne University in Melbourne and a co-founder of Siren: A Women in Sport Collective.

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