Is There Still a Place for Ladies Night in Baseball?
From what to call the events to facing social media backlash, hosting Ladies Night at the ballpark can be a minefield for baseball organizations.
Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox
Lori Myers is showing me her Boston Red Sox tattoo. She has the red "B" logo inked on the inside of her ankle, right at the top of her sock. "I love it," she says. "It just makes me really happy to look at."
Myers, 51, is one of 57 attendees at the Red Sox's third annual "Girls of Summer" event—an all-day affair that consists of a baseball clinic with Red Sox coaches Ruben Amaro Jr., Brian Butterfield, Carl Willis, and Victor Rodriguez in the morning, followed by a panel with six front office members, a Q&A with a players Brock Holt and Robby Scott, a gab session with manager John Farrell, and a ballpark tour, all capped off with tickets to the game that night.
The energy in the air is electric. Every woman in attendance is decked out in Red Sox gear. Most have brought gloves, one is in a full uniform, and Myers' is not the only Red Sox tattoo I'll be shown. About two-thirds of the attendees are returning, and quite a few have attended the Red Sox Women's Fantasy Camp in Florida, a three-day immersive experience modeled after one the New York Yankees run. Two women in my group drove up from New Jersey and New York to be here. The women know more about the Red Sox than I do, and I write about them for a living.
These "Girls of Summer" events and fantasy camps are part of a larger effort across all of baseball, from MLB's most successful franchises to smaller clubs in independent leagues, to bring new fans to the ballpark. It's a well-known fact at this point that baseball fans are aging, and the sport needs to attract more people to root for their home teams. One way to do this is to market to underrepresented groups, and Major League Baseball has a fairly male-heavy viewing audience—according to a 2013 Nielsen report, approximately 30 percent of viewers during the 2013 regular season were women (which is on par with most other major sports). It's been a decades-long effort; in 2000, Bud Selig launched the Commissioner's Initiative on Women and Baseball, a "comprehensive effort to help MLB and the 30 major league clubs build stronger relationships with female audiences."
Baseball's desire to attract more female fans is nothing new. As Jean Hastings Ardell writes in her book Breaking Into Baseball: Women and the National Pastime, Ladies' Day at the ballpark goes back to 1883, when the New York Gothams (later known as the Giants) allowed women into games for free if they came with a ticketed man. Other teams followed suit, hoping to convert women into regular paying fans; some league executives, like Branch Rickey, also believed that women in the stands gave the game "respectability." Despite their popularity, the discounts effectively ended in the 1970s after a New York man claimed that they represented reverse discrimination; in Abosh v. New York Yankees, the New York State Human Rights Commission ultimately ruled in his favor, which prevented teams from offering free or discounted admission to anyone based on gender.
But other promotions continued: the 1970s saw gimmicks that encouraged women to show up to the ballpark in hot pants; breast cancer awareness events took root in the 1990s. In 2008, the Cleveland Indians declared that "every night will be a ladies night at Progressive Field" after opening the "Tribe Pride For Her" store at the park, where fans could purchase $325 purses and "bling bling Swarovski crystal denim jackets," write Jaime Schultz and Andrew D. Linden in American National Pastimes — A History.
Today, "Ladies Night" at the ballpark usually means some variation of spa packages, manicures, wine specials, and feather boas. The Minnesota Twins host Women, Wine & Baseball. The Kansas City Royals have a Girls' Night Out event, as do the Seattle Mariners and the Atlanta Braves. The Washington Nationals have a Ladies Night that includes a fashion show.
Not everyone appreciates these events, however. Critics call them sexist and offensive in how they treat female fans like stereotypes—or worse, like when the minor league Ogden Raptors announced "Hourglass Appreciation Night" earlier this month (the team later apologized). Some blame baseball's male-dominated front offices, picturing a room full of out-of-touch men trying to figure out what women want.
They might have a point: the most recent TIDES Racial and Gender Report Card for Major League Baseball scored the league a "C" for gender hiring practices, with women making up only 29.3 percent of league office employees, and the report noting that "the team levels remain far behind the League Office." The Red Sox, it was noted during the front office panel of the Girls of Summer event at Fenway, which boasted five women, lead the league in the number of women who hold senior-level positions in the organization, with ten.
"Baseball is slower to change than some other sports because [it's so steeped in] tradition," Red Sox manager John Farrell said elsewhere during the event.
Even when a team tries to do everything right, with women in the organization taking the lead and taking pains to avoid others' mistakes, it can still be a tricky balancing act. Take the Round Rock Express, a AAA affiliate for the Texas Rangers. This year, the team planned on holding a Ladies' Night at the ballpark.
"With ladies night, we've seen a lot of other teams do it and do it unsuccessfully," Jill Cacic, Vice President of Public Relations and Communications, told VICE Sports. "We were really conscious of every choice we made and how we presented it." Yes, there were manicures, but proceeds from the nail care went to support a local organization that fights sex trafficking. There was also a showcase featuring women-owned businesses including an auto mechanic shop and a plumbing company.
The Round Rock Express has a woman-heavy front office, Cacic says, with 13 female full-time staff members (not counting their day-of-game employees) and an additional four in their ownership group. She estimates that most of the women in the front office were involved in the planning of the promotion. However, the team received social media backlash when the event was advertised on Twitter in February. "#LadiesNight comes to #DellDiamond on May 25!" the tweet said. "Take advantage of manicures, massages and makeup along the concourse!"
There was no mention of the nonprofits or businesses the event could help, but there was a pink and gold glitter graphic, which is maybe why the responses that followed were negative: "There is a way to get more women to the park without insulting your female fans. I.e free hot dogs and beer," one person wrote. "Oh lord why," tweeted another.
"We didn't get to see [the social media graphic] to approve the wording before it went up," Cacic said. "That's not how we would have presented it." Despite the backlash it received on social media, the team feels like the event was a success and plans to host it again next year.
The team had another promotion targeted at women fans a few years ago, a "Baseball 101-type event," Cacic said, "but I hate that name."
"As a female working in sports, I feel like I constantly get pushback all the time about 'you don't know baseball' so I hate the implication of any ladies night coming on the heels of 'women don't know baseball, let's teach them.'"
The Houston Astros learned this the hard way in 2013 when they held their own Baseball 101 event, which included a panel where women could "come learn about baseball." The reaction on social media was swift—and harsh. The concept was lambasted as outdated, condescending, and offensive.
Even fake Twitter accounts of fictional Aaron Sorkin characters felt the need to weigh in.
At the time, the Astros' stated goal was "to maybe draw some people in that don't come in numbers that others do, and a chance for questions to be asked in a situation where women might not feel as intimidated," according to Lana Berry, who attended the event and wrote about her experience for SBNation. She noted that "instead of taking the opportunity to talk about how the Astros are incorporating analytics into their system or providing ANYTHING informative about baseball [on the panel], we get to learn about who these baseball people are and who their favorite player is."
"It's not events like these that are the problem," Berry continued. "It's the mindset behind them, and the idea that women somehow can't enjoy and/or learn about sports in the same way men can."
While the Astros haven't hosted another Baseball 101 since, other teams have had more success with similarly named events, which suggests that the backlash have more to do with the events themselves than the name they're given. The Philadelphia Phillies just hosted their 24th "Baseball 101" clinic, which occurs twice per season and has sold out all 24 times the club has offered it. It's so successful that the Red Sox modeled their "Girls of Summer" event after it.
The event gives women "the chance to be a major leaguer for the day," says Mary Ann Moyer, the Phillies' Director of Community Initiatives. Like the Round Rock event, "Baseball 101" was the brainchild of women in the Phillies front office who wanted to give other women an opportunity to go behind-the-scenes with the team.
Casey Landman, 39, is a lifelong Phillies fan and has attended Baseball 101 every year from 2010 to 2016. Having played softball for 14 years, she's no stranger to the diamond, but getting to run the bases at Citizens Bank Park, to throw in the bullpen with the Phillies' pitching coaches, to catch pop-ups and field ground balls with the infield coaches, and to hit in the cages is a fan experience she says is unlike any other. "I just love being as close to baseball as I can and it's a really rare opportunity to be able to do things that."
Landman says that even if the event weren't just for women, she would go. "I'm not offended if they market to a different part of the female audience [for more traditional ladies nights], but personally I just want to see the game."
But what about the teams who do host the more traditional Ladies Nights? Is there a place for these promotions? "With [the Round Rock Express'] ladies night we were sensitive to some of the issues we've seen about not-done-well women-targeted events in baseball," said Cacic. "At the same time, there are women who like baseball and want to get a manicure and get wine."
"Just like we would target Star Wars fans or Harry Potter fans, there is a specific audience for most of our theme nights that we target," she continued. "Women don't need wine to come to a game, but it's a bonus opportunity, like a lightsaber lesson [on Star Wars night]."
And there are plenty of women who attend these events because, not in spite, of what they are. Sally Rhodes, 47, attended the Braves' "Girls Night Out" this season. She says the event appealed to her because of the giveaway—a Braves photo frame—and the fact that it was an all-women space. Sarah Kovac, 32, is also drawn to giveaways, and while she has yet to attend a "Girls Night Out" for her hometown Royals, she says she would love to receive the infinity scarf and tote bag it offers.
"I don't care much for the bobble heads, but anything I can actually use and show off my love of the Royals appeals to me," she told VICE Sports. "I can see how some might find it sexist. I guess I figure sports in general market more toward the masculine audience, so it's reasonable to make an effort to bring in more feminine fans as well."
Some women, like Brewers fan Megan Brown, feel like having gender-specific events at all is a problem. "There's zero need to further divide female sports fans," she says. After all, women who like sports are already seen as "women who like sports" instead of just "fans."
Perhaps the problem is that for many teams there's only one night per season dedicated to women fans. Women are not a monolith—there are some who enjoy getting a manicure at a baseball game; others would rather have a free beer, or attend a Q&A session with the manager. These are all equally valid ways to enjoy the game, and women (and anyone else!) deserve the chance to do so if they choose. But a single "Women's Night" a season is never going to appeal to every woman who roots for a team, just like a "Men's Night" at the ballpark could never appeal to every man. By that standard, no promotion holds up. Or maybe the problem is that these promotions are marketed towards any single gender at all.
Some teams have started focusing on integrating female fans' interests into day-to-day operations, with promotions that women might enjoy but that aren't necessarily for women alone. For example, both the Dodgers and the Royals have hosted yoga events, and in the U.S. the majority of yoga practitioners are women. So while the events are not directly aimed at women, a large number of them turn out.
Jennifer Glass, founder and CEO of KORE MOVEMENT, was involved in the planning of the second annual Royals "Yogis in the Outfield" event last September, where she and her staff taught yoga to over 500 participants. Among the participants was Jennifer McGowan, 32.
"I enjoy both yoga and watching the Royals," McGowan told VICE Sports. "Getting the chance to practice yoga as the sun rose in the outfield of the K just sounded like a fun experience."
"Offering events like the yoga day where the audience may be more female-leaning without being restrictive can make it more comfortable for those women who may be on the fence."
At the end of the day, that's what it comes down to: making women feel like they belong in the ballpark, just like any other fan. The Pawtucket Red Sox, the AAA affiliate of the Boston team, are trying to integrate women into their club culture more fully by highlighting the contributions women have made to the sport. In 2016, they had Women and Baseball Wednesdays, which kicked off with an explicit nod to the Ladies' Days of yore by giving women free admission to the park. Charles Steinberg, the president of Pawtucket Red Sox, said, "Based on my knowledge and understanding, there's nothing gender specific about the love of baseball."
Most women would agree. At the Girls of Summer event at Fenway, Donna Maggiore, 53, said she was totally in her element. She had come to the event with Myers, the woman with the Boston logo tattoo; it was the second year the two friends had attended together.
"The only time I feel comfortable in my life is when I go to Fenway," Maggiore said. "I get to throw on a Sox T-shirt and just go and be me."