Monday, May 19, 2014

Done Being Niche

Gymnastics is not a niche sport. There, I said it.

Since I started writing about gymnastics, I've routinely fielded questions from folks about whether you can make a career out of writing about gymnastics. (You cannot but that is just as much about how you can't make a career about writing about a single subject. It's more of a testament about the writing profession in general.) I've heard a lot about how great it is that I've managed to corner this niche and sell a book. While I get their overall point, there's a patronizing perspective at work here, that my subject matter is small or uninteresting (allegedly) to a mass audience and that my success is due to climbing to the top of a very small mountain. It seems to have little to do with the quality of my work or analysis. None of this is intentional, of course, but it grates nonetheless.

Part of me has to wonder if gender plays a role in this line of questioning. Though men and women compete in gymnastics, it's more closely associated with women. The global superstars have largely been female. And I have to wonder if that plays a role in its marginalized status? Are sports that are more closely associated with females routinely considered "niche" even if participation and competition attendance numbers would indicate otherwise? After all, Utah routinely beat every other women's college sport in attendance this year--and that includes the basketball team. Yet I doubt that anyone would ask fans or followers of women's college basketball about their "niche" interest because basketball has strong masculine (and therefore athletic) associations.

This is not to say that I think that gymnastics receives widespread, mainstream attention at the same level of the major sports such as basketball and football. We all know that it does not. But the sort of attention that is heaped (or isn't heaped) on gymnastics isn't necessarily indicative of actual interest in it. We know that participation is high and that NCAA gymnasts often achieve celebrity status on some campuses. It's a year round sport, not some sort of oddity that is trotted out at the Olympics.

You can call the sport subjective. You can say it doesn't get a lot of media attention. But how about we stop calling it niche.

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