It’s 2:36 AM on July 13th, 2020. I’m standing in the bathroom, elbows on the counter, head in my hands, rubbing my eyes. I’m eighteen and fresh faced, your quintessential college freshman. I’m in my childhood home, about to get some sleep after a long night of shitposting about a Croatian baller who doesn’t care if I live or die. Okay, maybe he might care, considering I’m the only person on the internet awake to post about him. However, if I picked up my phone, I’d find that I absolutely wasn’t alone. I, like many other sports fans at the time, had turned to the internet to fill the void that a lack of NBA content had created during the pandemic, and ended up running a Twitter stan account dedicated to Dario Saric, a Phoenix Suns backup center who got his NBA start in my home sports-city of Philadelphia. Almost unknowingly, I had joined NBA Twitter — an incomprehensibly widespread network of basketball fans across the globe who come together in one space to watch games, talk trades, and generally just have a good time together. Although NBA Twitter is an organic fan community, the fandom falls victim to conflict and harmful stereotyping due to the curated interactivity created by both the environment of Twitter and the marketing campaigns of the NBA itself. However, those defined as ‘other,’ mostly women, have found ways to reclaim fandom in an environment that actively works against them.
According to a 2016 article by The New Republic, “Twitter has become the epicenter of basketball fandom, a beating heart and a central nervous system, a place where serious statistical analysis flows alongside highlights, jokes, exclamations, and inane trash talk from every conceivable corner of the world. The NBA Twitter ecosystem includes professional gamblers, math geniuses, journalists, front office insiders, superfans, team PR reps, massive athletic apparel brands, cable news anchors, rappers, heads of state, and the very players being discussed.” This definition still rings 100% true in today’s landscape. NBA Twitter has become one of the largest and most dynamic fandoms on the internet over the past decade, partially thanks to the league itself. NBA teams have their own hashtags and players, and their social media teams frequently involve themselves in fandom inside jokes — for example, when DeAndre Jordan was deciding which city to sign in in 2015, his fans’ Tweets of plane emojis meeting him in Dallas sparked an ‘emoji war’ that included everyone from the then-sophomore Rudy Gobert to the newly-dubbed champion Golden State Warriors. (Mashable) In the dynamic and innovative landscape of NBA Twitter, interactivity and attention from one’s favorite athletes is constantly up for grabs, and the circumstances of the pandemic strengthened this quality tenfold.
On March 11th, 2020, the NBA ceased all activity due to the spread of COVID-19 to the United States. This occurred right before the end of the regular season and the beginning of the playoffs, a crucial point for fanship in any NBA season. During the NBA’s four-and-a-half-month hiatus, the league went above and beyond to keep fans entertained with player Q&As, virtual NBA 2k20 games broadcasted as real NBA games, and live-tweeting sessions of old games. As someone who was on NBA Twitter during that time, I can speak for myself and say that I definitely had questions answered by players, tuned into 2k20 broadcasts, and live-tweeted along to TJ McConnell’s 2016 buzzer beater against the Knicks. These and many other incentives absolutely worked to bring fans closer to the game in a time when the game was so distant that its eventual return was almost unimaginable. By the time the Bubble, the NBA’s plan to have a self-contained end to the season at the Disney World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida, rolled around, fans felt closer to the game, and each other, than ever. Twitter echoed the fans’ excitement that it had been cultivating alongside the NBA over the hiatus to create incentives like CourtsideTweets and TapToCheer — ways for fans to directly reach out to their favorite players in a time when the act of watching an NBA game felt meaningless to some and painful to others. According to Justin D’Apolito, the associate manager for NBA social media, “#CourtsideTweets was created to capitalize on the excitement of getting the NBA back up and running. We rewarded the most passionate fans by bringing their Tweets directly to the court in Orlando. Those Tweets were displayed in the arena during pregame and halftime while the players were warming up, so they could see the messages. It really gave fans the ability to speak directly to their favorite players.” (Twitter) This curated intimacy by the NBA led to a huge boom in fan interest by the time the Bubble ended and the 2020-21 season rolled around — this NBA Twitter ‘big bang’ came from a completely reimagined, and curated, meaning of what it is to be an NBA fan on the internet. This new model for NBA Twitter relied on interactivity and the act of dedicating yourself and your online presence to your favorite players. Obviously, as one of the largest fandoms on the internet evolved to become even more diverse and innovative, stan culture began making its way into the hypermasculine environment that was the NBA fandom.
There are dedicated fans in every fandom, from K-Pop to Marvel to the National Football League. In online communities, these superfans often call themselves ‘stans’ — taken from the Eminem song of the same name, stans define themselves as more than just average fans, or even superfans. “Think of it as fandom on overdrive,” says Sidney Powers on a 2019 episode of NPR’s All Songs Considered. According to Merriam-Webster, stans are “extremely or excessively enthusiastic and devoted fans.” Under the definition, the term is described as “slang, often disparaging.” However, many stans are proud of this term, and see it not as a label slapped on them, but as a way to define themselves. On the internet, stan culture originated on Twitter, mostly in the fandoms of K-Pop artists and female pop artists, notably Dua Lipa and Nicki Minaj. The original incarnations of stan Twitter had their own sets of slang terms and memes notably adapted from AAVE as well as words defined by LGBTQ+ communities, most commonly the drag/ballroom community. These terms spread across the internet like wildfire in the late 2010s. If your favorite musician, actor, fictional character, athlete, or online content creator was dubbed a “skinny legend” who “snatched your wig,” you were on your way to becoming a stan without recognizing it. If you called yourself a stan of your favorite public figure, even just as a way to call yourself a superfan, you were contributing to stan culture. As stan lingo spread across the internet, the term “stan” became re-generalized just to mean a dedicated fan of something, and that’s how stans ended up in online fandoms from Minecraft YouTubers to professional athletes. As I dive into stans and sexism in online NBA fandom specifically, it’s important to remember that stan culture was created by and adapted from women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community.
In the world of NBA fandom, stans can be found everywhere. If you can think of an NBA role player, say, the Nets’ Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot or the Raptors’ Yuta Watanabe, there’s a Twitter account somewhere pretending to be their burner. There are big accounts with tens of thousands of followers serving as fan clubs for Raptors bench center Aron Baynes and Thunder bench point guard Lu Dort, and the face (or lack thereof) of Sixers Twitter is a self-proclaimed Mike Scott stan. The people running these stan accounts will often dedicate their usernames to the status they believe their favorite player deserves — see BazleyForMVP, PlayoffShai, and SimmonsDPOY — or show their dedication through other usernames putting a lot of power on the player they stan — see ThybulleBible, VanVleetElite, PresidentEmbiid, DavisPlzWin, and LaVineSZN as examples. One interesting common stan username suffix is -WRLD, adapted from the stage name of the late musician Juice WRLD. If you step foot into NBA Twitter, you’re bound to find a WRLD for just about every player — it’s their world, and we’re all just living in it.
Stan accounts can be run in basically any way, from the almost-corporate cleanliness of the Aron Baynes Fan Club to the campy chaos of AytonsWRLD, and their presences in the greater NBA fandom narrative are anything but uniform. Many stans make edits and memes, buy jerseys, and sit courtside at games to show their love, while others stick to tweeting and trying to get others on the bandwagon. Some live-tweet their favorite players’ every move in-game, while others may watch, and tweet, more casually. Stans have led offseason campaigns to bring players to new teams (#FreeDario, for example) or keep them in their places (#ResignKawhi, for example), and time and time again, we have seen role players like Lakers bench PG Alex Caruso amass an unprecedented number of All-Star votes due to cult followings across social media. (Sports Illustrated) Cody, the owner of the Lu Dort stan account LuDortBurner, says that he created his account in July of 2020 after Dort’s incredible performance in the first few scrimmages of the NBA Bubble. In the nine months since then, he has gained 15,700 followers. When fandom behind an NBA player is particularly strong, it can lead to cult followings and electric movements that turn Twitter accounts into fandom powerhouses. However, most stans just do it for fun, rather than to hope to amass any sort of following or ‘blow up’ on the platform.
The 20-year old admin of PresidentEmbiid, who goes by Prez on his account, has gathered over 8,000 followers since his first tweet as a Joel Embiid stan account in 2017. “I come on Twitter to enjoy myself, mostly. I don’t see it as a job or anything of that status. I come on during games and tweet my opinion on certain situations or propaganda about my favorite player. I find it enjoyable that people like my tweets and thankful so many people follow me and enjoy my content.”
In general, a lot of player stans do what they do just to bring awareness to their favorite player, regardless of any stereotypes or assumptions. Many stans want their favorite players to notice them, begging for a shoutout in the replies of their tweets or sending them Instagram DMs in hopes of a response, but many don’t want anything at all, choosing to just enjoy the act of being a fan. Brandi, NBA Twitter’s resident Juancho Hernangomez stan, says that “role player stans just want to promote their favorite player and show them that someone’s there for them, even when they’re not getting minutes or they’re having an off night.” To support their favorite players, stans will create “you just lost to” memes — edited images that get spammed under a losing NBA team’s Twitter replies, often making puns using their favorite player, to show that their favorite player ‘owned’ the other team the night before. Stans will tweet at their favorite player saying how much they appreciate them, tag them in a selfie wearing their jersey, or congratulate them on their performance, all as shows of affection. More often than not, there is no hope of getting noticed.
Often, these stan accounts and their shows of affection actually reach the players they’re directed towards. Prez says that when Joel Embiid followed his account in December of 2020, he “kinda freaked out.” “I was so happy because I was trying to get an interaction from him for a while, and yeah, my account benefited a ton from it and my followers and interactions went up a ton,” Prez says about the experience.
Anne, a Kristaps Porzingis stan from the Philippines, says she had just woken up when he noticed one of her tweets. “I clicked on the [notification] and was so shocked and ecstatic; my heart was pounding so bad!”
Despite these interactions, player notices aren’t always sunshine and rainbows. Kris, a Suns fan and Devin Booker stan, says “getting noticed by Devin Booker was pretty cool, especially on the day I got engaged! Definitely wasn’t expecting it so I was really shocked when he quote tweeted me. He’d liked a tweet or two of mine before, but a quote tweet was really cool!” However, after criticizing Booker at the beginning of the 2019-20 season, he went on Twitter to find himself blocked. “Honestly, I wasn’t upset when he blocked me. For a long time, I’d post all these unique Booker stats and I’m pretty sure he’d see them, so he might’ve been familiar with me. I’m obviously a huge fan and want him to do well but I’ll also be honest when he’s not playing well. He started the season pretty slow and I was critical of him. I never tagged him in any tweets or directly replied to him but I’m assuming he searches his own name and was likely annoyed by some things I was saying on Twitter.” Kris finished our interview on an upbeat note: “If I ever meet him, hopefully he doesn’t punch me in the face!”
Similarly, Andrew, who has over 8,000 followers on his Matisse Thybulle stan account @ThybulleBible, ran a 130-day campaign in 2020 to get Thybulle to follow him. “When he first followed, I was just kinda shocked. I never actually thought he would do it. I kinda thought the asking-him-to-follow thing was gonna go on forever, but it was pretty cool to actually see it happen,” Andrew says about the experience. “When he unfollowed me, I was not really too surprised. I know how much I tweet and he doesn’t follow many people so I definitely clogged up his timeline with stuff he probably doesn’t care about. But I’m not gonna lie, it did kinda sting a little bit when I first saw he unfollowed. I had been checking his profile nonstop to make sure I wasn’t seeing things wrong and see if he was still following, but I did immediately understand why he unfollowed.”
As is evident from these examples, stan culture is highly interactive with the people being stanned, even on one of the biggest stages in the world. This type of relationship between fans and athletes is described as a parasocial interaction. Explained by Oxford Reference, a parasocial interaction was first defined as what occurs when “viewers come to feel that they know familiar television personalities almost as friends.”(Oxford Reference) This goes for athletes’ social media presences as well, as described in the Routledge Handbook of Sport and New Media: “The capacity of Twitter to foster PSI was captured by Hutchins (2012) who suggested that Twitter messages “hint at the ‘real person’ behind the celebrity persona, promising intimate and immediate insight into the backstage dimensions of a sportsstar’s social life”(p.242). He added that tweets “build a sense of ‘common experience’ between athletes and their followers, be they fans,observers or dedicated tweeters. In other words, the cultural distance between the elite athlete and fan is erased momentarily through a repetitive communicative act” (p. 242).” (Billings & Hardin) In sports fandom, these parasocial interactions encourage and reinforce stans’ fandom of their favorite players. Especially on NBA Twitter, where everyone is involved in the action, these interactions with athletes often cause competition and harassment towards other stans. The interesting thing about all of this is that these interactions weren’t even possible two decades ago, and as social media has advanced, we’ve gotten to see the consequences of what happens when attention from one’s favorite athlete is up for grabs.
It’s easy to see that NBA stan culture is fueled by social media — because of both the interactivity aspect of players responding to fans as well as the actions of those in charge of both the platform and the league itself. The environment created by the NBA over the past year, leading up to, surrounding, and following the Bubble, has made these interactions normal, and almost expected, for stans on the platform. This curated interactivity has created even more division between fans on the site themselves, and in a fandom as hypermasculine and heteronormative as that of the NBA, a lot of the blame in these situations ends up on ‘NBA Twitter girls.’ Described by some Twitter users in a copypasta as “only having followers because they’re girls,” “posting selfies,” and “having no sports knowledge,” (Twitter, @presiharden) this depiction of the role of women in sports fandom is a childish caricature that stereotypes women as objects who are only there for male attention. In the Routledge Handbook of Sport and New Media, the author describes that this phenomenon of ostracizing women in online sports communities is built into the way online sports fandom functions: “But promotional content, branding, sport identities, and fandom are increasingly inextricable, as many websites and digitally mediated fan communities are built and maintained as part international marketing strategies (Horne,2006); marketing strategies that typically remain traditionally gendered despite increasing efforts to grow sport audiences by including women.” (Billings & Hardin) An example of this is a Bleacher Report article I found which lists a bunch of specific reasons why women feel uncomfortable in sports fandom — ranging from kiss cams at games to pink jerseys to ‘basketball wives’ and female sports writers being ‘bad at their jobs.’ Although this article was written by a woman and many of her points were valid, it did feel like there was some internalized sexism hidden in her points, which speaks to Billings & Hardin’s point. By putting down female sports journalists, players’ significant others, and ‘females who pretend to be sports fans,’ this article becomes more palatable to men, and gives them a female fan they can relate to and accept. However, all women definitely don’t share these views, based on what I’ve seen in other sources and in my interviews. Overall, this article is a mix of weak feminist rhetoric mixed with internalized sexism — how could the author possibly believe that women in sports shouldn’t be talked down on while simultaneously insinuating that women who get into sports due to significant others, male friends, or other men in their lives are ‘fake fans?’ If it’s hard to believe the sexism faced by women in spaces of online sports fandom, may this article paired with Billings & Hardin be a reminder of the harmful dynamics at play.
When the hypermasculinity of sports fandom combines with the interactivity of modern-day NBA Twitter, sexism towards female stans can become overwhelming. Brandi says that “[she gets] stereotyped every day.” She told me during our interview that people in her replies assume she “[wants] to get with Juancho,” or that she “[has] no life outside of [her] Twitter account.” She also stated that this constant stream of harassment only started when she put her face and first name on her Twitter account, and suddenly, the whole internet saw her as a woman, and reduced her to a stereotype of a female sports fan. In Sport and Its Female Fans, Lawrence Wenner states that “Although less common, highly identi?ed female fans tend to be more like and positively received by male fans,” (Toffoletti, Mewett 137) while “In comparison to women, an ‘entry ticket’ comes with the more knowledgeable and interested casual male fan’s territory and no ‘authenticity’ test is required (Back, Crabbe and Solomos 2001; Wenner and Gantz 1998). Stemming from historical marginalization from sport, the outsider status of middling female fans means their legitimacy is constantly at play and their mere presence can be disrupting.” (Toffoletti, Mewett 137) Disrupting is definitely the right word when it comes to women on NBA Twitter, especially female stans. Their mere presence can be a cause for harassment.
Speaking to Brandi’s point about harassment, Toffoletti and Mewett state that “Even castings as obsessed deviant fans are infused with male fantasies of invested women fans’ sexualized preoccupation with sports (Wenner 2011a).” (Toffoletti, Mewett 138) In media narratives featuring devoted female fans, they are often reduced to obsessive deviants who want to, as Brandi put it, “get with” their favorite athletes, as well as male fans of the sport. While Bleacher Report states that real female fans can’t stand women who are just in it for the athletes’ looks, (Bleacher Report) female stans welcome anyone who wants to support their favorite player with them. “It’s a duality,” Brandi says, “you can stan a player for their objective talent and find them attractive, too.” Most of the women I interviewed stated that their favorite athlete’s looks had nothing to do with why they stan them, but Brandi said otherwise. “I do think Juancho is attractive,” she stated, “and that’s okay! Men can look at us like that all they want without any repercussions or harmful stereotyping; why can’t we find athletes attractive, too? It’s not a bad thing, and your opinions on sports are still valid if you think your favorite player is a little cute.” I tried to stay objective in my interviews for this project, but this moment made me go “true.” Men are allowed to sexualize the women of NBA Twitter all they want, but as soon as a woman calls an athlete attractive, their opinion on sports becomes invalid to these very same men. While fandom at large is typically a feminine space, women in sports fandom, especially stans, have to put up with sexism, harassment, and stereotyping often even more extreme than real life interactions. Put by Dhwani, a Sixers fan who makes art of the team after every game, “NBA Twitter will let sexism, homophobia, [and] misogyny slide but then get mad over some stupid shit, that’s how you know there’s way too many immature kids on this app.” (Twitter, @dhwanisaraiya_) It is evident that the culture of NBA Twitter itself, although curated to be accepting and interactive, has become an environment where women often feel unwelcome due to the large amounts of unregulated heteronormative masculinity invading their spaces.
In the midst of sexism and harassment facing female NBA stans, there have been efforts to reclaim traditionally feminine fandom traditions which had been shamed or ostracized by the majority-male masses. Efforts have included participating in traditional fandom trends, like creating account layouts that match a specific theme, as well as a library of NBA fanfiction on the Archive of Our Own that’s 500 works deep, but the most prominent of all has been the use of fancams. A Refinery29 article defines fancams as “compilations of actors and other big names in Hollywood serving looks in their movies or at events, set to sexy rap songs.” (Refinery29) This definition closely defines the way fancams have spread across NBA Twitter — glitzy, glittery videos of athletes on and off the court, edited precisely to match the timing of a carefully curated song to match the vibe. Angie, a Matisse Thybulle stan from the Dominican Republic, states that she makes fancams to “boost and promote [her] fave person.” She explains that fancams are a way to be creative as a stan and create a piece of art with your ‘fave.’ “It’s the mood for me, like if you wanna go badass, hot, funny, or romantic… you can add the song it goes with.” Brandi told me in our interview that “fancams aren’t just a highlight reel. A lot of thought goes into it. You have to pick the song, find the clips, match everything up timing-wise, and then edit the colors and sparkles after the fact. Anyone just putting a song over a highlight reel isn’t making a fancam.” Over the past year, fancams have become normalized on NBA Twitter, and the men who made fun of them at the start have started asking female stans how they add the sparkles to the video.
Recently, efforts have been greater than ever to bring female sports fans to the forefront. In January of 2021, after a female Sixers fan was bullied off the platform, a user who wishes to stay anonymous created a post honoring the women he followed and appreciated on the app. This wholesome, positive post got warped into a ‘copypasta’ — a block of text that users post as a joke, usually to mock the content or the creator of the original post. This positive message was soon twisted across Twitter — in addition to the women tagged, users would add male friends or celebrities, or reply to a tweet with the copypasta to ridicule the person being replied to, and effectively, the women being mentioned in the tweet. However, the copypasta still served essentially as a free shoutout for the women tagged, even though it became almost derogatory — a way to shame or silence the women running the tagged accounts, disguised as an innocent shoutout. Although the originator of the post was trying to bring people together, trolls and sexists ended up driving everyone apart through this copypasta. “When [the original creator] did it, it was chill because I know him and he definitely had good intentions trying to spread some positivity, but when it turned into a copy paste it was kinda funny because people were giving us free promo to try and be misogynistic. Personally, I thought that was funny,” says Sarah, a Heat fan who was tagged in the original tweet and the copypasta variations. Although appreciation and acceptance of female stans on NBA Twitter is becoming a more popular movement, and female stans are reclaiming aspects of their own fandom, there is still a long way to go on the road to acceptance, equality, and an NBA Twitter free of misogyny.
To conclude, I encourage you to look deeper into the messages surrounding sports fandom. The conflict created by competition over parasocial interaction is creating a more cutthroat environment by the minute, especially for stereotyped female fans. Although the reclamation of fandom in the new, intensely competitive and interactive era of NBA Twitter has meant that women are forming their own communities and challenging stereotypes placed upon them in online sports fandom communities, this harmful and disrespectful treatment of women is still alive and well due to the nature of how sports are marketed. Female stan accounts on NBA Twitter are just one microcosm of the treatment of female sports fans worldwide and across the internet.
Prez (@PresidentEmbiid). Personal Interview. April 6, 2021.
Angie (@Angies_Diary). Personal Interview. April 7, 2021.
Cody (@LuDortBurner). Personal Interview. March 10, 2021.
Vaida (@KyriesNBA). Personal Interview. April 7, 2021.
Cam (@JevonFanClub). Personal Interview. April 8, 2021.
Kris Hanson (@KrisHansonRCF). Personal Interview. April 8, 2021.
Anne (kporzingis1). Personal Interview. April 8, 2021.