We take a dive into the world of Sports-Themed Romance Novels, and the women who write and love them. They’re two great tastes that go perfectly together.
If you love reading about love but also MMA fighting, good news, there are plenty of romance novels about MMA fighters for you to consume. If hockey players in love is more your speed, you will have reading material for years. Why stop there? Football, basketball, soccer, rugby, surfing, figure skating, skiing, and on and on. Sports-themed romance is a popular subgenre of one of the biggest and most lucrative fiction markets out there (which is why I am not going to once again spend time justifying the existence of romance novels; they are here, people love them, moving on).
Sarah Wendell, the co-founder and chief mastermind of the site Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, says, “there are new sports romances released monthly, and readers email me looking for recommendations – especially with the attention on the Olympics right now.” Amanda Diehl, a reviewer and organatrix for Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, say the subgenre is “extremely popular” and “are sort of an evergreen subgenre because sports are always on in some way.” And when your sport is not on, you are “craving more sports-related things when the season is over or during the off-season,” Diehl added.
Susan Elizabeth Phillips essentially created the sports-themed romance novel when, in 1989, she published Fancy Pants, which features a male protagonist who is a professional golfer. She says that before then, there was an unwritten rule against centering sports in a romance novel, possibly because publishers feared that international audience wouldn’t want to read them. Phillips laughs at that now. “As it turns out, my second largest audience is in Germany and they took to the books right away. I think the Chicago stars are more famous in Germany than the Chicago Bears.” The Chicago Stars is the fictional football team Phillips created in what is easily her most famous series of books. She wrote the first one in 1994. Over two decades later, she is releasing the eighth one, First Star I See Tonight, today.
Phillips was originally drawn to sports as the backdrop for a romance novel because it was “fresh ground at the time.” There was also a satisfaction for her in it. “I loved taking the dumb jock stereotype and being able to turn it on its head.” (This is where I tell you to read her fantastic book, Nobody’s Baby But Mine, which is based around that exact idea). While Phillips herself is a fairweather sports fan, she chose to write about football and golf because they are the sports she knows. Her father was, she says, “a huge football fan,” as is her husband. “I’ve grown up with those games going on on the television in the background as I move about my life. Football and golf are the only ones I really know anything about.” She then laughs and says, “I could never write a baseball book. There’s a whole mystique to it I don’t understand.”
Farrah Rochon, author of the New York Sabers football series, features the sport in her romance novels, she explains, “because, well, football is king in this country, and especially where I grew up in south Louisiana.” Her uncle is the the offensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans. “Having such a close connection to the league,” she says, “has given me opportunities that many other writers may not have had.” She has been on the sidelines of NFL games, stayed in the team hotel, and “observed players hanging out and trash-talking as their college teams play on the Saturday before an away game.” In Rochon’s Any Way You Want It, which came out earlier this year, the hero is a former college football player. “A large chunk of his story,” she says, “deals with the perils of being a revered college player who is then cast aside once he’s injured and can no longer “produce” for the football team.”
It’s not just the big-time sports that get attention in romance novels, though. Vanessa North is the author of Roller Girl, a novel where two roller derby women, Tina and Joe, find love. North was drawn to the sport after a friend of hers began to play it a few years ago. “I was struck by how body-positive the sport is,” North says, “and how female-centric it is in a not-for-the-male-gaze way. These women’s bodies aren’t for decoration, they’re for destruction. It’s fast, rough, bloody, and loud–all things women aren’t supposed to be, and it’s awesome.” Beyond that, “it’s also a very queer-friendly and trans-friendly sport, which was very important to me in writing Tina’s story.” She did extensive research before writing it. “I interviewed players, read coaches blogs, read the current rule book and forums for referees, just really anything I could find. And I studied video after video of derby bouts to see everything put in action.”
That kind of detail is important for some readers, especially those who are sports fans. Stacey Agdern, a writer, blogger, and romance reader who has been reading romance novels for two decades, says that there are multiple reasons a sports fan would like many of these romances. First, they “explain a sport in a way that color commentary/play by play announcers can’t.” Agdern says she has “learned the rules of at least two different sports [NASCAR racing and rugby] through romance novels.” Second, they “serve as a way to deal with an extended offseason, and soak up the feelings of fandom through a grueling playoff season.” They can function as balm to a fan’s broken heart. Sports romances have given her the “happy endings my team’s playoff failure couldn’t.” Finally for Agdern, these novels, when written by authors who are fans of the sport and the romance genre, “contain bits and pieces of what the sports fandom is really like.”
Sports and romance work well together, it seems. “Just think of all the great redemption stories there are in sports,” Rochon notes. “You know another cannon that’s filled with great redemption stories? Romance! It’s a natural fit.” North says this subgenre makes sense. “Sports stories have their own tropes and themes that I think are touching and emotional in their own right—triumph of the underdog, old professional finding new life in coaching the up and comer, etc. When you combine those tropes with a love story, the combination can be explosive.”
There is one particular, glaring problem in plenty of sports-themed romance novels, though: the lack of diversity, both in regard to the protagonists but also secondary characters. “If you’re writing an entire series about an American football team and never feature any people of color, you’re being disingenuous, plain and simple,” Rochon says. “It’s just not realistic.” North adds, “I do think romance as a whole is whiter than it should be—fiction should reflect society. The genre as it is now does not reflect society, and that’s super obvious when you look at sports romances.”
Bria Felicien, who identifies as a “romance novel enthusiast” and who’s been reading them since she was 11 or 12, echoes this. She estimates that about 40% of the the novels she reads have some sports element to them. “I’d actually love to read more,” she adds, “but lately I’ve been focusing on reading black romance stories. Trying to find black sports-themed romance novels is more difficult, but fun if I come across them.” Felicien feels so strongly about this, she is writing her own sports romance that she hopes to self-publish. “The one I’m a couple of thousand words into now,” she says, “is a woman soccer player at an HBCU forming a healthy friendship/relationship with a male star basketball player who attends her rival school across town.”
This isn’t the only problem in the sub genre, of course. Felicien says she is bothered by “the portrayal of women working in sports that wouldn’t fly in real life, like a reporter falling for the person she’s covering.” If she comes across the a novel that has “a coach dating a player in any form, I just don’t even open those,” she says. They creep her out. Finally, she dislikes the possessive or controlling male athlete. “I definitely think those traits are a problem in all of romance, Felicien says, “but I guess I find them more concentrated in sports because a lot of the male characters are written as “grrr big strong ‘manly’ tough men” so sometimes authors feel like those personality traits are necessary.”
This last one is the one I think about a lot. See, in my professional life, I spend a lot of time writing about the intersection of sport and sexual violence. Then in my free time, I read a lot of sports romances, the intersection, you could say, of sport and sex. Many of these novels (though certainly not all) never say anything about the troubling aspects of masculinity that we see in sports culture, the very aspects that I report on regularly. I am, like Felicien, bothered when borderline abusive behavior (sometimes outright abusive behavior) is propped up as “romantic” or “loving” and I will immediately put the book down. This is true of all romance novels that I read. But it’s worth that risk of reading something upsetting because there is so much good in the subgenre. And if I can read a sports romance and for a minute get a glimpse of sport that is loving, supportive, and kind, I can escape the real-life version that often breaks my heart in its callousness. I have come to crave these books.
“Sports, either participating or watching, lift us up out of ourselves,” North says. “For the duration of a game, we forget our day-to-day troubles, we live in the moment, and we believe in miracles. In a sports romance, we have all of that, and a happy ever after—what’s NOT to love about that.”
If you are looking for recommendations, the people I interviewed suggested the following: Leta Blake’s Training Season, Beth Ehemann’s Cranberry Inn series, Alexandra Warren’s The Pregame Ritual, Rachel Gibson’s See Jane Score, Moonshot by Alessandra Torre, and Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ Dream A Little Dream.