Every time the South Korean men’s football team netted a goal against Singapore in a recent 5-0 triumph in a World Cup qualifier, the cheers from the home audience predominantly came from women, who held almost two-thirds of the tickets for the match.

In the Seoul stadium on that November day, a billboard-sized banner for the leading striker Son Heung-min had been created by a women-only group. A banner for one of his teammates — “Cho Gue-sung wins the day” — had been signed by a club called “Women Rooting for Cho Gue-sung’s Pursuit of Happiness.”

The scenario illustrated a fact that has confounded experts in one of the world’s most patriarchal societies: In the realm of sports, South Korean women generally outnumber men in the audience.

Women here constitute 55 percent of spectators at professional sporting events, including baseball, basketball, soccer and volleyball, according to a 2022 estimation by the Korea Professional Sports Association. Comparable estimations for major sports in the United States indicate that the figure is less than half for women. In Britain and Australia, that number dwindles to a quarter or less.

Supporters and sports pundits attribute South Korea’s elevated proportion of female enthusiasts in part to the feeling of safety at the nation’s sports venues. Others state that it’s influenced by a national fan culture fueled by fervent adoration of stars, who are in some cases heartthrobs.

“People don’t regard the players as athletes, but as celebrities,” expressed Yim Subin, 24, who attends games and fan meet-ups, and watches baseball on TV every day throughout the season. “It’s not significantly different from the way K-pop fans follow their idols.”

In South Korea, where modern sports like baseball and soccer were introduced in the late 19th century, professional leagues were a consequence of rapid economic growth that commenced in the 1960s and engendered a sizable middle class. The leagues progressed in parallel with the hosting of major international competitions, including the 1988 Summer Olympics and the 2002 men’s World Cup.

Women have long been a part of a South Korean fan base that considers following sports a national pastime, celebrating elite (and usually male) athletes who compete abroad. In the 1970s, the man of the moment was Cha Bum-kun, who scored 98 goals for two clubs in Germany’s top soccer league. Now the sports idol is Son, a striker for Tottenham Hotspur in the English Premier League.

Female fans have been present at domestic competitions for just as long. In the 1990s, young women packed college basketball stands, said Dae Hee Kwak, an associate professor of sport management at the University of Michigan. He said they were recognized as “oppa budae,” or armies cheering for male stars they call “oppa,” an affectionate term that Korean women use for an older man.

One explanation for South Korea’s high degree of female fandom is that its arenas are secure places to watch a game. A growing number of venues now provide family-friendly amenities, including children’s playrooms.

In that environment, altercations and other forms of hooliganism are increasingly uncommon, stated Cho Yijin, a postdoctoral researcher at Yonsei University in Seoul.

“There’s less smoking, drinking, and profanity than before,” she stated. “There’s a more amicable atmosphere.”

Another factor, according to experts, is the fervent domestic fan culture that saturates the country’s entertainment industry.

The explosive surge in global interest in South Korean films, dramas, and music over the past decade or so engendered a fervent fan base around celebrities whose achievements are regarded as a source of national pride.

Now the same slang that delineates how super fans venerate such idols — “deok-jil,” or “fangirling” — is widely employed for sports. Fan girls traverse the country to attend games, dispatch coffee trucks to practice as a display of support, and capture images of players with potent zoom lenses from front-row seats.

The teams’ marketing departments have taken note. There is no lack of merchandise for women, including jerseys and headbands. And in the country’s top soccer league, the team Daejeon Hana Citizen hosts an amateur “Queen’s Cup” for its female fans.

Eunji Shin, 43, who attends several baseball games a week and takes copious notes on field strategy, once trailed her favorite team, the Doosan Bears of Seoul, to its spring training camp in Japan. She also aided in placing a newspaper ad with a thank-you note to a retiring pitcher.

Shin stated that there was a “lower barrier to entry” for following baseball players than entertainment celebrities for a simple reason: It’s easier to get physically closer to them.

In her experience, the only individuals who bring cameras to games are women. “Men don’t do that,” she added, “except the few who want to photograph the cheerleaders.”

The ascent of women as sports fans in South Korea has not resulted in gender equality on courts or fields, or in coaching chambers. Sports experts state that is partly because South Korea lacks an anti-discrimination law, let alone legislation analogous to Title IX, the landmark U.S. law from 1972 that significantly broadened girls’ access to sports.

For many female fans, witnessing other women in the stands gives them a feeling of belonging and solidarity, said NaRi Shin, an assistant professor of sport management at the University of Michigan and a freestyle snowboarder.

Several female fans mentioned that while male players had been their doorway to sports, they eventually developed a deeper affection for the game itself.

Celine Lim, 39, mentioned that she began watching Kim Byung-hyun, a Korean pitcher, play for the Boston Red Sox when she was living in the United States partly because she was attracted to his “bad boy” personality. She continued watching his Korean team, the Kiwoom Heroes, play almost every game even after he retired.

Han Nagyeong, 26, mentioned that her interest in soccer intensified while watching Son play for Tottenham Hotspur. Now, even as a busy university student, she makes time to follow each player on the team. She stated that she has several friends whose fandom has taken a similar turn.

“Gradually, they became more genuine about the sport itself than anyone else,” she stated.