I am a sportswriter with more than 9,500 followers on Twitter. Remarkably, just 11 percent of them are women.
I learned this recently when Twitter released Twitter Analytics, which allows any user to see detailed information on her account. Key among this data is a gender breakdown of a user’s followers. I was shocked to learn that 89 percent of my followers — roughly 8,500 of them — are men. Sure, I write and tweet about sports, but I also tweet about parenting, feminism, and San Francisco. And while I’ve had my fair share of men tell me on Twitter to “get back in the kitchen and bake some cookies,” I have far more interactions with open-minded sports fans, men and women. In fact, I’ve made an effort to seek out other women sports fans and writers and support their engagement with sports on Twitter. And yet, only 11 percent of my followers are women.
I’m not alone. Twitter itself doesn’t publicly share any gender-specific data, according to Brian Poliakoff, who handles communications for Twitter Sports, so I asked other baseball writers to share their numbers with me. Susan Slusser, the Oakland Athletics beat writer for the San Francisco Chronicle and the former president of the Baseball Writers Association of America, was surprised to learn that only 12 percent of her 38,000-plus followers are women. Like Slusser, Alyson Footer of MLB.com and Christina Kahrl of ESPN.com were suprised to find that only 12 percent of their followers are women.
The numbers were slightly more balanced for two male baseball writers I talked to. Keith Law, also of ESPN.com and who tweets about food, music, and board games in addition to baseball, reported that 18 percent of his 400,000-plus followers are women. Jesse Spector of The Sporting News, who covered the NHL until mid-2013, has a male-to-female follower ratio of 86-14.
Outside of baseball specifically, The Sporting News’ twitter account has more than 110,000 followers, only 10 percent of which are women, according to deputy editor Chris Littmann. Bleacher Report’s main twitter account is at nearly 1.3 million followers. Only 11 percent are women, says King Kaufman, manager of the site’s writing program. Kaufman added that all of the sport-related Twitter feeds he’s aware of, including his own, have gender divides in the roughly the same ratio.
These numbers are just a sampling, and may not be a statistically significant one. We’d have to track down gender numbers for a wide variety of sports-related accounts on Twitter to know what’s really going on. But that doesn’t mean the numbers are meaningless.
The four major professional sports leagues love to trot out the surveys that show that women make up between 40 to 45 percent of their fan base. Maybe the NBA is just below 40 percent women fans and maybe the NFL is just about 45 percent, but we’ve seen plenty of stories over the last few years touting women’s growing interest in men’s professional sports.
I love those numbers, too. I’m a sports fan and a baseball writer and I love the idea that American women care about sports nearly as much as American men do. But there are other numbers that tell us that while women might identify as fans of a particular sport or team, they don’t always engage with that team or that sport with the same level of energy we see from men.
According to The Nielsen Company’s 2013 Sports Media Report, women made up only 35 percent of the TV audience for NFL games during the 2013 season, the highest figure among the four major American sports. The NHL was second, with 32 percent women TV viewers. The NBA and MLB lagged behind at 30 percent. NASCAR bested the NFL by drawing a TV audience that was 37 percent women.
Professor Marie Hardin isn’t surprised by these numbers. Hardin is the dean of the College of Communications at Penn State and has researched and written about women, sports and sports media for more than 15 years. Boys and men are socialized to see sports as an appropriate way to spend their leisure time. Girls and women are not.
“For boys growing into men, there’s a real, social payoff in becoming a sports fan,” Hardin told me recently. Girls — even ones who play competitive sports — do not see the same social payoff in learning about, watching and talking about sports with their friends and family.
As girls turn into women, move into the workplace, get married and have children, Hardin notes, their leisure time shrinks. Men will carve out time for sports; indeed, it’s culturally expected that they will. Women don’t have the same cultural expectations; instead, they face cultural barriers to putting sports ahead of their family and their work.
There’s something else going on, too. For all the advances for women to play sports, there’s been very little change in the landscape for women covering sports. Hardin estimates that in the 1980s, women held nine percent of all sports media jobs, a figure that has climbed to only 10 percent today (those numbers are backed up by other surveys). Yes, we’re seeing more women in front of the camera on sports broadcasts, principally as sideline reporters, but we can still count on our fingers the number of women doing play-by-play or color commentary on an NFL, MLB, NBA or NHL broadcast, or sitting at the analyst’s desk during the pre-game and postgame shows.
When women use their limited leisure time to watch sports or sports-related programming now, they see broadcasts that don’t look or sound dramatically different from those they watched in the 1980s, 1990s, or 2000s. Sure, technological advances provide a more intimate look at the field or the court, and the graphics are eye-popping. But most sports shows still feature white male non-athlete reporters coupled with former players. Suzy Kolber and Sage Steele– women who anchor shows leading a panel of men in discussions about the NFL and NBA, respectively — stand out at ESPN because they are the exception.
Which brings us back to social media. Despite the idea that new platforms have opened all sorts of discussions, including those about sports, to new audiences and participants, the divide between women and men looks remarkably similar to the one in traditional media.
Last year, sports fans sent 492 million tweets about sporting events. Twelve of the 20 most tweeted-about TV events involved sports, according to Nielsen. The connection makes sense. Twitter is a real-time social media platform, with no algorithm to determine when you see certain posts, as there is with Facebook. A Twitter user curates her timeline by choosing who to follow and isn’t limited to people who’ve accepted her friend request or sports teams and leagues that have pages she can “like.” In that way, Twitter becomes a virtual sports bar experience during games. But instead of allowing more women in, that experience might very well be pushing women away.
In its Social Media Survey for 2013, Pew Research found that 18 percent of American adults who use the internet also used Twitter, and women used it in slightly larger numbers than men. But by January 2014, Twitter use by American women online had dropped to just 15 percent while internet-savvy men’s Twitter use jumped to 22 percent. LinkedIn is the only other social networking site that has more male users than female. Women outnumber men on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.
Pew’s survey doesn’t include explanations on why Twitter has become more male-dominated, nor have I found surveys or discussions from social media experts on the trend. But I know from experience that Twitter’s no-holds-barred virtual sports bar environment can lead to a toxic stew of negativity and harassment from male sports fans who are offended by women having their own sports opinions. Slusser, the Oakland A’s beat writer, agreed, telling me recently that if she didn’t have to be on Twitter to do her job, she might ignore it because the negative personal attacks detract from her love of sports.
This is important because Twitter isn’t just part of the national sports discussion. It often drives the national sports discussion.
When a professional athlete tweets something unexpected, there is an immediate reaction and there are consequences. When sports news breaks, there is an immediate reaction and there are consequences. When a sports story builds over time — like the one involving Ray Rice — writers, fans, even politicians weigh in on Twitter and change the direction of the story. Always, there are reactions and consequences.
Where are women in this national sports conversation? Some outlets have explored new ways to involve and promote the voices of women, but they’re still rarely on the sports shows talking about the breaking news or giving an opinion about what should happen. And if they’re not on Twitter in significant numbers, they’re not influencing where the story goes next on that medium either.
Everyone from media outlets to teams and sports leagues is exploring new ways to cater to women on social media. Last season, for example, MLB teams added Pinterest to their social media portfolios because that network is predominantly used by women. As USA Today described the Pinterest outreach in July:
The Pinterest boards for various major league teams juxtapose food and drink, home, fashion and baseball. There are boards dedicated to ballpark food, tailgating, and team-themed desserts. It can also be a form of online shopping. Fans see clothes they like and then they can go buy it at the team store or be directed to an official apparel website.
It makes good business sense for teams to engage with fans where the fans can be found, physically and virtually. But while food, drink, and shopping posts on Pinterest will bring women to a game or a team store, they won’t bring women into the sports discussion.
And in the long run, that’s not good for women sports fans, women sports reporters, or for sports and our broader, more informed conversations about them.
Wendy Thurm is a freelance sportswriter based in San Francisco. Her work has appeared at FanGraphs, Sports On Earth, and The Cauldron, among other places. Follow her on Twitter at @hangingsliders.