Women’s sports have never been more popular — everywhere except on television, that is. Both the quality and quantity of women’s sports coverage is far eclipsed by that of men’s sports and in some respects has actually worsened over time, according to the latest iteration of a 25-year longitudinal study of gender in televised sports news and highlights shows.
SportsCenter, ESPN’s flagship program, dedicated just 2 percent of its airtime to women’s sports in 2014, according to the report — a figure that has remained flat since 1999. In addition to SportsCenter, researchers examined the sports news and highlights on three local Los Angeles network affiliates and the results were just as dismal: Just 3.2 percent of airtime went to women’s sports, down from 1999 and 2004 levels but a slight improvement over 2009’s 1.6 percent.
“I’m surprised that I was surprised,” Cheryl Cooky, associate professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Purdue University and study co-author, said of the results. “This is a persisting trend. It’s just somewhat disappointing given the tremendous growth and participation in women’s sports over the last 25 years in particular. That excitement is not being captured by the media.”
While women’s sports received paltry attention in the time period observed by Cooky and her co-authors, coverage of the “big three” men’s sports — football, basketball, and baseball — increased from 68 percent in 2009 to 74.5 percent in 2014. That imbalance remained even in the offseason. When women’s sports were featured, the vast majority of the time, 81.6 percent, went to basketball.
While sports journalists might believe their responsibility is not to build audiences but to give the current audience what it wants to see, “that is in one sense a false logic because the interest is there … [and] that particular logic lets sports media off the hook,” Cooky said. “Displacement of blame onto the audience or consumer removes any sort of accountability on their part — they don’t have to change the conventional ways of sports media.”
That interest is demonstrated plainly in the widespread enthusiasm for the Women’s World Cup, which began last weekend. Monday’s USA-Australia match attracted 3.311 million viewers, making it the most-watched Women’s World Cup group stage match and the largest audience ever for a soccer match on FoxSports1. What’s more, viewership will only increase as the tournament goes on and this year’s Women’s World Cup is already on pace to achieve better growth than both the 2014 and 2010 men’s World Cups.
Fox is dedicating significant airtime to broadcasting all 52 matches but Cooky pointed out that, while their study doesn’t account for spikes in coverage of women’s sports during big events like the Women’s World Cup and the Olympics, “those moments are exceptions to the rule — a lot of activity in a short time span — and once those events are over, it’s as if the news media has some sort of amnesia.”
In addition to the quantity of women’s sports segments on television, the researchers also examined the manner in which women’s sports are regarded and how that treatment has changed over the course of the study.
The authors cite SportsCenter as being particularly adept at covering men’s sports in a way that engages and builds an audience — a sense of excitement, high production values, colorful commentary, engaging stories. Women’s sports, on the other hand, were covered in a much more matter-of-fact manner.
The researchers also noted a sense of ambivalence in several segments, with interviews frequently meandering from the woman as a high-class athlete to her role as a mother. While this is certainly an improvement from the overt sexism observed in previous iterations of the study, where women were regarded as sex objects or jokes, “such framings of high-profile, successful women athletes, when juxtaposed with the fact that such issues are rarely, if ever, brought into stories about men athletes, reveal a gender asymmetry that subtly communicates ambivalence about women athletes,” the authors noted.
ESPN defended its commitment to women’s sports in an emailed statement. “We provide the most coverage of women’s sports and women’s issues related to sports. We are proud of our commitment to women behind the scenes and in our content, and are always striving to serve the fans and evolve,” a spokesperson for the network said. “Additionally, we feature more than 7,500 hours of women’s sports programming annually. In 2010, that number was 1,500. It now includes live events on all our networks including ESPN3 and SEC Network.”
While the study points to areas of improvement — bolstered coverage of the women’s NCAA tournament, more live, broadcast coverage of women’s sports — the disparity between the dramatic rise in participation in girls’ and women’s sports and lagging coverage on network television and shows like SportsCenter speaks to “ the unevenness of social change,” Cooky said. “How in some realms women are making tremendous strides in the sports world, like live broadcast coverage, while in others — for example, sports news media coverage, there [are] still dramatic inequalities between men’s and women’s sports.”
In order to correct that imbalance, the focus needs to not only be on bringing more women into sports journalism (over 95 percent of the news and highlights shows analyzed by the study had male anchors and co-anchors) but also pushing the existing sports media to invest in covering women’s sports with the same regard as men’s, according to Cooky.
In the highly gendered world of sports that’s no small task, but the implications of such shifts are significant. Unequal treatment of men’s and women’s sports perpetuates the notion that playing and watching sports is inherently masculine, when in reality, “there’s great diversity and complexity in what men and women enjoy,” Cooky said. The current treatment of women’s sports on television means “you end up marginalizing women sports fans and, I would argue, men sports fans, too.”