In this week of the US Women’s Open a study has arrived from USC that shows women’s sports barely registered on either ESPN or the three local television affiliates studied. ESPN should be given credit for providing two days of coverage of that event, but apparently they’re falling down in other areas. According to the study:
♦ Women’s sports were underreported in the six weeks of early evening and late night television sports news on the three network affiliates sampled in the study. Men’s sports received 96.3% of the airtime, women’s sports 1.6%, and gender neutral topics 2.1%. This is a precipitous decline in the coverage of women’s sports since 2004, when 6.3% of the airtime was devoted to women’s sports, and the lowest proportion ever recorded in this study.
♦ ESPN’s nationally‐televised program SportsCenter devoted only 1.4% of its airtime to coverage o f women’s sports, a decline in their coverage of women’s sports compared with 1999 (2.2%) and 2004 (2.1%).
♦ ESPN and two of the network affiliates (KNBC and KCBS), continually ran a scrolling ticker text bar at the bottom of the screen, reporting scores and other sports news. The proportion of “ticker time” devoted to women’s sports on KNBC and KCBS was 4.6%, more than triple the thin airtime they devoted to women’s sports in their main broadcasts. SportsCenter devoted 2.7% of its ticker time to women’s sports, down from 8.5% in 2004.
This in spite of the fact that participation in women’s sports likely is on the rise, as witnessed by the ever-increasing numbers of applicants to the US Women’s Open. Indeed, 3.1 million high school-aged girls and 4.4 million high school-aged boys played sports in 2009, compared to 1971 figures of 294,000 girls and 3.7 million boys. In approximately the same period, the number of women’s sports per NCAA school went from an average of 2 per college to 8.64 per college (presumably mostly due to Title 9).
The big difference in coverage may be that there really are no women’s professional sports to speak of. There’s the LPGA, the WNBA, women’s tennis, beach volleyball, and a small women’s soccer league. I suppose there are others—professional gymnastics, skating, etc., but they don’t register on my radar at all. It would be hard to say whether there’s no interest in women’s sports because there’s no coverage, or no coverage because there’s no interest.
The lack of college coverage, I think, is in part due to the lack of professional sports. One of the reasons to follow college football, basketball and baseball is to see the future professionals. Women’s college sports just don’t have that connection. This may be borne out in another of the study’s conclusions:
When combining all main coverage and ticker time, the three men’s sports of football, basketball, and baseball received a combined 71.7% of all coverage. Men’s golf was a distant fourth, receiving 5.6% of the coverage. Nineteen other men’s sports shared 18% of the total coverage. Meanwhile, basketball was the only women’s sport to receive anything close to substantial attention, garnering 1.5% of the overall coverage.
If there’s a bright spot for the authors of the study, it’s that coverage of women’s sports is becoming more respectful:
In past studies , we pointed to commentators’ common practice of using sarcastic humor in portraying women athletes (and sometimes women spectators) as objects of ridicule, as participants in laughable “gag sports” (e.g., a woman’s nude bungee jump in 1999, and a “weightlifting granny” in 2004), and/or as sexual objects. In 2004, we noted a decline in disrespectful or insulting treatment of women, compared with previous years. In 2009, we saw even less of this sort of sexist treatment of women, though this may in part reflect that women in any form were absent from the broadcasts.
From my own experience, however, I don’t think women’s sports are actually getting any more respect. My sports fan friends (women included) generally dismiss the female athletes (golf, basketball) as being substantially less talented, and thus not worth of watching. This, in spite of the fact that the top 150 LPGA or WNBA players could kick any of their butts in competition.
The authors of the study are fairly discouraged by the declining coverage and suggest news organizations and sports franchises must make additional efforts to reach out.
One important source of such change within the mass media would involve an affirmative move toward developing and supporting more women sports reporters and commentators.
Sports organizations too can contribute to change by providing the sports media with more and better information about women athletes.
But I think that if there was a way to make money from women’s sports, the sports media would have figured it out over the past 30 years. It’s an interesting conundrum. Without coverage, there is no interest. But without interest, there can’t be any coverage.