Women’s Sports Broadcasting: Four Decades Behind by Audrey Bennett

The number of women athletes has steadily increased in the years since the passing of Title IX in 1972. However, TV and media coverage of women’s athletics has failed to keep up. Shockingly, a 20-year-long USC study of ESPN and other Los Angeles sports coverage outlets revealed that only 3.2% of airtime is dedicated to women’s sports, which is less than the reported 5% in 1989. Readers of prominent newspapers encounter a similar dismal ratio of women’s to men’s athletics coverage. While there is plenty of space for a thorough story on various jersey numbers that are possible for a NFL player (an article featured in an October 2016 New York Times paper), coverage of the WNBA finals is virtually nonexistent. The sort of unequal coverage perpetuates stereotypes and conformity to gender roles while marginalizing the dynamic social changes that have occurred over the last 25 years. Significantly increasing attention to women’s sports through broadcasting, newspapers, and magazines would positively affect the way women feel and the way women are treated in society.

Only 3.2% of airtime is dedicated to women’s sports, which is less than the reported 5% in 1989

Media and news coverage, often referred to as the “fourth branch of government,” holds a unique position of power in the US. With this power comes great responsibility. These news outlets, whether it be Sports Illustrated, ESPN, or even the local paper covering high school sports stories, have a moral obligation to strive for fair and equal coverage. USC sociologist Mike Messner notes that “news programs are supposed to be a window to the world and there is a journalistic responsibility to reflect that.” However, these news outlets have repeatedly failed to accurately represent the true demographic of athletes and fans. A 2014 USC study led by Mike Messner and Cheryl Cooky examined three Los Angeles network affiliates and found that they collectively ran 60 stories on the March 2009 men’s NCAA basketball tournament. Zero stories were featured on the women’s NCAA tournament of that year.

There seems to be hardly enough time for depth and breadth of coverage for women.

Completely ignoring the parallel women’s tournament demonstrates the preferential treatment that men’s sports receives on a daily basis. Although there are more ticket sales for the men’s tournament, a 60:0 ratio disregards the thousands of fans of the women’s teams. Also, it is not as if crucial topics of men’s sports dominate every moment of airtime. While there is plenty of time for marginal stories about where former Lakers player Kendall Marshall will find a good burrito in Milwaukee (a story featured in a July 2014 release from USA Today), there seems to be hardly enough time for depth and breadth of coverage for women. However, if we generate sports coverage of equal quality and quantity between the sexes, young girls will grow up with more visible female athlete role models, and both boys and girls will see that athletic pursuits are not merely for males.

What’s more, during that small percentage of air time devoted to women’s sports, the quality of coverage is not even equal. Researchers of Messner’s USC study noted that broadcasters relate the news of women’s sports in a more stoic and humorless approach, which suggests that viewers and broadcasters alike must brace themselves and endure a short segment on women before returning to the joyful and joke-filled coverage of men’s sports. As children and adults listen and read to this type of reporting, they come to unconsciously accept it as truth. By diversifying coverage, the fight for equal treatment for both sexes would benefit. The current state of broadcasting perpetuates long-held prejudices that women and women’s athletics are somehow inferior and unworthy of our attention.

By consciously using about 97% of airtime to cover men’s athletics, broadcasting stations seem to think that men’s sports are the only type of sports that will attract viewers.  Many news outlets would defend their decisions as purely economically based, perhaps only reflecting ticket sales of WNBA to NBA games to attract the largest demographic of viewers. However, it is the fault of circular reasoning if broadcasting outlets and newspapers blame popularity for their biased coverage. Sports teams gain popularity through media coverage, yet broadcasting groups repeatedly refuse to fairly feature women’s sports teams because they are not popular enough. How will women’s sports gain comparative popularity to men’s if they only get minimal coverage? Also, studies demonstrate that the interest and participation in women’s athletics is quite respectable. In fact, in the women’s 2015 soccer World Cup, 3.311 million viewers tuned it, making it the most-watched soccer match on FoxSports1. While some stations claim that their job is to reflect interest of the current audience rather than generating new audiences, Cheryl Cooky, the associate professor of gender, sexuality, and women’s studies at Purdue University, points out that “that is in one sense a false logic because the interest is there … [and] that particular logic lets sports media off the hook. Displacement of blame onto the audience or consumer removes any sort of accountability on their part…” Thus, if sports channels and newspapers are truly trying to reflect their interest groups, the coverage of women’s sports would be much greater.

Since the passage of Title IX in 1972 that prohibited sex-based discrimination in federally funded activities, the number of women in high school, collegiate, and professional level sports has sky-rocketted. The Women’s Sports Foundation reminds us that in 1971, the number of high school girls involved in interscholastic sports was about 294,000. Today it is closer to 3.1 million, which is significantly closer to the 4.4 million boys that play such sports. According to Running USA, there are now more women runners than men (10.7 million women participating in running races compared to 8 million men).

Just as African Americans had to fight for equal treatment and respect even after the necessary legislation was passed, the battle is still being fought for female athletes.

Some would argue that at this steep rate, women’s sports do not need additional support or coverage because they seem to be thriving under these circumstances. However, while the participation in women’s athletics has increased rapidly, the respect and treatment it receives has failed to catch up. The predominantly male sports broadcasters (only about 5% of sports anchors are women according to the 2014 USC study) still believe that this boom in interest in women’s athletics is not worthy of airtime. Women’s sports are still decades behind in the treatment and pay they receive. Just as African Americans had to fight for equal treatment and respect even after the necessary legislation was passed, the battle is still being fought for female athletes.

This battle transcends the world of sports broadcasting.

Media plays a key role in this battle. A different approach to women’s sports coverage could begin to shift expectations, gender roles, and persistent sexism that women athletes around the world face every day. However, this battle transcends the world of sports broadcasting. The simple demand for equal treatment and respect for women still faces resistance in the workplace, in politics, and in the home. If men’s and women’s sports eventually  receive equal coverage, perhaps it influence our perceptions of gender and its role in determining one’s worth in society.

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