Television news coverage of women’s sports has barely budged in 25 years, despite dramatic increases in the number of girls and women playing youth, high school, college, and professional sports.
A new survey of broadcast affiliates in Los Angeles and ESPN’s SportsCenter reveals that coverage is actually less than it has been in the past.
In 2014, LA-based network affiliates devoted only 3.2 percent of airtime to women’s sports, down from 5 percent in 1989. ESPN’s SportsCenter devoted a scant 2 percent of airtime to women’s sports, a number that has remained flat since the study began tracking SportsCenter in 1999. When women’s sports are covered at all, 81.6 percent of coverage is focused on basketball.
At the same time, men’s sports coverage of the Big Three—football, basketball, and baseball—has skyrocketed. Broadcasters devoted 74.5 percent of their sports report to Big Three coverage, up from 68 percent in 2009. Big Three sports coverage continues well into the off-season, continuing storylines about teams and players even when no actual games are being played.
Girlfriends or mothers
“It really demonstrates the unevenness of social change,” says Michael Messner, professor of sociology and gender studies at University of Southern California and coauthor of the study that is published in the journal Communication and Sport.
“We’ve had this incredible explosion of girls and women going into sports in the last 40 years, and we’ve seen some improvement in the last 10 years in live TV coverage of some women’s sports, like college basketball. What’s puzzling to us is that the increased interest and participation in women’s sports has not at all been reflected in news and highlights shows.”
The survey of sports news coverage has been conducted every five years since 1989. When it began, women rarely appeared, except to be portrayed as sex objects or the butt of a joke.
Over time, that overt sexism has been replaced by a general absence of women altogether: women’s sports are rarely covered, and when female athletes are interviewed in any depth, it’s to portray them as mothers or girlfriends, stressing those roles over their roles as athletes.
The news is also delivered differently. Sports announcers, famous for their boisterous, colorful commentary, seem to rein in their humor and enthusiasm as soon as female athletes are onscreen. The delivery then becomes flat.
“That’s what it feels like when the broadcast focuses on women’s sports: ‘We’re going to give you the main course, then eat your vegetables [the women’s sports coverage], and then we’ll give you the dessert,’ ” Messner says.
Bees and a giant corndog
The way the news was delivered is as troubling to Messner and his colleagues as how rarely it was delivered at all. Airtime is precious, and a 30-second segment goes a long way in connecting viewers with the storylines happening within a particular sport or league.
While women get little coverage, these “sports” stories did make it to the air:
- A swarm of bees invading a Red Sox/Yankees game.
- A giant corndog that cost $25 at an Arizona Diamondbacks game.
- A ribbon-cutting for a restaurant opened by Tommy Lasorda.
- Where former Lakers player Kendall Marshall will find a good burrito in Milwaukee.
- A stray dog that became a spring training mascot for the Milwaukee Brewers.
Though broadcasters have made admirable attempts to diversify their reporting teams in terms of race, gender has been overlooked. In the 2014 study, women made up less than 5 percent of sports anchors and 14.4 percent of ancillary sports reporters.
On the radar
“With this research, we are trying to get women’s sports on the radar not only for fans, but for generations of girls and boys,” says coauthor Cheryl Cooky, associate professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Purdue University. “Seeing women’s sports through the same lens as we see men’s would go a long way in shifting the cultural perceptions of gender roles and expectations.”
Researchers say they don’t expect 50/50 sex equality overnight: there are far more men’s sports leagues than women’s, so it makes sense that there would be greater representation of male athletes overall. But the fact that coverage of men’s Big Three sports so utterly dominated news coverage is problematic.
“These shows function as a sort of ‘mediated man cave’—a place set up by men for men to celebrate men’s sensational athletic accomplishments, while for the most part ignoring women’s,” Messner says.
Change the perception
The study recommends some practical benchmarks that would be a start to changing the perception that sports news is “dude time.”
- Increase the proportion of news and highlights airtime devoted to women’s sports to 12-18 percent.
- Allow enough coverage to be able to develop storylines throughout a season or a year.
- Report on women’s sports with the same enthusiasm that men’s coverage receives.
- Hire sports reporters or anchors who actually have some interest or background in women’s sports.
The University of Michigan’s Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy center, the USC Center for Feminist Research, the USC Annenberg School for Communication, and the Purdue Office of the Provost funded the work.