Just days before a record-breaking 3.3 million people tuned in to watch the United States national team’s first match in the Women’s World Cup, the latest iteration of a 25-year longitudinal study revealed that the proportion of television sports news coverage devoted to women’s athletics stood at a dismal two to three percent last year.
It’s exactly that kind of juxtaposition that illustrates what the study’s authors describe as the “unevenness of social change” when it comes to women’s athletics in the U.S. In the last 40 years, Title IX has launched millions of girls and women onto the playing field. And in the last decade, there’s been an increase in live TV coverage of some women’s sports, particularly basketball. Meanwhile, big events, like the Olympics and Women’s World Cup, show that the viewer interest in women’s athletics is there—and continuing to grow.
Sports coverage returns to being, as the study puts it, ‘‘a ‘mediated man cave’—a place set up by men for men to celebrate men’s sensational athletic accomplishments.”
But when it comes to the content on daily recap and highlights shows, these moments are the exceptions to the rule. As the study’s co-author Cheryl Cooky told ThinkProgress, "Once those events are over, it’s as if the news media has some sort of amnesia." It returns to being, as the study puts it, "a 'mediated man cave'—a place set up by men for men to celebrate men’s sensational athletic accomplishments."
For every five years since 1989, the study has analyzed the nightly sports segments on the local Los Angeles network affiliates (KCBS, KNBC, and KABC) and ESPN’s SportsCenter broadcast during three two-week periods throughout the year. In 2014, only 3.2 percent of coverage on the three affiliates was dedicated to women’s sports, down from 10, 15, 20, and 25 years ago. On SportsCenter, the figure was two percent, as it has remained since it was added to the study in 1999. The vast majority—more than 80 percent—of what little women’s sports coverage exists is devoted to basketball. Women had a slightly better showing in the scrolling ticker at the bottom of the screen. But, as the researchers point out, “relegating women’s sports literally to the margins of the screen” is hardly much to celebrate.
Of course, there are far more athletic events taking place on any given day than can be highlighted in a brief news recap. Perhaps there just isn’t enough time to cover women’s sports after getting through all the notable news from the men’s side? Not so much. For one thing, three-fourths of the coverage last year was devoted to the “big three” men’s sports—basketball, football, and baseball. These sports increasingly dominate the broadcasts—to the exclusion of both women’s sports and other men’s sports—even during their off-seasons.
Worse still, plenty of fluffy “human interest” stories get airtime in place of women’s sports. The researchers highlighted some of the oh-so-compelling segments that ran on shows that featured not one single mention of women’s athletics, including one about a swarm of bees at a Red Sox versus Yankees game and another about basketball player Kendall Marshall’s quest to find a good burrito in Milwaukee. “If sufficient time exists to cover ... $25 corn dogs, swarms of bees, the proximity of Chipotle to basketball stadiums, and stray dogs wandering into a professional sports stadium,” the researchers write, “it is simply untrue that there is not enough time to cover women’s sports.”
“If sufficient time exists to cover ... $25 corn dogs, swarms of bees, the proximity of Chipotle to basketball stadiums, and stray dogs wandering into a professional sports stadium, it is simply untrue that there is not enough time to cover women’s sports.”
When it comes to the quality of women’s coverage, there has been only slightly more progress. Back when the study began in 1989, women appeared in these broadcasts nearly always as sex objects or the punchlines of jokes—or, often, both. Over the past decade, such blatantly insulting coverage has decreased (though it still exists)—no doubt in part thanks to this very report and other public calls for the media to be less overtly sexist—and the portrayal of female athletes has become increasingly “respectful.”
Yet “respect” in this context is a far cry from equal treatment. The researchers note that the few longer, in-depth profiles of female athletes in the study sample eventually got around to discussing how they balance their careers with their role as mothers. "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 researchers write.
Perhaps most damaging, the way women’s sports are often presented sends the message that they’re boring. Coverage of men’s sports is consistently delivered in a genuinely excited manner with color commentary marked by “voluminous vocal inflections, exclamatory descriptions of athletic successes, and heartfelt laments of failures.” In contrast, the few women’s sports stories are usually relayed in “a matter-of-fact, uninspiring, and lackluster manner.” Women’s sports coverage, co-author Michael Messner explains, is portrayed as if it’s akin to eating your vegetables—obligatory, uninteresting, and rushed through to get to dessert.
Women’s sports coverage, co-author Michael Messner explains, is portrayed as if it’s akin to eating your vegetables—obligatory, uninteresting, and rushed through to get to dessert.
This stark difference is key because it undermines the common excuse provided for the dearth of media attention paid to women’s athletics: that they’re just giving the viewers what they want to see. In reality, the researchers argue in a paper on the study’s 1999 findings, sports news and highlights shows do not simply reflect audience interest in men’s sports but actively help build it. Their commentators’ passion proves contagious; their sustained, daily coverage provides the fodder needed for knowledgeable, loyal fan bases to develop. “Meanwhile, their silence, marginalization, and trivialization of women’s sports ensure smaller audiences for women’s sports, while keeping fans of women’s sports on emotional life support.”
And they shouldn’t be let off the hook for it. The study concludes with some reasonable suggestions for how the media can improve. Despite the revolutionary growth in women’s sports participation, there are, of course, still more top-tier men's sports leagues—so clearly equity wouldn’t look like a 50/50 split in airtime at this point. Arguing that news coverage of women’s sports should be roughly proportional to women’s share of live broadcasts, the researchers call for a 12- to 18-percent target. Reporting on women’s sports should be consistent enough to develop storylines throughout the season and as enthusiastic as the reporting on their male counterparts.
The outlets must also ensure they have staff who are able to deliver that. That may mean hiring more female sports anchors and analysts—women make up just five percent of anchors and 14 percent of ancillary reporters on these shows. But in 2015, it shouldn’t be hard to find reporters of both genders “who are knowledgeable about and love women’s sports.” Like female athletes themselves, they exist—just not currently on your TV.
The Gender Gap explores the persisting gender inequalities of the modern age and society's unwillingness to grapple with them.