Coverage of women's sports has come a long way since the 1990s, when any segment about female athletes prioritized sex appeal over athleticism. (Remember, for example, when Anna Kournikova became the unofficial face of women's tennis without winning a singles tournament?) But a new study, which looked at 25 years' worth of sports coverage on ESPN's SportsCenter and local Los Angeles network affiliates (KCBS, KNBC, and KABC), has found that sexism hasn't disappeared from televised sports coverage—it's just become more covert.
Researchers from the University of Southern California and Purdue University first began tracking sports news in 1989. They found that commentators in the '90s were overtly sexist in their discussions of female athletes. "Commentators snickered with sexual innuendo when showing bikini-clad women spectators at a men's baseball game or leering at conventionally beautiful professional women athletes," the study authors write.
Between 1999 and 2009, commentators began to cut back on their sexual objectifications, but continued to frame their coverage of women around the athletes' adherence to heterofeminine norms: Women's roles as wives or mothers were referenced alongside their athletic performance, though coverage of male athletes rarely mentioned family roles.
By 2014, that framing thankfully began to fade. (Though not entirely: Remember in 2015 when the Australian sportscaster Ian Cohen asked female tennis stars Serena Williams and Eugenie Bouchard to "twirl" for the crowd and show off their outfits?) But so too did coverage of women's sports as a whole. In 2014, women's sports accounted for a new low of 3 percent of all sports coverage, according to another study by the same authors, who called sports media "a 'mediated man cave'—a place set up by men for men to celebrate men's sensational athletic accomplishments."
Nowadays, the authors find, the most remarkable thing about coverage of women's sports is how unremarkable it is: Sportscasters—who are famous for their enthusiasm and flashy language—talk about women's sports using bland and lackluster terms and tones, as if they were discussing the latest city council ordinance on parking restrictions rather than a game-winning penalty kick.
The authors present a typical example of men's sports coverage, from a SportsCenter segment on the Minnesota Timberwolves' Andrew Wiggins:
On Monday, [Wiggins] put two 76ers defenders in the spin cycle, throwing down a monstrous two-handed jam before Nerlens Noel could even get there. And Wiggins doin' it on D! Noel was victim to one of his highlight blocks in the same game, and Spurs rookie Kyle Anderson [was] also rejected by Wiggins on Sunday.
For comparison, here's a SportsCenter segment on the performance of Shannon Szabados, an Olympic gold medalist and the first woman to play in a Canadian men's professional hockey league:
She had 27 saves, it was a 4-3 loss for her Columbus Cottonmouths to the visiting Knoxville Ice Bears in the Southern Professional hockey League, but Shannon Szabados did work.
It's not just about language. In 2014, SportsCenter segments about men's sports were roughly twice as long as those about women's sports, the study found. Additionally, one-third of the segments about men's sports featured interviews with players, coaches, and other sports figures; none of the segments on women's sports included interviews with such personnel. Overall, broadcast coverage of men's sports featured more camera angles and dramatic special effects. Men's footage highlighted athletic achievements, often replaying impressive saves, goals, or plays in slow motion, from multiple camera angles. Women were rarely shown in action, however; they were more likely to appear on screen cheering on teammates from the bench, or hugging after a victory.
The researchers call this broadcast situation "gender-bland sexism," in which bland language and lackluster framing of televised segments on women's sports codifies the idea that men's athletic performance is inherently more exciting. Pay gaps between female and male athletes are often explained by the fact that women's events tend to bring in lower ratings, ticket sales, and advertising revenue; sports media appears to be perpetuating the problem.
Women's sports aren't inherently less exciting, but you wouldn't know that listening to the sportscasters who cover them.