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The Invisible World Cup

September 20, 2007

Along with most people in this country, you probably haven't noticed that the U.S. women's national soccer team, ranked number one in the world by FIFA (soccer's governing body), is off in China competing in the most important tournament in the sport—the World Cup.  On Tuesday, the U.S. team qualified for the second round.  There's no shame in not noticing, even if you are a fan of women's sports, because the media that helped catapult the team to super stardom in 1999—remember the pictures of 90,000 plus people at the Rose Bowl when the United States beat China on penalty kicks and Brandi Chastain whipped off her shirt?—has been virtually silent this time around.  Only 15 U.S. media outlets are in China watching the team that in 1999 appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, Newsweek and People. Media on the scene include: the Washington Post; USA Today; the N.Y. Daily News; the Chicago Tribune, representing the L.A. Times, too; Associated Press; Sports Illustrated; Voice of America; ESPN, which is broadcasting all the games; and Fair Game magazine.  Of these, USA Today, the nation’s largest newspaper, demonstrates a strong and consistent commitment to this type of coverage, making it an exception.  Monte Lorell, the managing editor/sports, explains the rationale: "Women's sports, at the pro and college level especially, have large and enthusiastic followings so we'd be failing our readers if we neglected that coverage." It costs money to send a reporter to China, and a combination of the dire economics of newspapers and a limited national interest in soccer may make covering the World Cup seem like a luxury.  But news outlets had no problem committing resources to cover a nowhere near as good men's team in their World Cup in Europe last summer.  One common explanation for the lack of coverage is timing.  September is when college and pro football starts and baseball enters its home stretch, not to mention that fact that million of girls interested in soccer, as are their parents, are back in school playing in their own leagues.  The successful tournament in 1999 provided a template for success when it was held in July during a lull in the sports season.  It might be jingoistic to believe that other host countries would follow that model, but China is looking at this event as a preview to next year's Olympics, which will be held in August.  As USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan wrote in a recent column, "To stick the Women's World Cup in September is a sign of how completely out of touch FIFA is with its feminine side." Because women's team sports are still so new to the media landscape—this is the fifth Women's World Cup and the WNBA is just 11 years old—there’s bound to be a continuous battle for coverage given how ingrained men's sports are in the culture. WUSA, the women's pro soccer league born out of the 1999 success, flamed out in 2003 leaving no regular beat for coverage. (A new league is targeted for start up in 2009.)  Helen Wheelock of the Women's Hoops Blog believes that "women's sports is discovering how important a pro league is to national attention."  Does the constant struggle for media recognition affect the public's perception of women's sports?  Liz Matson, an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University who blogs about media coverage of women's sports at Keeping Score, notes: "Lack of coverage does have a negative effect on a sport. If the media gives full [coverage], then the impression is that this event must be pretty important. Media coverage brings awareness, information, credibility to a sport."              In 1999, Donna de Varona, a two time Olympic gold medallist and long time ABC broadcaster, used all her media contacts to get coverage of the World Cup, of which she was the chair.  She and her colleagues on the organizing committee worked for two years, almost like a political campaign, to build grassroots support for the cup.  Once the team started winning, momentum shifted and the tournament was a success from a financial and media perspective.  But lately she has noticed a depressing push back in coverage, almost "like we are living in the early 70s." She believes this comes from the highest levels, given her participation on the recent government Commission on Opportunity in Athletics, which wound up being about diluting Title IX.  She also points out that some of the important pioneers who covered women's sports on TV, like Robin Roberts and Hannah Storm, have left the beat.  It's one step forward two steps back.  The 1999 team had a reluctant superstar in Mia Hamm, which helps greatly with media coverage. No one on this team has broken out like Mia did.  Nike, which has been so smart about promoting women athletes, just released an ad entitled "Athlete," where pros step up and talk into a giant megaphone about why they should be referred to as athletes, not female athletes.  Yet, at the same time their ad campaign for the soccer team is based around the phrase "the greatest team you've never heard of."  However accurate, supplying a negative connotation does a disservice to the accomplishments of a team that hasn't lost a game in over two years. Viewers are left to think it’s the players’ fault that we haven't heard of them.  ESPN, which has been broadcasting all of the games from the World Cup and just signed a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract to broadcast WNBA games, seems to be very committed to women's sports. But if you watch its talk shows or read ESPN The Magazine you'd get the impression that women's sports don't exist—except to illicit negative comment.  Pardon the Interruption, a popular ESPN talk show, recently mentioned how few fans were watching a WNBA playoff game, giving an impression that the league is on the brink of extinction.  No commentator pointed out that it was a weeknight in the first week of school. Had they held their tongues a few days, they would have seen 22,000 plus people in the Detroit arena for the deciding game between the Shock and the Phoenix Mercury—when the Detroit football team was also playing at home. A recent academic study of female athletes in ESPN The Magazine showed they received only 3% of written coverage and 5% of photographic.  The study continues that lack of coverage “works to undermine and diminish the activities, achievements, and participation of women in sports.”   The perception of struggle is one that constantly permeates women's sports.  Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Michigan, says media’s role in building a sports audience is “enormously important,” adding, “they have frequently worked very hard to build an audience for men's sports. They don't have to promote a certain social agenda but they do have a responsibility to tell both sides of the story." The media presence of women athletes is stuck in a vicious cycle. Team sports won't be able to grow in legitimacy without coverage; but won't get coverage without legitimacy, which is based on the male sport paradigm.  So women's sports fans need to keep being vocal and pushing hard because complacency will lead to further backsliding.  One piece of good news is that the rest of the world, which is even further behind the United States in coverage of women's sports, is starting to wake up a little more. According to the BBC, this year's Women's World Cup is being broadcast to more than 200 countries, up 25% from four years ago.  Still, the fight over Title IX has lately focused on the perception that women have achieved equality and that attention to men's sports is now suffering. How true can that be when in less than a decade we go from 90,000 people crowding the Rose Bowl to this year's virtual media blackout?
Tags: Sports