Why Are Women's Sports Still Not Covered In The Media?

More people tuned in to watch the FIFA Women's World Cup in 2015 than any other soccer game shown on English-language television in this country in recorded history. The entire event garnered a record 750 million viewers — a seemingly clear indication that women's sports are worthy of receiving as much televised coverage as do men’s sports.

Even though viewers are clearly interested in women's sports, however, coverage of these events has only decreased since 1989. One University of Southern California study aptly titled It’s Dude Time! analyzed 25 years of sports media coverage and discovered that women were covered less in 2014 than in 1989. In fact, less than one percent of network television coverage included women’s athletics in 2014 and ESPN’s SportsCenter featured women a mere 2 percent of the time. In contrast, men’s sports coverage of the Big Three increased from 68 percent in 2009 to nearly 75 percent at the time of the study, even when no actual games were being played.

While coverage has decreased, women's actual participation in sports has only increased. This has been thanks in no small part to the enactment of Title IX in 1972, which stimulated a dramatic rise in girls' and women’s participation in athletic programs. High school girls’ athletics have grown nearly 35 percent over four decades and over 3.2 million girls currently participate in high school sports programs, according to data compiled by Ohio University’s Athletic Administration program.

Michael Messner, one of the study's researchers and a professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at USC, contends that the lack of women’s sports coverage is demonstrative of broader, uneven social change.

“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," he said of his findings. “What’s puzzling to us is the increased interest and participation in women’s sports has not at all been reflected in the news and highlights shows.”

Even when women's sports are televised, the coverage is frequently sexist, according to the researchers. Female athletes are frequently objectified or idealized for their ability to juggle their personal and family lives with successful careers in sports. Like media coverage of women overall, their gender identity takes precedence over their accomplishments: They are females before they are athletes.

While the sexist treatment of female athletes in sports media coverage may be (sadly) unsurprising, the researchers were puzzled by the disparity between the increase in female participation and the stagnation in coverage of them. One possible explanation, one researcher posed in an interview with Quartz, could be an increase in gender respectability politics. Sports media may recognize that they would be vilified for treating female athletes as sexualized beings, but rather than cover them respectfully, opt to not cover them at all.

It also seems likely that the fact that sports journalism is so male dominated contributes to this reality. A 2015 Women's Media Center study found that just 10% of sports journalists were women the previous year — a 7% decline from the year before that. When reporters and executives in the industry alike don't identify with or relate to women (or possibly even see them as more than stereotypes of their gender identity), it makes sense that their coverage is also biased.

This treatment perhaps goes unchecked due to a lack of feminist awareness, according to Messner. While there has recently been “a lot of championing of feminism in popular culture" and "feminism is no longer the ‘F’ word" thanks to celebrity advocates, the same unapologetic celebration of feminism has not been evident in the sports world, Messner noted. "There are moments in sports, but it is happening in small scales and doesn’t have as much visibility and outreach.”

No matter their accomplishments, therefore, female athletes are subjected to the same media sexism as are all women, and are still primarily regarded in terms of traditional gender roles like mother, sex object, spouse, or caregiver. Studies like this one show that even when women achieve equal participation, media coverage of this participation is still problematic and nowhere near parity — a reality that needs to change.

More articles by Category: Feminism, Media, Misogyny, Sports
More articles by Tag: Activism and advocacy, Sexism, News, Title IX, Television



Danika K
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