At this point, it is a well-known fact that there is a large disparity in media coverage between men’s and women’s sports universally. What is lesser known or goes unnoticed with this fact is the impact this disparity has on the audience and female athletes. Come with me on a deep dive into the media coverage disparity between collegiate women’s and men’s sporting events where we will be debunking the reasons for this disparity, repercussions and elucidating some examples of news coverage done right!
Here presents a comparative analysis: In 2021 a 30-year-old report was published by Purdue University evaluated the percent of media coverage dedicated to women in sports and highlights of newspapers including ESPN and some affiliated networks in the Los Angeles area. They found that 95% percent of sports news coverage is dedicated to men’s sports, especially the big three − football, basketball and baseball. This number was more or less consistent through the 30 years. This existed while women’s sports were allotted a mere 5%-8% of space or airtime on these news sites. Even after the Purdue researchers investigated the digital platform in more recent years, after being tipped off from the media industry that women’s sports news was more popular online and on social media, they found their representation in only 9% of online newsletter content and 10% of Twitter. The traffic of these platforms is not nearly as large or devoted as that of ESPN, so it is no real comparison.
The silver-lining? There is none. The Purdue researchers found that sports media coverage in the 90’s, which formerly sexualized and insulted sportswomen stopped doing that. In taking a more “respectful” stand by 2014, they adopted a gender-bland sexist approach instead where they deliberately made women sports “boring.” Additionally, while even the philanthropic contributions or forms of activism of men’s sports made it to the news highlights, none of the same from the women athletes’ community made it. These omissions furthered the notion that women athletes and women’s sports is boring and one dimensional.
What’s shocking is that this was three decades ago and remains true today despite the participation of women in sports increasing exponentially over the years. How did this sustain so long? Another study that focused on coverage from ESPN’s SportsCenter in 2016 sheds light on the issue. When television and broadcasted news media had just come up, it was at a time when men dominated sports and women were actively shunned from it. Television quickly realized their dependence on sporting events for content, given that all the major arenas also had full audiences, and so did sports as it was able to open itself to the masses and procure sponsorship and funding. Since then, this symbiotic relationship has prevailed for men’s sports but the same cannot be said for women’s sports.
It may seem as though the audience for women’s sports is smaller, as commonly admitted by oblivious sports fans today, but there’s more to it. The 2016 study examined this symbiotic relationship shared by men’s sports and the media and found that both partners deliberately curated a sexist ideology to propagate through the media based on hegemony, pulling down women’s sports. What we must realize before anything is that televised news has been a source of knowledge and information for the masses, often tells people how to think, informs their stereotypes and schemas. With this fact in mind, basically, men’s sports having been more dominant from the past has directly influenced how sports, in general, is perceived by the masses.
When women athletes and women’s sports are given little to no airtime and space, together, sports media propagates a hegemonic symbol that it is non-essential and forgettable. It is a deliberate move to report such that most women sporting events was treated as a one-and-done news event, which is further masked by newer events in men’s sporting.
A lack of media coverage results in a lack of awareness. The lack of awareness can make it close to impossible for a sport entity to achieve sustained success – one of the major repercussions. Hence, we arrive at situations where in a year, although there were 321 women’s college basketball games played and a number Australian Open tennis matches featuring female athletes, female sports only garnered 3.2% of the reported content on SportsCenter.
Another major repercussion, supported by the study, is the wage gap between male and female athletes. This gap can be tied down to fewer opportunities for funding and sponsorships that find its roots in lesser media coverage again – a circular reasoning fallacy. All this despite female athletes having to work equally hard with little recognition.
Echoing this, Cheryl Cooky, the Purdue researcher highlights the “missing piece” of media coverage stunting the growth of audience interest in and excitement for women’s sports. She adds that while the quantity needs improvement, so too does quality in order to make a real difference.
Lastly, I love to end on a positive note for such topics so, here are some examples of sports news coverage done right! Below is a snippet of Seattle Times Sports’ issue in 2018 on Seattle Storm’s win in the WNBA semis and finals. In the same year in May, three of the four stories on the front page of the Minneapolis Star Tribune sports section focused on women’s sports, including the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx.
Ladies & Gentlemen, this is the goal. Thank you.