Usually, dedicated sports fans recognize greatness when they see it. This greatness that I’m speaking of: University of Connecticut Women’s Basketball, or maybe the United States Women’s National Team, or even Serena and Venus Williams in the tennis world. Each of these athletes and teams are great in the sports world but don’t get their deserved recognition. With a win streak of over 100 games, each resident of Connecticut felt as if they won with each UConn victory. Personally, my family and I consistently searched for how many games that remarkable win streak added up to, or to find the day, time, and station of the next game. Women’s sports in the media are continually seeing an issue of not receiving deserved notoriety. Whether it be on a collegiate scale, such as UConn, or even a more national scale with the United States Women’s National Soccer team, who is the best in the world, but since they’re a women’s sport, the coverage of their greatness has been put on the backburner. These media outlets haven’t given many sports fans the opportunity to become repeated followers of these female teams because of their lack of consistent coverage. Even when these teams and sports are correctly covered, the slant in coverage by certain reporters and broadcasters shines over the praise of the actual result of the competition. Throughout the course of this essay, I’ll be reviewing the lack of female coverage as compared to male coverage throughout the course of the year, the emphasis on male sports over female sports when both are covered, the unjust versus correct action that is taken when these women are reported on, and how the Olympics is setting female sports in the correct direction for proper coverage.
Lori Day of the Huffington Post mentions a great point in sports: “If I say the word ‘athlete,’ an image will pop up in your mind. Dollars to donuts that image is male,” (Day). Usually, when describing male versus female athletes, reporters tend to take different routes to portray these athletes. For male athletes, a writer will tend to focus on the aggression, speed, or other on-field/on-court attributes. While focusing on appearance, for example, a certain hairstyle or a depiction of her body image will be used as a major descriptor versus this athlete’s style of play. “I know it’s hard to see past the obsessively ornamental presentation of female bodies in the media, even those of female athletes, but female bodies don’t just pose. They don’t just decorate the world. If they are athletic, they often don’t succeed without strong and prominent muscles. They run and jump and sweat and even bleed. Don’t try to reconcile that with femininity—that is femininity, because femininity is many things. It needs no justification. It needs no explanation. It needs no reinvention. Just let it be,” (Day). As a sports fan, I see this to be an issue largely discussed with Serena Williams’ name in the conversation. She has been touted as a candidate for the greatest female athlete to grace the planet, and it has come as a large result to her training; building muscle, speed, and agility to gain a competitive edge on her opponents. While there have been many responses to her success on the tennis scene, unfortunately some viewers have placed much more emphasis on her body image, saying that she is “built like a man.” It’s not to say that appearance, notably weight gain, hasn’t been a focus in male sports; we’ve seen this with former Boston Red Sox third baseman Pablo Sandoval recently. However, women’s sports are more likely to be highlighted in the conversation instead of hinting to the success or failure of a certain team or athlete.
While women’s sports lack the attention even when teams are successful such as: UConn Basketball entering their 100-game win streak, the United States Women’s National Team winning the World Cup, or Serena and Venus Williams winning a Grand Slam, men’s sports are often held to this same standard of success. An example of this occurred at the Rio 2016 Olympics when not one second of the men’s gymnastics finals was on-air since they didn’t receive a medal. However, where the two gender sides differ in certain sports are in failures. As fans, we won’t hear of teams underperforming in women’s athletics, but we will definitely hear about it from the male side and it will come with negative feedback from the media. Which presents the issue: even when male sports are underperforming, they have increased notoriety.
A study that reviewed 160 million words from newspapers, academic papers, tweets, and blogs discovered that men are mentioned in a sports context three times more often than women. This issue not only occurs in print, but also in television. In 1989, the University of Southern California reviewed broadcasts from certain Los Angeles television networks and even ESPN’s “SportsCenter” to find the frequency of coverage of female sports. This same study has been conducted every five years since and the latest publication displays that women’s sports are rarely recognized on TV in competitions. According to the Huffington Post: “In examining 934 local network affiliate news stories from 2014, researchers found that only 32 segments were on women’s sports—amounting to about 23 minutes of coverage—while 880 stories featured men’s sports and 22 segments featured gender-neutral sports. On “SportsCenter,” 376 stories covered men’s sports and 13 segments covered women’s sports,” (Taibi). These statistics are true even despite the fact that there has been a spike in the number of women who play sports and the increased popularity of female sporting events. Unfortunately, it seems that this increased popularity of female sports is mainly present in the Olympics, which fans only get a dose of every couple of years. According to an analysis by three scholars who a writing a book titled Olympic Television: Inside the Biggest Show on Earth: “Female athletes received 58.5 percent of prime-time media coverage during the first half of the Games, compared with 41.5 percent for men,” (NYTimes). Unless it’s in conjunction with the Olympics, it has been uncommon to see women’s sports during a primetime schedule block aside from the occasional Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) game, few women’s March Madness competitions, or major tennis and Women’s World Cup matches.
Even with the lack of amount of coverage during the year, it’s not to say that every single media source is getting it wrong. Commentators like Rowdy Gaines of NBC made amends of the public thoughts of Olympic swimmer, Katie Ledecky. “A lot of people think she swims like a man. She swims like Katie Ledecky for crying out loud,” (Park). However, there are many media outlets that are completely missing the mark. A print headline put out by the Bryan-College Station Eagle newspaper featured Ledecky and male swimmer Michael Phelps in the headline and sub headline, but according to the readers and activists, in the incorrect order. The headline read: “Phelps ties for silver in 100 fly.” Just below, the sub headline featured: “Ledecky sets world record in women’s 800 freestyle.” While medaling in any Olympic event is a huge deal, this achievement by Phelps didn’t even come close to touching his peak performance while Ledecky had entered the record books. On a much larger scale, the Chicago Tribune made also featured a new judgement blunder. In an attempt to localize an Olympic story, the Tribune ran a headline that identified women’s trap shooter Corey Cogdell-Unrein as the wife of a Chicago Bear’s lineman; omitting her name to this headline. While the fact is true that she is the wife of a Bear’s lineman, the Tribune just emphasized the slant in media recognition within women’s athletics and the public noticed and retaliated via social media. As a journalism major, I understand that the Tribune needs to consistently put out headlines that will catch the eye of their reader base, but the way that this layout team went about it just fuel fueled existing arguments. “Rio 2016 didn’t create racism, sexism, and homophobia—it just gave them a two-week platform,” (Vox). While some may agree that this two-week platform had proved detrimental to the social world of sports, I believe that it further opened a window to making these current mistakes corrected in future publications and broadcasts.
Unfortunately, the reality is that currently women’s sports aren’t being subjected to proper coverage. “After all, fighting sexism is about recognizing and correcting disparate impacts on women, not just trying to judge whether a particular person or entity has sexist intentions,” (Desmone-Harris). While many supporters of these women’s sports recognize the sexism being portrayed when describing male versus female athletes in the media, journalists are attempting to right their wrongs and create a more balanced gender world in sports. As I stated before, NBC’s Rowdy Gaines was praised for his comment defending the style of Ledecky’s stroke in the water, and it seems to be a movement initiated by many major media outlets. Marie Hardin, a dean of communications at Penn State University and a longtime researcher of the portrayal of women in sports stated: “It’s been in the interest of NBC and the other major media outlets to highlight the strong performances of female athletes. There has been a great deal of coverage that has featured women accurately, as strong, athletic competitors,” (Rogers). As spectators, we are seeing many more positive comments towards the in-competition performances of these female athletes, but the Olympics have seemed to be the only competition where this opportunity has been available in the past. Since the opportunity for covering women’s sports for journalists are so limited, when an incorrect statement has been made, it more easily stands out. Harden compared the journalists who are brought out to cover women’s Olympics are “out of practice” because during the year, the need for coverage in women’s sports is so much less than that of male sports on prime-time. “It’s like asking an athlete to go on a field and demonstrate technique without practicing,” (Rogers).
The fight to bring equality in the sports realm needs to be practiced more often than we currently see. A large portion of this fight currently occurs during the Olympics and it gives the public the opportunity to identify the importance of female sports in our society, just as male sports play the same role. Now, we are seeing an increased opportunity for sports fans to become more supportive of professional female sports. The movement made by major media outlets such as NBC and ESPN has shown that, when covered properly, the success stories that have recently presented themselves in women’s sports receive high ratings. “In 2011, the women’s world cup final ranked as the most-viewed soccer telecast (regardless of gender) ever on ESPN; the sixth-most viewed soccer telecast ever on a single network (also, regardless of gender); and the second-most viewed daytime program in the history of cable television. It drew a 7.4 U.S. rating and 13.458 million viewers,” (Wile).
A hope, as the professional leagues such as the WNBA and the Women’s National Soccer League (WNSL) rise through the popularity ranks, is to put these sports on a more even playing field, not just in terms of amount of coverage but also in terms of slant in coverage. It is important to recognize that these leagues have grown immensely with time and didn’t just gain their popularity overnight. While the amount of coverage is a more difficult task to balance, especially on television, because of the popularity and large fan base in certain professional sports, the slant in coverage can more easily be fixed.
Day, Lori. “Stop Scrutinizing Female Athletes For the Wrong Reasons.” Huffington Post 7 July 2015.
Desmone-Harris, Jenee. “Olympics coverage and commentary managed to offend, annoy, and alienate almost everyone.” Vox. 20 Aug. 2016.
Park, Madison. “Is Olympic coverage undercutting women’s achievements?” CNN 9 Aug. 2016.
Rogers, Katie. “Sure, These Women Are Winning Olympic Medals, but Are They Single?” The New York Times 18 Aug 2016.
Taibi, Catherine. “TV Ignores Women’s Sports Now More Than It Did 25 Years Ago.” Huffington Post 8 June 2015.
Wile, Rob. Here are the TV ratings numbers proving the U.S. women’s national soccer team is underpaid. 31 March 2016.