Women’s sports and the media: not just an Olympic event

Turn the TV to ESPN or CBC Sports and chances are you will be met with an onslaught of predominantly men’s sports coverage. Perhaps you will catch sight of a woman volleyball player, but even then, it’s usually only if she’s wearing a bikini.  The first time that women were even allowed to compete in the Olympics was in 1900 in Paris, and women made up only 22 of the total 997 athletes.

Sports have come a long way since then, but there is still a major divide in the attention paid to men’s and women’s sports, at both the amateur and the professional levels. In terms of salaries, excluding tennis, the gap between men’s and women’s professional incomes is immense. A comparison of salaries between the NBA and the WNBA revealed that the lowest paid member of the Houston Rockets makes $490 000 per year—almost five times as much as the highest paid women’s player, Lauren Jackson, earns starring for the Seattle Storm of the WNBA.

So why do woman athletes receive so much less media attention and funding?

I believe part of the problem relates to a misconception that women don’t play sports very often, but the number of women seriously participating in sports is significant and on the rise. According to a study published by the American Association of University Women, in 1971 fewer than 30 000 women participated in college athletics in the United States. By 2008 that number climbed to over five times as many.

The average person, when asked to list off a few of the professional women athletes they know, will probably stumble and come up with only a few names. The names Danica Patrick, Michelle Wie, and Lindsey Vonn will likely be recited, because they are women athletes who actually receive coverage. It can’t be a coincidence that they are all also undeniably attractive.

As for advertising and sponsorship, apart from seeing Serena Williams batting her tennis racket around during Tampax ads, there are far fewer opportunities for women to receive corporate funding than men, mainly due to the fact that women’s sports receive so much less coverage.

Even online, women’s sports are pushed into the background. Take a look at the FIFA website and try to count how many women’s stories you see on the homepage—likely you won’t even find one.

So why are broadcasters and other media not doing more to promote women’s sports? The reality is it comes down to ratings and advertising revenue, and companies are reticent to purchase promotional rights for women’s coverage.

Although some sports federations have tried to increase viewership for women’s sports, they often take the wrong approach. For example, in May 2011, the World Badminton Federation, hoping to raise the sport’s profile, decreed that female players must wear skirts on court to “ensure attractive presentation of badminton.” Despite an uproar from women players, it was not until June 2012 that women were relieved of the requirement to wear a skirt during matches.

A significant obstacle to women’s sports coverage is that women’s events can rarely hold the predominantly masculine viewership. Greg Baum, a senior sports writer for the Australian paper The Age, in his article “Count me out, women must earn coverage,” argued that “Women runners, jumpers, throwers, cyclists and swimmers do their best, but it is, by definition, second-best.” He went on to assert that women are “only sometimes as strong or fast as men, and so their sporting pursuits mostly are less of a spectacle.”  Baum is not alone, and views like his make it difficult for women’s sports to gain credibility.

I for one look forward to the February Olympics, because for that two-week period, finding elite women’s sports on TV will not be comparable to spotting a snow leopard. I will not be forced to stream from the Internet, because sports networks will actually be showing women athletes. I hope there comes a time when this is the norm—when woman athletes are regulars on ESPN or TSN, and not just for two weeks once every two years. That is what I truly look forward to.

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