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Women’s Sports and the Media: Why is it so hard to find coverage?

By: Hayley Morris

If you’re a soccer fan, or simply a sports fan in general, you’ve probably heard about the remarkable strides the US Women’s National Soccer team has made in recent years. They have been wiggling their way into more widely broadcasted games on well-known networks, with 15.6 million viewers tuning in to watch them win the final at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. They’ve made headlines by demanding equal pay for male and female athletes. They have inspired young girls all over the world to pursue soccer. But they’re an exception to the rule.

I don’t have to think back very long to remember the weekends when my dad would be flipping through channel after channel on the TV, searching for women’s soccer games for my sister (who played soccer) to watch, eventually landing on some obscure channel with a grainy quality. The men’s game would be available in HD, on multiple channels at once. And while women’s soccer has certainly made traction in the broadcasting network, the overall statistics in all sports categories show a much more gendered divide. While 40% of athletes in America are women, only 6-8% of total sports media coverage is devoted to them. Of the four major US Newspapers only 3.5% of all sports stories focus on women.¹ It bodes the prevalent question: why is it so hard for women to gain media coverage in the sports industry?

A large part of the issue seems to stem from the way sports are divided in terms of masculinity. The more masculine the sport, the less people seem to be inclined to watch women play. Women’s tennis, ice skating, and gymnastics, to name a few, typically have an easier time gaining an audience compared to women’s wrestling, rugby, and boxing. These are of course two ends of the spectrum when it comes to the perceived masculinity of sports, but the argument remains: when was the last time you watched a women’s rugby game on a major television network?

I’ve watched my sister switch from sport to sport over the years, shifting from ballet to soccer to softball to basketball to rugby, and with each new sport comes similar comments of how it’s unladylike to play such a physical sport, or why didn’t she just stick with ballet, or aren’t you nervous about the long term effects this will have on her body? Clearly, there is still the mindset in modern society that women should be slim and delicate, not muscular and heavyset. It’s no wonder then why major broadcasting networks don’t televise women’s sports: to a large proportion of the population, watching women participate in a sport that is aggressive and physical goes against the very nature of what a woman “should be,” and therefore makes the viewer feel uncomfortable. Broadcasting networks take these opinions into account and therefore focus on televising men’s sports as they know it will draw more views.

Others argue that the reason they don’t want to watch women’s sports is because it’s not as interesting as the men’s, and there lies another issue: the capability of a woman is still being compared to that of a man. Rather than observing women’s sports and appreciating the game in it’s own ways, women are consistently compared to the way men play the same sport. Women are criticized if they can’t be as tough or as quick as men, and the other skills women bring to the field are brushed aside. A prime example is the bias many hold toward softball, arguing the sport isn’t as interesting to watch and is easier to play because the field is smaller and the ball is bigger than in baseball. This viewpoint overlooks how one may appreciate softball for the quick reaction times players must have because the field is smaller and the strength needed to hit a ball that is heavier because it is bigger. When one considers the comparison of two sports from more than one angle, it becomes clear to see both sports are equally as challenging and thrilling to watch in their own unique ways.

Sports should not have to be played the same between men and women in order to be enjoyed. By buying into the sexist belief that women simply aren’t as appealing to watch as men, the media allows for the gender typing of sports to continue. This is detrimental to young girls who may be passionate about a certain sport, but grow up unable to find coverage of professional female athletes in the media. This also explains why a large proportion of girls quit sports, particularly in their teenage years, since they are told by society there is no profitable future for them in the world of sport. While boys are encouraged to play sports with the continued streaming of professional male athletes in HD with world renowned commentators in the background, girls are left with the scraps, trying desperately to search for other women as passionate about the sport as she is.

What needs to change is the mindset of modern society. Women are no longer adhering to the outdated societal stereotypes of the submissive homemaker, instead choosing to establish their own ground and pursue their own goals, and we need to begin to accept this change. Instead of clinging to the sexist hierarchy of the past, women should be praised and encouraged to participate in sports that have traditionally been male-dominated. This includes equal coverage of men’s and women’s sports on TV and other media. Without equal publicity in the media, women’s sports will continue to appear inferior to men’s. By providing equal coverage, women will be given the opportunity to attract sports fans and gain views, rather than being shut out from the sports fanatic world from the get-go. And by providing easier access to women’s sports, girls will be further inclined to continue to play. So it’s time to get over the fear of girls having muscle, playing fiercely, and sweating a little on live TV. The gender roles that have encapsulated the world for hundreds of years are finally beginning to break down—shouldn’t this apply to women’s sports too?

  1. Athlete Assessments, The Gender Equality Debate; A Boost for Women in Sport