Sports News Shortchanges Female Players, Fans

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Sheila Gibbons

(WOMENSENEWS)–"We got game," boasted the promotions when women’s professional basketball got going in the 1990s. Since then, the exciting moves of players such as Chamique Holdsclaw of the Washington Mystics, Lisa Leslie of the Los Angeles Sparks and Nikki McCray of the Indiana Fever have been thrilling sports fans. So have their counterparts in other professional games, such as soccer, skating and tennis, plus amateur sports such as skiing and swimming.

So when we pick through the weekend TV sports schedule in search of women’s games, or peruse the daily sports section for scores and analysis, we have to ask, as did the great Peggy Lee in her poignant song, "Is that all there is?"

When I walk past girls and young women going for broke on soccer fields, surrounded by lustily cheering moms, dads and friends, I think how great it must feel when the local paper features them. In many communities, high-school sports attract lots of media coverage, with the girls’ teams getting banner headlines day after day. So why, as the players get better as they advance into their college years and beyond, does media coverage seem to get weaker?

Moreover, when women compete against other women, as they do in basketball, they receive modest coverage in comparison with the men playing the same sport. Stand by to see what happens when a woman competes against men in the same sport, as will happen May 22-25 when Annika Sorenstam is slated to become the first woman in 58 years to compete on the PGA Tour, in the Colonial Golf Tournament in Fort Worth, Texas. The last time a woman played on the tour was in 1945 when Babe Didrikson Zaharias qualified for the Los Angeles Open.

Sorenstam has won more tournaments than any other golfer in the last two seasons (including Tiger Woods). So watch how the media begin to circle her as the tournament date approaches. (The protest over the Augusta National’s males-only membership policy will likely be a subtext for Sorenstam’s PGA appearance.) Expect tons of talk about Sorenstam’s gender, intense scrutiny of her game–such as whether shooting from the back tees will be a real disadvantage–and whispers about how much the men on the tour dread coming in a few strokes behind her. There’s nothing dishonorable about losing to a great golfer, but when that golfer is a woman, well . . . you know.

Compare the media coverage of this event with the usual state of media interest. For example, looking at the TV college basketball schedule for Saturday, March 15–a key tournament weekend–I counted 33.5 hours of TV time, of which women were scheduled for just 3.75 hours–11 percent of total college hoops time for that day. And you got to see the women’s games, including the NCAA championship game a few weeks later, only if you had cable or satellite TV.

Visiting the Yahoo! Sports Web site, I found a page for women’s basketball–but only after clicking on "NCAA Men’s Hoops," getting the men’s page, going to a link called "Women" and clicking on that. (Adam’s rib all over again.) The men’s page offered links to a host of professional sports, but the women’s page didn’t.

Second-Class Status Despite Surge in Female Fans

Incredibly, this second-class status in the media comes at a time when data show that women sports fans are surging in number. According to a recent national study from Scarborough Sports Marketing, 50 million women follow sports sponsored by the National Hockey League, National Football League, National Basketball Association, Women’s National Basketball Association, Professional Golfers Association, NASCAR, Professional Soccer or Major League Baseball. The percentage of women 18 and older who are loyal (very or somewhat avid) sports fans has doubled in four years from 28 percent in 1998 to 58 percent in November 2002, according to Scarborough, which says they remain a huge untapped market for sports marketers.

With such figures, shouldn’t we expect to see more programming featuring female athletes? And when watching televised events that feature male competitors, shouldn’t we also see commercials that amiably but respectfully address the large numbers of women watching? (Note to Budweiser: Fire the bimbos and bring back the talking lizards. Please.)

On the news side, it’s disquieting that so many newspaper sports editors continue to relegate collegiate and national women’s competitions to the inside or back of the sports section, with far fewer column inches than their male counterparts receive.

The puny coverage sportswomen garner has been well documented. One-year analyses were conducted on 52 Saturday editions of The New York Times and The Indianapolis Star (national and regional readerships, respectively) in 1989 by Judith George and Neal Watson and again in 1999 by George and Ashleigh Griffin of DePauw University, Greencastle, Ind. In the 1989 study, women received 2.7 percent of all sports coverage in the Star, 2.2 percent in The Times. Ten years later, the numbers were 8.6 percent for the Star and 6.7 percent for The Times–numbers that just don’t jibe with the increased attendance at, and popularity of, sports events featuring women.

Strange Silence about Attack on Title IX

While the gender of sports participants is clearly associated with the amount and type of coverage they generally receive, the fact that there’s any coverage of women at all is because of the opportunities opened up for female athletes in the last 30 years by Title IX, which is now under attack by the Bush administration.

Pam Creedon, author of "Women, Media and Sport: Challenging Gender Values," sees news coverage of various groups’ positions on Title IX enforcement as "the elephant in the living room"–the thing that’s there, and everyone knows it, but no one mentions it.

Underreporting women’s sporting activities and ignoring the growing female fan base for all sports is bad enough; but Creedon, director of the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication, believes that media reports blaming Title IX for damaging sports programs (by allegedly robbing Peter to pay Pam) have distorted the real successes and equity Title IX has achieved.

"The most troubling thing to me is the way Title IX has been covered as a great threat to men’s sports, when the real threat is football programs that are so expensive that schools often can’t afford many other sports," says Creedon, an administrator at a Big Ten school. "If that mentality persists, whatever we try to do to make news coverage of women and men athletes more equitable just isn’t going to happen."

Many coaches of women’s college sports have chronicled their battles to gain adequate facilities, travel funds and scholarship money for female athletes. Their struggle reflects a persistent attitude, on and off campuses, that adult female athletes playing team sports are less proficient and less worthy than men playing those sports or other ones. Those who hold that belief shrug when asked why the soccer parents cheering on their 15-year-old goalie daughter shouldn’t expect her to make headlines as often as her 17-year-old quarterback brother.

The shrug is body language for an outdated notion that dictates too many decisions on sports desks in newsrooms. There, where women in charge are still a distinct minority, the facts aren’t allowed to get in the way of the belief that the most ardent sports fans, and the players worth watching and writing about, are male.

Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly journal of news, research and commentary about women and media. She is also co-author of "Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism," Strata Publishing, Inc.

For more information:

Women’s Sports Foundation–Issues and Action
"Lack of News Coverage for Women’s Athletics: A Questionable Practice of Newspaper Priorities":
http://www.womenssportsfoundation.org/cgi-bin/iowa/issues/media/article.html?record=807

Women’s Sports Foundation–
"Women’s Sports and Fitness Facts and Statistics," Chapter 6-Media Coverage:
http://www.womenssportsfoundation.org/binary-data/WSF_ARTICLE/pdf_file/797.pdf

National Association for Girls and Women in Sport–
"Women and Men in the Press Box: The Price of Progress":
http://www.aahperd.org/nagws/pdf_files/ar_staurowskywebarticle.pdf

 

 

 

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