Last Saturday, I overheard a conversation during a Hockey Night in Canada game wherein a woman asked her husband “Why don’t they televise women’s hockey?”
Whether it’s hockey, baseball, or football, the prevailing (male) response typically goes something like this: Since women are physiologically different [read: weaker] from men, women’s sports are less exciting to watch, and (by implication) less worthy of major network coverage, funding, etc. compared to men’s sports.
As the conversation progressed, reference was made to Manon Rhéaume, a female goaltender who played for one period of a pre-season exhibition game for the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992 and another pre-season exhibition game in 1993. “She was good enough so they let her play with the men,” he explained.
In this particular situation, for various reasons, I chose to bite my tongue. Yes, women are physiologically different from men [read: they have different strengths]. But is that really why women’s sports don’t garner the same popularity? (Hint: No). During the Olympics (winter and summer), many viewers enjoy watching both women’s and men’s events equally. The women may be running/swimming/skiing slightly slower than their male counterparts, but for the most part it’s just as exciting to watch. And if people only paid attention to the physically strongest athletes, there would be no categories apart from “heavyweight” in sports like boxing. It’s therefore important to acknowledge that there are many other systemic barriers to women in sports beyond just physical differences between men and women. And so while I didn’t speak up at the time, writing my thoughts on the matter here serves as my own catharsis, and allows me to substantiate what I’m saying with actual sources (rather than simply giving a reactionary response out loud).
First, I’ll bring my own background/bias to the table: I played women’s rep baseball (hardball) from the ages of 15 to 24. Several of my team-mates also played women’s hockey. During my first few years on the rep team, I also played co-ed house-league baseball (though there was usually only one other female on the team, if any). In my entire history of playing, all of my coaches were male. When I was teaching high school full time, I also coached the varsity boys baseball team (we won the regional championships!). So my own past experiences as a female athlete in a predominantly “male” sport (i.e. not softball) are very much present in what I say.
1. Historical context
Women were historically and systematically barred from sports for a long time. To this day, when someone says “you run/throw/___ like a girl,” it is used as a form of insult (see video). In 1972, US Congress passed Title IX, a federal civil rights statute that prevents any educational institution that receives federal funding from discriminating on the basis of sex. Under this law, schools are supposed to treat women’s and men’s sports equally—yet today, there is nowhere close to equality. In the US, men are currently earning $190 million more per year in college athletic scholarships than women1. As well, the gap between male and female athletic participation at the high school level has been growing since 2008, with female high school athletes receiving 1.3 million fewer athletic participation opportunities than their male counterparts3. In addition, since the passing of Title IX there has been a dramatic decline in the number of women in coaching and leadership positions2. (When universities were forced to eliminate non-revenue-generating men’s athletic programs, it created a huge boom in male coaches for women’s athletics). Currently, only 2% of collegiate head coaches are women, and they are generally not in high-profile team sports like football, hockey and basketball2.
2. Field/Arena Conditions
The US Human Rights Watch Organization and American Civil Liberties Union have documented that female athletes are often relegated inferior equipment and supplies, receive less favourable competition and practice times, and are allocated less favourable modes of travel and accommodation than their male counterparts4. This article, written by Hope Solo (World Cup Champion, and three-time Olympic medalist) is well worth a read. Based on my own personal experiences, when field or arena availability is in limited supply, priority is usually given to male teams. For example, the female hockey players I knew often had practices or games at 11pm on a weeknight, which excludes many from participating in these sports in the first place.
3. The self-fulfilling prophecy of “interest” in women’s sports
Women’s sports receive only 2-4% of all sports coverage2 and on news and highlights shows like ESPN’s SportsCenter, women’s sports get virtually no coverage at all5. Even with tight broadcast time constraints, networks frequently find time to include ‘‘human interest’’ stories on men’s sports, or provide ongoing reports during the off-season of a sport (see examples below) rather than reporting on women’s sports that are happening in the moment6. This glaring disparity reflects the fact that the media doesn’t just under-report women’s sports, it actively suppresses information about it, positioning women’s sports as unimportant. Sports Illustrated contributor Andy Benoit even Tweeted publicly: “women’s sports in general not worth watching” (see video). He did not face any repercussions for making this statement, and is still employed by Sports Illustrated (a magazine that for 53 years has deemed women’s swimsuit-modelling a “sport” worthy of an entire issue… but I digress).
Part of why sports are so popular is that it is a shared communal experience—people enjoy watching sports and then discussing them with friends. Shows like SportsCenter give people the talking points they need to have those conversations because no one can possibly watch everything. But, as Mary Jo Kane (PhD in Sport Media at the University of Minnesota) describes, “it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you are a person who is interested in women’s sports and read a newspaper or sports website, you never see any coverage of women’s sports. Eventually, you stop going to that site or reading the sports section. Then, when the paper or website does marketing analysis, they find out that there doesn’t appear to be great interest in reading about their coverage of women’s sports. But it’s not because “nobody is interested”; it’s because there is nothing there.”
It’s also worth noting here that a lot of our perceptions of how “interesting” women’s sports are come from the media itself. Men’s sports seem more exciting because they are given higher production values, higher-quality coverage, and higher-quality commentary. When you watch women’s sports, and there are fewer camera angles, fewer cuts to shot, fewer instant replays, it’s going to seem to be a slower game and it’s going to seem less exciting. In news reports after-the-fact, frequently absent are the commentators’ voluminous vocal inflections, exclamatory descriptions of athletic successes, and heartfelt laments of failures that saturate the commentary in men’s coverage6. Similarly with sports journalism (wherein 90% of sports editors are men7) there is also a stark contrast between the exciting, amplified delivery of stories about men’s sports, and the often dull, matter-of-fact delivery of women’s sports stories.
4. Media coverage of female athletes often revolves around their bodies over their skills.
Within the small amount of coverage that women’s athletics do receive, female athletes are more likely to be portrayed off the court, out of uniform and in highly sexualized poses where the emphasis is on their femininity and their physical attractiveness rather than their athletic competence. (I thought this video was pretty clever). This is also the reason why things such as the Lingerie Football League (now called the Legends Football League) exist. In cases where a female athlete does not conform to the prescribed gender expectations of the mass media, she “falls under suspicion of lesbianism”—sometimes in explicit terms but more typically through indirect reference or veiled suggestion8. (This is rooted in the historically strong cultural associations between sport and masculinity). The most “acceptable” female athletes (according to popular media) are therefore “women whose beauty and sex appeal ‘compensate’ for their (masculine) athletic abilities”8.
Now let’s look at some examples of women’s sports that are considered interesting/exciting enough to be televised…
The 2015 Women’s World Cup was the most-watched soccer game in United States history, with 26.7 million viewers9,10—which was more than the 2015 NBA Finals (13.9 million viewers), the Stanley Cup Finals (7.6 million viewers), and the 2014 World Series (highest was 23.5 million viewers in Game 7)9,11. This also exceeded the viewership for the men’s World Cup final, held the previous year (26.5 million viewers)9. This is not only a testament to the enduring talent of these women, but also to their overall appeal to the American public.
Yet despite their accomplishment and clear skill, these illustrious players still face abundant inequality based on their gender alone. For winning the World Cup, the U.S. women’s team received a payout of $2 million12. By comparison, the 16 men’s teams that were knocked out in the first round of the men’s World Cup each received $8 million13. The 11th-place U.S. men’s team took home $9 million for losing round 16,13 and the winners (Germany) received $35 million12. This amounts to the female World Cup winners receiving less than 6 cents for every $1 earned by the male winners.
Leading up to the 2015 women’s World Cup, players in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) earned salaries ranging from $6,000 to $30,000 per year, with many living below the poverty line14. Each NWSL team operated with a salary cap of around $200,00012 (by contrast, the MLS salary cap was $3.1 million per team in 2014)12. While several of the U.S. Women’s National team stars have some off-field endorsements to help them buffer their paltry salaries, those opportunities are not evenly spread12. U.S. forward Sydney Leroux told ESPN’s Grantland that she made between $60,000 and $92,500 a year, including money earned from promoting brands like Nike and BodyArmor15. According to Fusion, “first-division women’s soccer players were making 98.6 percent less than professional soccer’s male cohort,” making it one of the starkest gender pay divides in any workplace16.
This blatant disparity prompted the US Women’s National team to file a wage discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and as of April 2017, they have recently ratified a new collective bargaining agreement to improve the salaries and conditions for female players. But overall, it feels like a chicken-chicken problem, with the women’s team doing their job (winning games and garnering record-breaking network viewership) and everyone else lagging behind in valuing their work.
With the exception of women’s tennis—which only recently won equal prize money at all four Grand Slam tournaments—the income disparity across other professional sports remains poor as well. In the WNBA, the minimum salary for 2013 was $37,950 and the team salary cap was $913,00012. For NBA players during the same season, the minimum salary was $490,180 and the team salary cap was $58.7 million12. Total prize money for the PGA tour, more than $250 million, is more than five times that of the LPGA tour ($50 million)17.
But I’ll save the debate about how much more “interesting” men’s golf is to watch than literally any other women’s sport for another time…
Here are some examples of “human interest” stories that appeared during broadcasts wherein there was no coverage of women’s sports6:
- KNBC’s March 18, 6 p.m. sports news included a 30-s segment about a swarm of bees invading a Red Sox versus Yankees game and a 20-s segment about an 18-in. corn dog available for purchase for US$25 at the Arizona Diamondbacks stadium.
- KCBS’s March 26, 11 p.m. sports news devoted 45-s to the ribbon cutting ceremony for a new restaurant that opened at Chavez Ravine owned by former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda.
- KNBC’s July 22, 11 p.m. broadcast devoted 40-s discussing whether recently traded Lakers player Kendall Marshall will be able to find a good burrito in Milwaukee. This segment included a full-screen graphic showing a map from the Milwaukee basketball arena to a Chipotle restaurant, while the commentator gave Marshall directions.
- KNBC’s March 18, 11 p.m. broadcast included a 55-s segment about a stray dog that fans and players subsequently named Hank who wandered into the Milwaukee Brewers’ stadium. The story is about his adoption and the dog’s new role as the ‘‘spring training mascot’’ for the Brewers.
Here are some examples of “off-season” stories that appeared during broadcasts wherein there was no coverage of women’s sports6:
- On KABC’s July 23, 6 p.m. broadcast, the news anchor introduced the sports anchor saying that he was ‘‘Gonna talk about college football, it’s never too soon!’’ The sports anchor agreed and began discussing a 77-s story that previewed University of California, Los Angeles’s (UCLA) and University of Southern California’s (USC) season-openers set to take place in late August.
- On KCBS’s July 17, 6 p.m. broadcast, the sports anchor introduced the broadcast explaining to viewers, ‘‘When I say never, I mean it’s never too early to start talking about the National Football League!’’ which began a 78-s story about the National Football League (NFL) media tour for Thursday Night Football.
- On KABC’s July 15, 6 p.m. broadcast, the main news anchor introduced the sports anchor by saying, ‘‘And yep, it is a bit early in the year, but it’s never too soon to think about the NBA.’’ The sports anchor replied, ‘‘That’s right, it’s just around the corner.’’ Although it was still midsummer, he acknowledged, ‘‘it’s never too early to talk about opening night,’’ which is ‘‘161 more shopping days’’ from now.
- On the July 17, broadcast of ESPN’s SportsCenter, embedded in a longer segment on the NBA Cleveland Cavaliers’ deal with LeBron James and an offer extended to Kevin Love, 25-s was spent on a story about a wedding in Akron, Ohio. ESPN featured a picture of a groom in his tux, standing in front of his groomsmen, all of who wore various LeBron James’ jerseys.
- Wallace, K. The real March Madness: When will women’s teams get equal buzz? CNN (2016).
- Kane, M. J. Progress and Inequality: Women’s Sports and the Gender Gap. CEHD Vision 2020 (2017).
- Women’s Sports Foundation. Title IX Myths and Facts. Women’s Sports Foundation (2013).
- Shapiro, S. R. Sex Discrimination. in Human Rights Violations in the United States: A Report on U.S. Compliance with The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 37–53 (Human Rights Watch, 1993).
- Kroh, K. SportsCenter’s shameful coverage of women’s sports. ThinkProgress (2015).
- Cooky, C., Messner, M. A. & Musto, M. ‘It’s Dude Time!’: A Quarter Century of Excluding Women’s Sports in Televised News and Highlight Shows. Commun. Sport 3, 261–287 (2015).
- Morrison, S. Media is ‘failing women’ — sports journalism particularly so. Poynter (2014).
- Cahn, S. K. Coming On Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Women’s Sport. (University of Illinois Press, 2015).
- Sandomir, R. Women’s World Cup Final Was Most-Watched Soccer Game in United States History. New York Times (2015).
- US Soccer. Women’s World Cup Final is Most-Watched Soccer Match in U.S. History. (2015).
- Hinog, M. Women’s World Cup final’s ratings were HUGE. SBNation.com (2015).
- Pilon, M. The World Cup pay gap. POLITICO (2015).
- Close, K. Here’s How Poorly Female Soccer Players Are Paid Compared to Men. Money (2016).
- Kassouf, J. A quick look at NWSL salaries. Equalizer Soccer (2013).
- Thomas, L. Permanent Ink. Grantland (2015).
- Fusion. Soccer Has a Huge Wage Inequality Issue. Fusion (2015).
- Saffer, M. Big gap in earnings between men and women professional golfers. espnW (2016).