When it comes to women in sports, TV news tunes out
A 25-year study of news coverage finds that TV sports segments and SportsCenter barely acknowledge female athletes
A USC study of TV news media has found that coverage of women’s sports has barely budged in a quarter-century, despite dramatic increases in the number of girls and women playing youth, high school, college and professional sports.
The survey of Los Angeles broadcast affiliates and ESPN’s SportsCenter reveals that coverage is actually less than it has been in the past.
In 2014, LA-based network affiliates devoted only 3.2 percent of airtime to women’s sports, down from 5 percent in 1989. SportsCenter devoted a scant 2 percent of airtime to women’s sports, a number that has remained flat since the study began tracking the nightly cable broadcast in 1999. When women’s sports are covered at all, 81.6 percent of coverage is focused on basketball.
At the same time, men’s sports coverage of the Big Three – football, basketball and baseball – has increased. The study found broadcasters devoted 74.5 percent of their sports reports to Big Three coverage, up from 68 percent in 2009. Big Three sports coverage continues well into the off-season, continuing storylines about teams and players even when no actual games are being played.
The study’s title – “It’s Dude Time!: A quarter century of excluding women’s sports in televised news and highlight shows” – is a reference to a hockey clip found during the course of the research. In light of the dearth of coverage of women’s sports, the sports announcer’s exclamation prompted the research team to ask: “When is it not ‘dude time?’”
What’s puzzling to us is that the increased interest and participation in women’s sports has not at all been reflected in news and highlights shows.
“It really demonstrates the unevenness of social change,” said Michael Messner, co-author of the study and professor of sociology and gender studies at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “We’ve had this incredible explosion of girls and women going into sports in the last 40 years, and we’ve seen some improvement in the last 10 years in live TV coverage of some women’s sports, like college basketball. What’s puzzling to us is that the increased interest and participation in women’s sports has not at all been reflected in news and highlights shows.”
The survey of sports news coverage has been conducted every five years since 1989. When it began, women rarely appeared, except to be portrayed as sex objects or the butt of a joke. Over time, that overt sexism has been replaced by a general absence of women altogether: Women’s sports are rarely covered, and when female athletes are interviewed in any depth, it’s to portray them as mothers or girlfriends, stressing those roles over their roles as athletes.
The news is also delivered differently. Sports announcers, famous for their boisterous, colorful commentary, seem to rein in their humor and enthusiasm as soon as female athletes are onscreen. The delivery then becomes flat.
“That’s what it feels like when the broadcast focuses on women’s sports: ‘We’re going to give you the main course, then eat your vegetables [the women’s sports coverage] and then we’ll give you the dessert,’ ” Messner said.
The way the news was delivered is as troubling to Messner and his colleagues as how rarely it was delivered at all. Airtime is precious, and a 30-second segment goes a long way in connecting viewers with the storylines happening within a particular sport or league.
While women’s sports gets little coverage, these stories did make it to the air:
• a swarm of bees invading a Red Sox/Yankees game
• a giant corndog that cost $25 at an Arizona Diamondbacks game
• a ribbon-cutting for a restaurant opened by Tommy Lasorda
• where former Lakers player Kendall Marshall will find a good burrito in Milwaukee (Chipotle)
• a stray dog that became a spring training mascot for the Brewers
Though broadcasters have made admirable attempts to diversify their reporting teams in terms of race, gender has been overlooked. In the 2014 study, women made up less than 5 percent of sports anchors and 14.4 percent of ancillary sports reporters.
On the radar
“With this research, we are trying to get women’s sports on the radar not only for fans, but for generations of girls and boys,” said study co-author Cheryl Cooky, associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Purdue University. “Seeing women’s sports through the same lens as we see men’s would go a long way in shifting the cultural perceptions of gender roles and expectations.”
Messner and his colleagues don’t expect 50/50 sex equality overnight: There are far more men’s sports leagues than women’s, so it makes sense that there would be greater representation of male athletes overall. But the fact that coverage of men’s Big Three sports so utterly dominated news coverage is problematic.
These shows function as a sort of ‘mediated man cave.’
“These shows function as a sort of ‘mediated man cave’ — a place set up by men for men to celebrate men’s sensational athletic accomplishments, while for the most part ignoring women’s,” Messner said.
The study recommends a few practical benchmarks that would be signs of progress.
• increasing the proportion of news and highlights airtime devoted to women’s sports to 12-18 percent
• allowing enough coverage to be able to develop storylines throughout a season or a year
• reporting on women’s sports with the same enthusiasm that men’s coverage receives
• hiring sports reporters or anchors who actually have some interest or background in women’s sports
The study was conducted by Messner, Cooky and Michela Musto of USC Dornsife’s Department of Sociology. The research was funded primarily through a grant from the University of Michigan’s Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy center, with supplemental support from the USC Center for Feminist Research, the USC Annenberg School for Communication and the Purdue Office of the Provost.
More stories about: Diversity Equity and Inclusion, Gender Studies, Journalism, Sociology, Television