In connection with my graduate course at Georgetown University in Sports Industry Management this summer, a classmate and I were assigned to take a position on this topic and wrote the following paper then debate the issue in class. I publish this paper with the permission of my co-author and classmate, Jack Davis.
I. Introduction and Definition of the Debate
We have been asked to debate the issue whether women’s sports (professional, amateur, collegiate, and high school), should be reported by the media (“the Media”, hereinafter to refer to broadcast, online and/or print media), equally in quantity and quality as men’s sports. Current statistics certainly support the proposition that coverage is drastically unequal in every respect on every media platform, but our society must mandate a change. While this change will be an evolving one, immediate steps can and should be taken to ensure the fair and equal treatment of women’s sports. As addressed below, the arguments against equal coverage of women’s sports fall flat, such as that there is a lack of interest in women’s sports and therefore, it makes bad business sense as well as the argument that the level of play is not equal. Clearly, among other examples, the universal appeal of the 2011 Women’s World Cup refutes those arguments.
II. Point: Coverage is Lacking and Separate is Not Equal
Major sports broadcaster ESPN has recently announced efforts to take action in this regard in the form of an online presence only in a new entity called ESPNw; however, not only is this effort lacking, it smacks of the “separate but equal” doctrine that once failed miserably in our society in the realm of racial equality. Further, the stereotype is pervasive in society that men in sport are superior to women, and what women achieve in sports is of lesser quality and lacks the appeal of men’s achievements. A similar argument persisted in Major League Baseball when African-Americans were said to be inferior (WSF, 2010). While it took decades, when that stereotype finally was dispelled, the change improved both the sport and society. There are differences of course between these issues; however, the stark similarity is that throughout history and currently, women’s sports are treated as inferior, which perpetuates negative stereotypes towards women and has a measurable impact on women’s lives, career opportunities, and self-esteem. It is time for the Media to awaken to the imperative to do what is right for society and for women, half of our nation’s population. Women are not only a majority of the U.S. population, but are currently 57% (Williams, 2010) of college students today (Williams, 2010). Title IX and its impact since 1972 contributed to a boom in women’s participation in athletics so that as of 2007, 170,000 women were competing in intercollegiate athletics.
Women compete increasingly as equally as men in the majority of collegiate sports with the notable exception of football, which requires a disproportionately greater number of athletes to field a team. However, NCAA sports and individual athletes should be treated and covered equally. On the high school level, the figures are similar. In 2010, 3.1 million girls participated compared with the 4.4 million boys that played. In 1971, only 294,000 girls participated at the high school level (WSF, 2010). In the professional ranks, women have a thriving and competitive presence in the sports of golf and tennis; the WNBA is currently celebrating its fifteenth season and women’s soccer is now in its second iteration of a professional league. The 2011 Women’s World Cup achieved an unprecedented overnight rating (8.6) for the Japan-USA final; it eclipsed the 2011 MLB All-Star Game (7.9) and the 2011 British Open (2.6). By further comparison, the 2010 World Series had an 8.4 rating (Kaufman, 2011) (Langford, 2011). The World Cup’s popularity among men and women will likely fuel the sport’s continued growth in the U.S. and interest in both the women’s game and men’s counterpart.
The Media have a social responsibility to cover these female athletes in equal time and quality as male athletes, from the graphics and back-story onscreen to the placement and size of story and photographs in print. To do otherwise is to not only minimize women’s contributions to sport and society but also to continue to marginalize women’s sports as less important and interesting as men’s sports. Imagine the number of women participants if the Media represented it equally; perhaps then, the participation rates of men and women would more closely represent the actual population and participation. The unequal coverage of women’s sports by the Media both perpetuates negative stereotypes and fails to showcase the athletic talents, strengths, and spirit of women in competitive sports. The best women in their respective sports are compelling, world-class athletes who bring excitement to their chosen sport and are followed and respected by men and women alike. However, because the Media focuses so little on female superstar athletes, the public will never know and follow the other talented, exciting female athletes who receive no press. For instance, ESPN’s SportsCenter dedicated 1.4% of coverage to women’s sports in 2010 (Michael A. Messner, 2010), which was even less than the 2.2% coverage ten years earlier. The fact that there may even be a regression in coverage is certainly troubling, especially when women are participating in athletics and contributing as fans in greater numbers than ever.
We believe that this imbalance in reporting does not reflect the actual interest in women’s sports. A bevy of reasons why women’s sports are underreported continue to plague the unequal coverage. The biases of editors and producers (both in general news and sports news) are ingrained in excuses of “market forces” and “giving the audience what they want”. If the Media implement a plan to incorporate greater and equal coverage of women’s sports, the excitement and interest in those sports will grow exponentially.
III. Counterpoint and Refutation
To anticipate our opponent’s argument, contrary to unsubstantiated belief, equal coverage of women’s sports will not result in a financial loss to corporate media interests, but in the long run, will result in a gain. Consumer studies show that in most households, women hold the purse strings, pay for household bills including cable television, Internet, sports tickets, and other sports-related items such as apparel and merchandise. These women are both professionals and “soccer” moms who, along with their husbands and partners, have carpooled their children, girls and boys, to practices and games and supported their participation in organized sports. While the Media will operate with a view to profits to satisfy shareholders, it is erroneous to argue that they cannot devote greater time and attention, on their networks or pages, to women’s sports because an audience does not exist and therefore they will lose money. As statistics show that women are sports fans and competitive athletes in greater numbers than ever as well as are in charge of the family’s entertainment, we contend that if the Media creates the interest by greater coverage, then women’s sports today will be provided the same opportunity as the professional black athletes who once were not provided an opportunity to compete and demonstrate their talent to a large potential fan base. Newspapers, with shrinking revenues and fewer resources, assign their remaining reporters to the traditional men’s sports of football, baseball, and basketball. (Michael A. Messner, 2010). Coverage matters. When financial difficulties persist, the Media rely upon an antiquated business model of covering men’s sports based on historical figures of participation and interest. It is foolish to believe that women (and men) will pull the plug on the same activities that they have supported for their children and participated in over the years.
Importantly, increasingly greater and equal coverage of women’s sports represents a real financial opportunity to draw in a greater fan base at whatever level of competition, to sell more tickets to collegiate and professional sports contests, and to build an already substantial women’s fan base of both men’s and women’s sports. One may conclude from these facts that as women have become more interested in men’s sports over time, that in turn, men, when exposed to women’s sports in a similar fashion, may have an equal interest in the former. The 2011 World Cup showed this great potential.
In conclusion, the female population is a majority in the United States. At all levels – amateur, collegiate, and professional – women’s sports should be reported equally as men’s. Women’ participation and both men and women’s interest in women’s sports has increased dramatically, yet media coverage lags tremendously. It is evident that the current coverage needs to evolve beyond the deep-seated beliefs of the same stereotypes that segregated blacks and whites within our society, whether in everyday life or in sport. Excuses of limited time and market forces that have stalled the coverage of women’s sports are simply lingering biases. It is time to use qualitative information to propel coverage of women’s sports in the same direction participation has evolved, to a level equal in every respect to that of men’s.
Karp, H. (2011, July 16). U.S. Women’s Soccer Success Gives Men a Tough Goal: Buying a Jersey. The Wall Street Journal, p. Online.
Kaufman, M. (2011, July 19). Women’s World Cup final draws big TV ratings. Miami Herald, p. Online.
Langford, R. (2011, July 18). Bleacher Report. Retrieved July 23, 2011, from BleacherReport.com: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/748887-us-womens-world-cup-team-2011-tracking-the-american-run-through-germany/entry/108837-womens-world-cup-2011-results-finals-draws-better-tv-ratings-than-world-series.
Michael A. Messner, P. C. (2010). GENDER IN TELEVISED SPORTS: NEWS AND HIGHLIGHTS SHOWS, 1989-2009. Los Angeles: Center for Feminist Research, University of Southern California.
NCAA. (2008). A Practical Guide for Colleges and Universities – 2008. Gender Equity in Intercollegiate Athletics, p. 297.
Pexton, P. B. (2011, June 10). Women’s sports coverage lacking. Washintgon Post, pp. Online (1-2).
Sander, L. (2010). Forget 15 Minutes of Fame. How About 15 Seconds? The Chronicle of Higher Education, Online.
Sholar, A. (2011, July 8). Why don’t you cover women’s sports. Washington Post – Letter to the Edtor, p. Online.
Stinson, R. W. (2011, July 19). The ups and downs of women’s soccer. Washington Post – Letter to the Editor. Washington DC.
Thomas, K. (2010, October 15). ESPN Slowly Introducing Online Brand for Women. The New York Times, p. Online.
Williams, A. (2010, February 5). The New Math on Campus. The New York Times, p. Online.
WSF. (2010, June 4). Women’s Sports Foundation – Articles and Reports – Media Issues. Retrieved July 25, 2011, from Women’s Sports Foundation: http://www.womenssportsfoundation.org/sitecore/content/home/research/articles-and-reports/media-issues/women-play-sports-but-not-on-tv.aspx
 Millions of women are avid sports consumers, even if they watch in smaller numbers than men. Women comprise 44 perfect of football fans, 45 percent of baseball fans and 36 percent of professional men’s basketball fans, according to research conducted by the professional (NFL, MLB, NBA) sports leagues (Thomas, 2010).