Feminists interfered in college sports using Title IX in the 1970s. Now those ladies are gunning for mainstream coverage of women’s sports.
In June, a report of gender conscious sports coverage — a study conducted every four years — titled “Gender in Televised Sports: News and Highlight Shows, 1989-2009” gave these women even more fodder to shriek about. Michael Messner, a sociologist at the University of Southern California, and Cheryl Cooky, a sociologist at the Purdue University, conducted the study, finding that television coverage of women’s sports was “lower than ever.”
According to the study, in prime time, men’s sports received 96.3% of airtime, while women’s sports received 1.6%. Gender neutral topics composed the remaining 2.1%. “This is a precipitous decline in the coverage of women’s sports since 2004, when 6.3% of the airtime was devoted to women’s sports, and the lowest proportion ever recorded in this study,” the report lamented.
Jill Pilgrim, a sports and entertainment lawyer at Precise Advisory Group, told The Daily Caller that she is pessimistic about coverage for women’s sports improving, but says that does not mean women should not push for it.
“I was always hopeful that as more women reached the executive ranks of business that instead of favoring men’s sports for sponsorship dollars they might consider giving some exposure to women’s sports,” Pilgrim said. “But it seems that the glass ceiling that keeps women out of the executive board room in business is alive an well in the sports arena.”
The issue is not a glass ceiling but rather demand, according to Dr. Christina Hoff Sommers, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). “[T]he heavy focus of news and highlights shows on men’s sports is…obvious—that is where the fans are,” Sommers wrote in the AEI’s periodical The American. “Even women prefer watching male teams. Few women follow the sports pages and ESPN, but many enjoy attending live games — featuring male athletes. According to Sports Business Daily, 31 percent of the NFL’s ‘avid fans’ are women.”
“I would not equate dollars and cents with interest. I think that is the big problem because there are a lot of women who enjoy women’s sports…but there is a problem with lack of promotion,” Pilgrim said. “By not giving women the option of watching more women’s sports then we don’t even have a chance to choose. If there were more opportunities to see it then we could gauge how much interest there was in it.”
Donna Lopiano, former CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation and President of Sports Management Resources, echoed Pilgrim’s contention saying that far more goes into ratings than just interest.
“All of the ingredients that would improve appreciation for women’s sports have not been there. People don’t realize that ratings are not a function of public interest. They are a function of three things,” she explained. “One, whether there is promotion of the product. Two, is it on during prime time? Is it on in a consistent time or place. Without that it is very difficult for any sport, male or female, to make a go of it.”
“I went to a WNBA game last week and it was wonderful,” Pilgrim said. “One of the things I love about it is seeing men with their daughters, women with their sons. It’s just very inclusive and wonderful.”
Regardless, Sommers notes that for the 2009 season, of those who attended professional basketball games (defined as “NBA plus WNBA” games), the NBA got 92.3 percent of attendance while the WNBA puttered out at 7.7% percent. Further, the NBA subsidizes a number of the money draining WNBA teams. It is estimated that WNBA teams lose $1.5 million to $2 million annually.
What’s more, many of the sports related initiatives targeting women have folded within a couple years of their establishment. Sommers points out that Sports Illustrated for Women lasted less than two years and that both the Women’s United Soccer Association and American Basketball League died after just a few seasons.
Lopiano chalked much of the low attendance and viewership of women’s sports up to a lack of publicity and promotion. “Most promotional dollars go toward the big sports which leaves no money for the others. So what you have is a squeezing out of the developing sports because everyone wants the bragging rights for the NFL and the NBA,” Lopiano said.
Despite the historical evidence that sports related initiatives geared toward women usually fail, ESPN is currently cooking up an entire new brand specifically for women. ESPNw is preparing to become the next refuge for women who enjoy watching and playing sports.
“ESPNw is not a new TV network,” ESPN wrote in an e-mailed statement. “It is an opportunity for ESPN to create a deeper relationship with female athletes. The initial focus will be competitive high school girls, using a multimedia approach, with an emphasis on digital media. At this point, we are in the developmental stage and will provide further details as the business moves ahead.”
ESPN expects to launch the brand next spring. In preparation the company has already obtained ownership of www.espnw.com.
An ESPN representative told TheDC that the company is planning a retreat in California at the end of September for a brainstorming and discussion session about women in sports and other related topics.