It's Not Just Unfair Pay: Despite Soaring Popularity, Women’s Sports Get Less Coverage Than Ever

If someone told you that there is less coverage of women’s sports on televised news programs today than there was in 1989, would you believe them? It would be reasonable if your response was “no.”


Certainly, girls and women’s participation in sport has dramatically increased over the past 25+ years, and there are a number of professional women’s leagues today that did not exist in 1989. There’s also been a tremendous growing interest in and fan base for women’s sports over the last quarter century.

Sadly, according to recently published research in Communication & Sport (6/5/15) conducted by myself and colleagues Mike Messner and Michela Musto at the University of Southern California, in 2014 televised news media devoted a paltry 2-3 percent of its broadcast time to covering women’s sports. And, in fact, this was lower than the 5 percent of coverage women’s sports received in 1989. According to our 2014 data, of the 934 Los Angeles local network affiliate news segments in our sample (over 12 hours of broadcasts), 880 were on men’s sports (approximately 11-and-a-half hours) while only 32 segments, or about 23 minutes, featured women’s sports. (The remaining time was spent on “gender-neutral” sports such as marathon or recreational sports.) ESPN’s SportsCenter’s numbers were similar. Of the 405 totalSportsCenter segments in our sample (nearly 14 hours), 376 covered men’s sports (just over 13 hours) while only 13 segments, approximately 17 minutes, featured women’s sports.

According to a statement made by ESPN, their broadcast event coverage of women’s sports increased from 1,500 hours to 7,500 hours over the past five years. Yet, according to our research, SportsCenter’s coverage of women’s sport has held steady at 2 percent since we added the program to the study in 1999. Indeed, given the tremendous growth in women’s sports, and in broadcast event coverage as ESPN’s numbers would suggest, one would expect to see an increase in news media coverage. And while many might conclude that the news media are simply giving viewers “what they want,” our data suggest that the news media, through their commentary and coverage, help to build and sustain audiences and fans of men’s sports while containing any interest in women’s sports.

Total Sports Coverage (Communications & Sports)

Men’s sports, and specifically the “Big Three” (men’s professional and collegiate football, basketball and baseball) continued to monopolize the news broadcast time, representing 75 percent of our total 2014 sample, and are featured even when out of season. For example, the Los Angeles local affiliates, which operate under significant time constraints (most network news sportscasts are only several minutes in length), often included lengthy “human interest” stories about men’s sports, such as a 55-second segment about a stray dog that wandered into the Milwaukee Brewers’ stadium and a 40-second segment about whether a NBA player who recently had been traded would be able to find a good burrito in his new team’s city. Note that these stories appeared on days where no women’s sports were covered during the broadcast.

While the amount of coverage remained low across the 25-year span of the study, one positive shift we observed, a trend that emerged in our 2009 sample and continues today, is the absence of the sexualization of female athletes. Unfortunately, this “positive” trend in the quality of coverage has been accompanied by the decline in the amount of coverage of women’s sports. It would seem that the news media have become sensitized regarding the use of overt sexism in commentary, we hope in part because of our research.

Yet, on the rare moments when the sports news media do cover women’s sports, these stories were delivered in a bland, unenthusiastic, “just-the-facts” manner. In a typical segment, KABC (7/26/14) concluded its 11 p.m. newscast with a segment on the world series of pro beach volleyball:

Your weekend wouldn’t be complete without a little volleyball. Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross taking on team Slovakia in the semi-finals, looking for their fourth win of the tour. Easily dispatching the Slovakians in the first set, they lost the 2nd set, so it was decided in three. And team USA advances to that gold medal game, so if you’ve got nothing else to do, cool off tomorrow down at the beach in Long Beach.

This “if you’ve got nothing else to do” approach stood in stark contrast to the enthusiastic, excited delivery by which men’s sports are discussed. Men’s sports segments were characterized by high production values (interviews, music, graphics, etc.), accompanied by high-quality commentary, vocal inflection and exciting action descriptors.

For example, during SportsCenter‘s coverage of highlights from the MLB All Star Home Run Derby (7/14/14), a sports anchor discussed a Giancarlo Stanton hit: ‘‘Wow! Take another look at this one. He just absolutely destroys them! You can see the speed on that swing in real time. And you just stand and admire a shot like that.’’ Later, a sports analyst gushed over  Yoenis Céspedes:‘‘Céspedes kept getting better and better, and the home runs kept getting longer and longer and the numbers got bigger and bigger.”

On the rare occasion the news media applied the same high production values and quality of commentary to women’s sports, in most instances these segments highlighted a female athlete’s dual role as athlete and mother. Segments featuring basketball star Lisa Leslie’s induction into the Hall of Fame and Candace Parker’s stellar WNBA career incorporated interview questions regarding how the athletes balance being an elite athlete with being a mother. (“How do you balance being the centerpiece of a franchise with being a centerpiece of a little girl’s life as well?’’ SportsCenterasked Parker.)

While some may argue this is an improvement over the sexualized stories of female athletes we found in previous iterations of our study (see our article in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 2/03), featuring female athletes as mothers continues to situate them within conventional gender roles. It would seem that the options for representations of female athletes are limited by the sports news media to sexual object, mother or no representation at all.

I was recently asked for my response to the results of the study, to which I replied, “I’m surprised that I’m surprised.” Indeed, previous iterations of this study speak to the persisting inequality in the televised news media coverage of women’s sports so in some ways I expected that we would find a continued lack of coverage. Yet it would seem that over 40 years after the passage of Title IX, after the emergence of a number of professional women’s leagues and the tremendous growth in women’s collegiate basketball, we would have found similar gains and improvements in news media coverage. In our research, we explain this in terms of the “unevenness of social change,” which is easy to identify and describe, but much more challenging to explain and address. Why are we able to move forward in some realms while being stuck in outdated modes and ways of being in others?

What I can say is this: Media coverage of sports matters. The sports news media not only inform us of the major events in the world of sports, they are a powerful institution that actively builds and sustains interest and audiences for men’s sports. The media silence around women’s sports stunts the building of audiences and fan base for women’s sports. This has implications for gender relations in our society. As we explain:

The daily news and highlights shows’ failure to equitably cover women’s sports shrouds in silence women’s historic movement into sport and the impressive accomplishments of women athletes, thus retaining sport as a potent site for the reproduction of ideologies of male superiority.

Improving the media coverage of women’s sports would go a long way in positively changing gender relations in our society.

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