16 April 2021

Women’s Sports Uncovered

Welcome back. Did you catch any of the March Madness games? The women’s tournament? With all the hoopla focused on the men’s tournament, you’ll probably be surprised that a tally of Twitter and Instagram counts found 8 of the 10 most-followed players on the final eight teams were women.

Coach Tara VanDerveer cuts down the net after Stanford beat Arizona for the 2021 women's national title (AP photo by Morry Gash from chroniclet.com/photo-single/155963/?mode=team).

The fans must have been excited to see those players in action. The women’s tournament was televised, even if there was relatively little on televised sports news and highlights shows. Unfortunately, the lack of coverage is nothing new; women’s sports are usually ignored. At least that’s what Purdue and the University of Southern California researchers have documented every 5 years from 1989 to 2019.

Data Collection and Analysis
For their 2019 effort, the researchers followed the same methodology they applied in assessing the quantity and quality of men's and women's sports news coverage since 1989. They sampled and analyzed three 2-week blocs of televised news in March, July and November on NBC, CBS and ABC Los Angeles affiliates and on the ESPN SportsCenter program. When available, the continuous running ticker at the bottom of the television screen was included. As a first, they also added online daily sports newsletters and official NBC, CBS and ESPN Twitter accounts.

Men’s vs. Women’s Sports Coverage
The enormous gap between men’s and women’s sports coverage in 2019 appeared in every way.

Less than 6% of airtime was devoted to women’s sports (i.e., about 94% to men’s sports). Most of women’s sports coverage was in July, when the U.S. women’s soccer team won the World Cup and U.S. women were competing in the Wimbledon tennis tournament. Airtime in March and November was only 1.7% and 0.7%, respectively.

The proportion of airtime devoted to women’s sports on three network affiliates’ sport news and on ESPN’s SportsCenter, 1989–2019 (from journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/21674795211003524).

Women’s sports fared better in online newsletters (8.7%) and Twitter (10.2%); however, most was due to espnW, which ended its weekly newsletter following the July 2019 data collection period.

Lead Stories
Like all news shows, sports open with the most important or engaging story of the day. Of the 251 broadcasts analyzed in 2019, five led with a women’s sports story; all five were on the U.S. Women’s soccer team winning the World Cup. Of the 93 online newsletters analyzed, eight led with a story about women’s sports.

Men’s “Big Three”
In their 2009 analysis, the researchers reported that sports coverage was becoming less diverse; 68% of the airtime was devoted to what they labeled men’s Big Three--college and professional basketball, baseball and football. That rose to 75% in 2019, with the remaining 25% shared by other men’s sports, gender-neutral topics and women’s sports.

Televised news and highlights, online newsletters and social media sports coverage, by gender (excludes espnW), 2019 (from journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/21674795211003524).

Never Too Early or Too Much
Since moving to Wisconsin, I’ve been amused by TV network affiliates’ year-round coverage of the Green Bay Packers whether important or trivial.

The researchers point out that the dominance of men’s Big Three sports on TV news and highlights programs is amplified by in-season as well as off-season reporting. In 2019, men’s professional basketball had nearly as much off-season as in-season coverage, while women’s professional basketball was covered only in-season. Worse, even in-season, women’s sports stories may be superseded by off-season men’s sports stories.

Notably, the community and charitable contributions of men athletes and teams were frequently featured in news and highlights shows, but women athletes’ contributions, including their social justice activism, seldom made it into women’s sports stories.

Wrap Up
Women’s sports coverage hasn’t changed in quantity for 30-years, yet there have been striking changes in the ways they’re reported. In the 1990s, women athletes were routinely trivialized, insulted and humorously sexualized. By the 2000s, sports news viewed women athletes less offensively, instead underlining their roles as wives, girlfriends or mothers. In 2014, women’s sports was being delivered in a boring, inflection-free manner.

I began and end with March Madness. The researchers found that, in 2019, their local network affiliates and ESPN’s SportsCenter devoted no more than 5% of their combined coverage to the women’s tournament, the online newsletter articles and tweets about 11%. Go girls!

Thanks for stopping by.

Most-followed players on men’s and women’s elite eight teams: www.axios.com/ncaa-basketball-social-media-followings-a98b2f21-e907-4276-b860-32565654d64a.html
Study of women’s televised sports, 1989-2019, in Communication & Sport journal: journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/21674795211003524
Article on study on EurekAlert! website: www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2021-03/uosc-nmk032221.php

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