It’s no secret that men’s sports get more attention than women’s, not only in attendance but also in TV broadcasting and viewership. Research shows that, in 2014, only 2-3 percent of media coverage was dedicated to women’s sports – and the popularity of women’s sports was equally low. Yet, one third of major sports fans are women.
Why are female athletes exiled to the sidelines in sports media coverage? And why don’t more women watch women’s sports? To learn more about women’s involvement in sports and the obstacles of media coverage, ENTITY talked to Dr. Deborah Antoine, CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation, Marie Hardin, Penn State communications professor with a research focus of women’s sports, and Whitney Wagoner, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.
Why aren’t more women watching women’s sports? Here are four expert-backed reasons – and one piece of advice on how to change this trend!
When you were growing up, what sports did you see on the TV? If you only saw male athletes, that could be one part of the problem. “[Sports viewership] all comes down to cultural relevance,” explains Wagoner. “Most of us don’t grow up watching women’s sports as children, so we don’t want women’s sports as adults.”
When ENTITY talked to several female collegiate athletes, Caelan Smith’s experience illustrated Wagoner’s point to a T. “The only women sports I watch is the Women’s College World Series,” said the 21-year-old Cal State San Bernardino softball player. “Other than that, I watch men sports. Even in a house with three girls, it was what we grew up watching. My dad always had [men’s sports] on and I really didn’t think anything of it. I enjoyed it. It’s normal to me.”
This conditioned behavior isn’t easy to change, according to Hardin. “I think most people understand, on a cognitive level, the idea that women’s sports should have equity. But, when it’s time to turn on the television, it’s easier to say, ‘I support women’s sports!’ and watch men’s sports anyway. And I think that’s what many people do.”
Maybe it’s not that people are innately uninterested in women’s sports, as the Women’s Sports Foundation says many people claim. Instead, people are taught to be disinterested as they grow up.
Another issue is that, as Hardin explains, “Men’s sports showcase ‘gender ideals’ for men in a way that women’s sports don’t for women.” After all, when you picture an athlete, traits like strength, competitiveness and drive probably pop into your mind…and those traits fit better with society’s definition of masculinity than femininity.
In fact, one small 2011 study found that when women do choose to watch women’s sports, they often prefer ones like gymnastics, figure skating, and cheerleading – all of which feature typically feminine skills like grace, beauty and form.
Its also important to consider the fact that “watching women’s sports doesn’t have the same cultural cache,” according to Wagoner. “The ‘water cooler’ talk is always about men’s sports, so culturally we are given signals to watch more men’s sports. In fact, I think people are often ridiculed for being fans of women’s sports, because it isn’t the ‘cool’ thing to do.”
A 2016 poll even found that 32 percent of women and 47 percent of men believe men are innately better at sports. As long as women’s sports aren’t considered as worthy to watch – whether because they don’t fit traditional femininity or don’t feature as much “skill” – women’s sports won’t receive the female (and male) viewership they deserve.
For former high school athlete and current college softball player, Allie Potts, “the reason I watch men sports more is probably because they’re more advertised than women’s.”
Wagoner agrees that advertising impacts viewership. However, she also points out: “If people don’t watch women’s sports, media outlets won’t program women’s sports. Which means people will continue not watching. It is a rigid cycle – and a bit of chicken and egg – with regard to what programming ultimately makes it in front of viewers.”
Other researchers also blame the lack of women in sports journalism and media. Around 90 percent of sports editors are White men, and, according to the Women’s Media Center, only 10.2 percent of sports coverage in 2014 was produced by women.
So, would an increase in the advertising of women’s sports improve viewership? The answer to this chicken-and-egg question isn’t clear, but one fact is: there’s something majorly wrong with the lack of female fans of women’s sports…and the lack of female sports journalists.
Since Title IX, which bans sex discrimination in any educational program receiving federal funding, was passed in in 1972, women’s involvement in sports sports has skyrocketed. Compared to 1 in 27 girls playing high school sports in 1972, two in five do today. Collegiate female athletes have also increased in number by 600 percent.
However, those at the Women’s Sports Foundation say, “Women and girls still face major barriers to [sports] access, including lack of opportunities and conflicting messages in society about whether they should participate, what they should look like, and who they should ‘be.'” In fact, the WSF has found that, by age 14, girls drop out of sports twice as often as boys. Despite Title IX, girls also receive 1.2 million fewer opportunities to participate in high school sports than boys.
Why does the lack of women in sports matter to viewership? Because women’s sports are less advertised, only women who play the sport often know when games are on or choose to tune in. As college softball player Allie Potts told ENTITY, “I know a lot of people say the WCWS [NCAA Women’s College World Series] is the most exciting women’s event on TV. However, if I didn’t play softball, I probably wouldn’t watch it because even that isn’t as advertised.” Also, the more women go into sports, the more female professional athletes emerge to prove that women’s sports feature just as much skill – and offer just as much entertainment – as men’s.
Who knew that enrolling your daughter in soccer or tennis could actually benefit the future of women’s sports as a whole?
We’ve analyzed why women aren’t watching more women’s sports. Now, it’s time to share tips on how we can increase the female fanbase – and media coverage – of women’s sports.
All three experts ENTITY interviewed agreed that a cultural shift is needed. “[Increasing the recognition of women’s sports] is not a ‘build it and they will come’ scenario,” says Hardin. “Ideals about gender need to change before we’ll see real, substantive, lasting change.”
Exactly how can this happen? Wagoner offers a few ideas: “We can start with young kids, instilling the values of equity, inclusion and fan avidity for women’s sports,” she says. “It is also important for strong role models, male and female, to continue to celebrate and champion women’s sports. I might even go so far as to encourage influential media outlets to continue to broadcast women’s sports, whether the business model supports it in the short-term or not.”
You can even cast your “vote” in favor of women’s sports with a simple click of your remote or the purchasing of a sports ticket. “As a country, we should attend more women’s sporting events and tune in when they are broadcast on the television, radio or anywhere else,” advises the Women’s Sports Foundation. “When girls have the opportunity to watch female athletes in competition, they see what they can become. It also sends a message to girls and women that their contributions are valuable.”
The truth is, the lack of coverage and female (and male) fans for women’s sports isn’t a simple issue. In fact, some might consider it just as complex as the sports themselves. However, the big takeaway is this: if we want to see female athletes receiving more recognition, we need to become women’s sports fans ourselves.
In fact, women watching women’s sports is just another way that women can support women – and benefit everyone in the process.
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