OPINION: Equal Interest Starts With Equal Time
As Women’s History Month draws to a close, a recently-concluded 30-year study on the coverage of women’s athletics feels especially poignant to discuss.
A University of Southern California and Purdue University joint study conducted every five years since 1989 found that in 2019, “95 percent of total television coverage as well as the ESPN sports highlights show SportsCenter focused on men’s sports.” The study also found that 80 percent of news and highlights programs studied featured exactly zero time devoted to women’s sports.
The authors analyzed three two-hour blocs of televised news on three Los Angeles network affiliates in March, July and November to account for various sports seasons, as well as three weeks of SportCenter’s one-hour program. The most recent iteration of the study also included online daily newsletters from networks such as NBC, CBS and ESPN, along with their associated Twitter accounts. The newsletter content featured nine percent devoted to women’s sports, while 10 percent of Twitter posts featured women’s athletics.
Whenever disparities like this come up in the sports world, there is always a “chicken or the egg”-type argument made about how interest is generated. Does interest come from the product on the playing field, or from the framing of that sporting event by the media entity covering it?
Think about the last sporting event you tuned in for that did not involve a team, sport or athlete you follow regularly. For me, one of the first that comes to mind is “The Match” last summer between duos of Tom Brady and Phil Mickelson against Tiger Woods and Peyton Manning. Golf is rarely, if ever, a sport I take time out of my day to make sure to watch. However, because I saw non-stop ads in the week leading up to it that reminded me when it would be taking place, I was sure to tune in.
When women’s sports are packaged as an obligation to cover rather than a potential selling point, they have no chance of drawing wide appeal. Promotion and exposure on a more equal playing field with men will lend itself to greater knowledge and, more than likely, greater viewer participation.
One of the few highpoints discussed in the study was the response in coverage to the latest U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team winning the World Cup in 2019. Even there though, the evidence of shortcomings in coverage was remarkably evident. Of the 251 broadcasts analyzed in the study, five (or two percent) opened with a women’s sports story. All five occurred in the month of July, and all five were about the U.S. National Team winning the World Cup. Removing all Women’s World Cup Stories from 2019 broadcasts analyzed dropped the overall percentage in coverage from 5.4 to 3.5 percent for women.
And to the gripe of some viewers on the supposed “quality” of women’s athletics, I would simply say “representation matters.” The more young girls are exposed to women pursuing athletics, the more confidence they will have to try out for that youth sports team. More women entering the sports pipeline will contribute to the level of competition in a positive way. It may also lead to greater investment across the board in women’s athletics, another hot-button issue in the wake of recent leaked photos of disparities between men’s and women’s amenities at the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament. Until sports media entities figure that out however, it is on us to seek out what content is offered and show support through viewership and clicks.