Who's Afraid of the Women's World Cup?
As the women's soccer World Cup has built to a climax, so too has the debate over the lack of coverage of women's sports in the U.S. Despite new empirical evidence that women's sports remain widely ignored on television, some still insist that calls for increased coverage are just whining, arguing that the market has spoken and we should be happy with whatever coverage we have.
But these arguments miss a key point: When it comes to sports media, the market doesn't exist in a vacuum -- it's a feedback loop, a "virtuous cycle," if you will. The media -- TV especially -- don't just react to demand; they create it. They play an important role in dictating what can and should be watched, discussed and cared about, and bear the editorial responsibility of all that comes with that.
The latest spark in this debate was a now-infamous tweet by Sports Illustrated NFL analyst Andy Benoit, in which he declared, "Women's sports in general not worth watching." He continued by insisting -- rather, pandering -- that "women are every bit as good as men in general, better in many aspects," but "their sports are just less entertaining. TV ratings agree, btw." After the understandable backlash from men and women refusing to take this blanket, subjective statement as stated fact, Benoit deleted his tweets and apologized.
Women fighting for things such things as equal pay have become accustomed to seeing a backlash to the backlash whenever someone (almost always a man) says something sexist and demeaning, and this was no exception. In a piece for the Cauldron, Wendy Parker derided respected female sportswriters who noted the disparity in coverage, specifically calling out espnW columnists Jane McManus and Kate Fagan. Many of these writers have cited the findings of "It's Dude Time," the ongoing, longitudinal study by Purdue's Cheryl Cooky and USC's Michael A. Messner and Michela Musto, tracking the evolution of women's sports coverage on news and highlight shows. The latest five-year update, published in June, found that despite increasing popularity and participation in women's sports, they received just 3.2 percent of network television coverage in 2014 -- less than in 1989. Moreover, ESPN's Sportscenter only devoted 2 percent of its airtime to women's sports.
Parker used free-market reasoning to argue that programming directors simply cover sports that have mass appeal, and women's sports are "decidedly niche -- the same as men’s lacrosse or minor league baseball." Parker correctly notes that the proliferation of digital sports outlets means there are more ways than ever to consume "niche" sports. She also somewhat misleadingly states that "ESPN outlets" broadcast 800 women's college basketball games and 400 college softball games last season, failing to mention that the vast majority of those aired on ESPN's digital streaming apps and channels such as SEC Network+. Her main point is that women's sports don't receive mainstream coverage because sports fans simply aren't interested in watching them, specifically calling out female fans for failing to boost their ratings.
For an in-depth rebuttal of Parker's piece, give a read to Alexander Goot, also at the Cauldron, who argues that while women's sports coverage continues to grow, it's still not enough. Moreover, Goot states that the strides women's sports have made in the last quarter century have been precisely because of the female journalists and activists disparaged by Parker for consistently calling for change. He unpacks "the cynical, Randian, complete submission to the invisible hand of the sports media marketplace," acknowledging that while sports is a business, it's up to all media to balance the profit motive with editorial responsibility. Not all popular things are good, and not all good things are popular, but program directors and editorial boards must make daily decisions on what's worthy of coverage.
His example of this is the recently ended "Mad Men," which never had blockbuster ratings, but that didn't stop AMC from airing seven seasons of the award-winning show, nor did it stop countless press outlets from posting weekly episode reviews and think-pieces about the show's cultural impact. And despite its undeniably niche appeal, as Goot put it, "television was still a better, richer place for its existence."
I'd take this analogy and extend it to highlight the responsibility of news shows to present the public with what's important, not just what's popular. The ongoing crises in Syria and Yemen aren't great traffic-drivers, but responsible news sites won't just stop writing about them. There's currently a huge, justified uproar over the failure of cable news to cover the alarming string of predominantly black churches that have burned down in the past week following the Charleston shooting, perhaps because some news directors think the general American public doesn't want to watch that.
Calls to raise the profile of important issues by increasing news coverage is something we've seen time and again in sports -- men's sports -- to relatively successful ends. NHL fans have for years lamented the absence of hockey from Sportscenter's highlight reels, stating that more people would care about the sport if ESPN's flagship program showed them just how exciting it is. Similarly, MLB fans throughout the country constantly complain that ESPN programming too heavily emphasizes AL East teams, specifically the Yankees and the Red Sox. Both these complaints are valid, and ESPN has made an effort to be more inclusive in its baseball coverage, even if it comes at the expense of larger, more lucrative television markets in New York and Boston. Ratings for the last-place Red Sox have historically remained strong regardless of the team's performance, but nobody would fault Sportscenter for forgoing Boston highlights for coverage of smaller market teams leading their divisions including the Royals and the Astros.
The same thing goes for women's sports, which gets to the main flaw in Parker's argument that as niche entertainment, women's sports have enough coverage on niche sites and networks. Sure, existing fans of women's sports have more options than ever to watch these games. But when we talk about issues with women's coverage, we're not just talking about a small group of passionate fans seeking out broadcasts -- we're talking about exposure to mainstream fans. It's not just about consumption; it's also about discovery. Sports fans, for the most part, will watch what you put in front of them. Sportscenter isn't just a place to find highlights of your favorites sports -- it's also a tool to shape public interest in sports. It's up to program directors to decide not just which sports fans want them to coverage, but also which sports are worthy of coverage.
For all the attention Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao got, you'd have thought the "Fight of the Century" was truly a can't-miss event that swaths of people wanted to watch. And yet, only 4.4 million households purchased it. Sure, it was the highest-grossing fight ever, but at least a million more eyeballs took in the U.S. women's soccer team quarterfinal against China last weekend. Sports media is a perpetual motion machine, creating hype that generates interest and fuels popularity, helping fans figure out what they should care about and watch.
And it can do the same for women's sport, as soon as we stop accepting the conventional wisdom that the low coverage simply mirrors low interest. That's a convenient excuse, but as Will Leitch put it, that's really a personal problem -- people who declare women's sports as boring simply don't care about them. It's really just a thinly veiled way of denying the legitimacy of women's sports, of perpetuating the false notion of an inferior product.
It's encouraging, then, that Fox Sports 1 has announced a new deal to televise National Women's Soccer League games and build on the momentum of the Women's World Cup. It's an important step -- let's hope Sportscenter follows suit. Take a risk on giving women's sports greater coverage, and perhaps you'll be rewarded with an expanded audience of female fans and fans of female athletes. The virtuous cycle will come full circle.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
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