Women's sports have come a long way in the last couple of decades. But the media is stuck in the past.
In 1989, University of Southern California first analyzed broadcasts from Los Angeles network affiliates KCBS, KNBC and KABC, as well as ESPN's "SportsCenter" to determine how frequently the outlets covered female athletes. They have recreated the study every five years. The latest update, published this month in the journal Communication & Sport, shows that women's athletics are virtually missing from TV.
In examining 934 local network affiliate news stories from 2014, researchers found that only 32 segments were on women's sports -- amounting to about 23 minutes of coverage -- while 880 stories featured men's sports and 22 segments featured gender-neutral sports. On "SportsCenter," 376 stories covered men's sports and 13 segments covered women's sports.
Even though there has been a huge increase in the number of women who play sports and women's sporting events have grown more popular, media coverage of female athletes hasn't kept up. In fact, nearly three decades after the researchers started the study, they note that the presence of female athletes on TV is "dismally low" -- even lower than it was when they first took on the project.
The three local LA network affiliates dedicated about 5 percent of their coverage to women's sports in 1989. In 2014, that number was down to 3.2 percent. For almost every network examined, coverage of women's sports was higher 10, 15, 20 and 25 years ago than it is today.
Over a six-week period in 2014, "SportsCenter" dedicated just 2 percent of its highlight program to women's sports. KCBS was worse: During that same period, there was just one story -- or 0.2 percent of the network's total sports coverage -- featuring female athletes.
“It really demonstrates the unevenness of social change,” the study's co-author Michael Messner said. “We’ve had this incredible explosion of girls and women going into sports in the last 40 years. ... What’s puzzling to us is that the increased interest and participation in women’s sports has not at all been reflected in news and highlights shows.”
And when the media did cover female athletics, it wasn't always in a positive light.
"Women’s sports continues to be covered in ways that convey the message to audiences that women’s sport is less important, less exciting, and, therefore, less valued than men’s sports," the study reads.
The research shows that the tendency to describe female athletes as sexual objects has gone down in the last there decades, but that the media is increasingly likely to contextualize them as mothers and caregivers.
Another study, published this year in Electronic News, found that ESPN’s "SportsCenter" and Fox Sports 1’s "Fox Sports Live" aired women's sports coverage less than 1 percent of the time during 2013 and 2014, with only a small bump in programming during the Winter Olympics.
Below is a list of topics the sports shows chose to cover instead of women's sports:
- A swarm of bees invading a Red Sox vs. Yankees game
- An 18-inch corndog at the Arizona Diamondbacks stadium
- Former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda's new restaurant opening
- Whether NBA player Kendall Marshall will be able to find a decent burrito when he goes to Milwaukee
- A stray dog who has become beloved by fans at the Milwaukee Brewers’ stadium
Fascinating, surely, but we want to see our female athletes.