The story of the 2019 U.S. women’s national soccer team is not yet written, but its opening chapter – a 13-0 drubbing of Thailand – has inspired American fans hoping for a championship repeat.
The U.S. women’s soccer team has long been the envy of the world. And yet, thanks to a scheduling “oversight,” should the squad make the Women’s World Cup final on July 7, they’ll have to complete for viewers with the Copa America and Gold Cup finals, which will be held on the same day.
In other words, two regional men’s soccer tournaments might upstage a signature worldwide women’s sporting event.
To me, this scheduling “oversight” is just a microcosm of the way women are treated in the world of sports. And it isn’t just relegated to the playing field.
In my new book, “The Power of Sports,” I draw upon dozens of interviews to look at the barriers female athletes and journalists face.
It’s worse than you think.
Lack of interest or lack of coverage?
Almost every single survey of sports media over the years – irrespective of the sport or outlet – finds female athletics wildly underrepresented relative to men’s.
For example, one 25-year-long study showed that local news outlets spend only 3% of their airtime covering women’s sports, with ESPN allocating a mere 2% of its coverage.
Not until the 1990s did women’s sports begin receiving – barely – more attention than sports involving horses and dogs. Of course, that didn’t prevent Serena Williams’ 2015 selection as Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsperson of the Year” from igniting a debate over whether Triple Crown thoroughbred American Pharaoh deserved the honor instead.
The typical rebuttal to the lack of coverage is an alleged lack of interest.
But this obscures the circular logic that bedevils women’s sports: The way in which sports media outlets market and cover games partly determines how much fan interest they’re able to gin up. In other words, ratings are often generated by hyping the games. When ratings go up, it justifies the use of those resources.
So when a WNBA game gets punted to an obscure cable channel and has a low production value, it sends a message about priorities to audiences.
Networks like to claim they’re just responding to market forces when they ignore these games. But it’s never been a level playing field: Women’s sports rarely receive the media attention lavished on men’s, so the comparison seems unfair.
When I asked ESPN’s executive vice president for programming and production about this problem, he shrugged. “Any media entity,” he said, “tend[s] to focus the majority of [its] coverage on the topics that are most interesting to your viewers, right?”
In other words, ESPN claims to be amoral on questions of gender equality. Its obligation is to simply give the audience what it thinks it wants.
All men, all the time
Meanwhile, sports media remains an overwhelmingly male field.
Might this color the way female athletes are portrayed? One 2013 review highlighted some notable disparities. When talking and writing about female athletes, commentators tend to focus more on their emotions. They tend to downplay their physical prowess on the field and sexualize their bodies off the field.