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Myths of Media Invisibility in Women’s Sports
On Saturday, the Daily Beast published a piece by Portland (Ore.) writer Evelyn Shoop alleging that the sports media is conspiring to make female athletes “invisible” by not covering women’s sports seriously, either in television air time or on mainstream sports websites.
Her argument is based on so much fallacious thinking that I’ve written about before, in Chapter 12 of my 2012 e-book, “Beyond Title IX: The Cultural Laments of Women’s Sports (http://www.amazon.com/Beyond-Title-IX-Wendy-Parker-ebook/dp/B008DFZV9E), but it deserves a quick response here.
The first bit of faulty reasoning from Shoop is that because more women are participating in sports, there seemingly should be more media coverage. Those two things have nothing to do with one another.
Then, she rehashes dated, cherry-picked data from the Center for Feminist Research (hardly an objective source) showing that only 1.6 percent of coverage is devoted to women’s sports. These numbers are taken from local TV news in Los Angeles and ESPN’s SportsCenter — hardly an empirical study.
Finally, she is chastened that sports media outlets somehow are perpetuating “the very powerful cultural assumption that men’s sports are more important, and the exclusion of women’s sports in media is only natural.”
Well, the sports media reflects what fans, viewers and ticket-buyers want to watch, and what they’re willing to pay for. They’re called “customers” in the business world, and there will always be plenty more of them than Shoop.
Her argument is rooted in a total misunderstanding of the commercial media, especially the sports media.
This ain’t PBS.
These outlets exist to air programming that attracts sufficient viewers, or to post content that attracts sufficient readers, to attract advertising that helps these businesses make a profit. They are businesses, above all else. They exist to serve as large an audience as they can gather to make money so they can continue to stay in business. Period.
Shoop even trashes the one mainstream media entity that has devoted considerable resources to covering sports — ESPN — and its espnW venture, calling it “the cottage next door filled with Activia and ultra-soft toilet paper.”
I’m not enamored with some of what espnW does, and I wish these other outlets would cover women’s sports seriously. But as a journalist who has tried to balance all of this for a good long while, I can say that Shoop is not living in the reality-based community of women’s sports fans.
The outlets she’s decrying serve mass audiences, and women’s sports are niche sports. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Shoop is part of a niche audience, in fact, that has been growing respectably in recent years, although not enough to warrant the coverage than she demands.
SportsCenter is a barometer for what’s happening with the most popular sports, regardless of gender. You don’t see men’s lacrosse on SportsCenter, or minor league baseball highlights, or even MLS all that much. Those also are niche sports, just like the WNBA, NWSL, LPGA, etc.
The niche outlets Shoop cites are serving important roles in catering to fans like her. She says she wants more, but hoopfeed.com (women’s basketball) and The Equalizer (women’s soccer) are about as good as it gets. They go in depth, with links, analysis, perspective, interviews and coverage that more mainstream outlets just are not suited to provide. That’s all they do. So what if Bleacher Report doesn’t?
The place where I now write, Blue Star Media (http://bluestarmedia.org/) is devoted largely to women’s, grassroots and international basketball. I’m also using my space there to write about the business of women and sports, another niche audience. We are only a year or so old and are getting rooted in a challenging media environment, but there are possibilities for this kind of coverage that mass media outlets are simply not going to do.
I’m not sure how extensively Shoop looks around her television dial, but last season ESPN showed more than 400 women’s college basketball games. Dozens more are shown on other cable sports outlets through conference all-sports deals during the basketball season.
The Big Ten Network has made a conscious effort to devote half of its live game programming to women’s sports. The Pac 12 Network is aiming for the same balance, and the first live game on the newly christened SEC Network was a women’s soccer game.
As I write this, I’m making plans later this evening to switch between a WNBA playoff game and the FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup final, both on ESPN outlets at the same time. Later, another WNBA playoff game will be shown, also on an ESPN outlet.
Yesterday, Shoop’s Portland Thorns played on ESPN2 in the NWSL semifinals, ahead of a WNBA playoff doubleheader, with both games on ESPN2. After basketball tonight, ESPN2 will show the other NWSL semifinal.
Indeed, many of my weekends have been like this for quite a few years, before her son was born. It’s easy to turn on the TV and realize that her claims of invisibility are simply false, and that if she would tune in more often, perhaps the young lad may not turn out to be the “little misogynist” she fears.
Women’s sports fans have easy access to hundreds of games in a variety of sports, perhaps more games than anybody would ever want to watch. There’s never been a better time to be a fan of women’s spectator sports, with burgeoning cable outlets and availability online.
The amount of coverage, and air time, for women’s sports will never be what Shoop wants, and this is at the heart of her grievance. A sports business professor I once interviewed served up a line that has stayed with me ever since: Men’s sports are bought, and women’s sports are sold. That’s a cold, hard truth that Shoop and other women’s sports advocates like her do not want to acknowledge.
Instead, they operate under the delusion that even more generous, top-shelf media coverage will yield legions of new fans who don’t know what they’re missing. If you build it, they will come. My 20+ years of covering women’s sports, college, pro and Olympics, for a major daily newspaper and other outlets, tells me otherwise.
There is no Title IX for sports media, nor should there be. Women’s sports have to compete in the sports media marketplace based on the viewers, fans and readers who follow them, and are willing to pay to watch them and patronize their businesses.
If all you do is compare women to the men, you’re bound to be unhappy. But I suspect Shoop and others who feel like she does want it no other way.