Now that the Madness has died down and Villanova defeated UNC at the buzzer in the 2016 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball tournament, and the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks beat the Quinnipiac Bobcats in this year’s Frozen Four, let’s direct our attention away from men’s professional sports for a brief moment (for a change) and address sexism in women’s sports media.
Much like in other sports, the female version of the NCAA March Madness tournament does not get nearly as much love as the men’s game. In 2011, for example, the women’s championship game received about 3.8 million viewers, compared to the 20.1 million who tuned in for the men’s finals. This may be because the women’s tournament is solely relegated to ESPN, while the men’s games are broadcasted on network television (and thus have wider exposure). Furthermore, the women’s games often conflict with the men’s schedule, and we all know who viewers will be opting to watch.
The disparity in men’s and women’s popularity for March Madness highlights how little fans care about women’s sports in general. While the men’s tournament has been enjoying historic highs, the physical attendance and TV viewership for the women’s league “remains abysmally low.” In general, men just don’t care about women’s sports, and apparently, neither do women.
College basketball isn’t the only place where you see this difference in sports media coverage across gender lines. Nearly 75% of all sports coverage is devoted to men’s basketball, pro and college football, and baseball – even when these sports are in their off-seasons. In 2014, SportsCenter, ESPN’s flagship sports broadcasting program, dedicated only 2% of its airtime to women’s athletics, a rate it has steadily maintained since 1999.
Whether at the high school, college, or professional level, women’s athletics always seems to draw criticism. “The game is too slow,” it’s too boring,” and “the level of competition just isn’t the same,” are common complaints about women’s sports. One longitudinal study points out that media outlets themselves may be responsible for why women’s sports are not as exciting as men’s. Everything from “the way the announcers speak” to “the narratives imposed by the networks” influences our perceptions of women’s games. Men’s sports are presented in an excited and amplified manner, whereas women’s sports are portrayed in a lackluster and matter-of-fact way.
This is a classic catch-22 situation. Women’s sports don’t generate a lot of revenue because they don’t garner a lot of excitement from fans, but money has to be spent to get fans excited to be in the seats in the first place.
When it comes to sexism and wage disparity, FIFA is king. In 2015, the US women’s soccer team generated $20 million more than the men’s team, yet the female players earn four times less than the men do. The women’s team also receives less than half of the World Cup roster bonuses that the men’s team does.
This is not the first time female players have lodged complaints against soccer’s international governing body. In 2014, several female players, including USA’s Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan, filed a lawsuit against FIFA for the use of artificial turf in the following year’s World Cup tournament in Canada. For non-athletes, artificial turf affects how the ball moves, the speed of play, and is absolute murder on bare skin. The lawsuit claimed that FIFA was discriminating against the women’s league, given that the men’s version of the tournament would be played on manicured grass.
The organization has also been criticized for promoting sexist attitudes in general. Check out what disgraced ex-president of FIFA Sepp Blatter has to say about female athletes:
“Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball. They could, for example, have tighter shorts. Female players are pretty, if you excuse me for saying so, and they already have some different rules to men—such as playing with a lighter ball. That decision was taken to create a more female aesthetic, so why not do it in fashion?”
Rule of thumb, Sepp, if you wouldn’t say it about a male player, don’t say it about a female.
We need more female sports representation in the media, because it allows female athletes the necessary platform to serve as role models for the next generation of all stars. The content of sports programming reflects what the fans want to see, but how can fans have a role in choosing what to see when virtually all sports programming is male-dominated? When major news and entertainment outlets ignore women’s sports in favor of male sports coverage, it sends the message that men’s sports are more important and worthy of watching. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I’ve sat by my dad’s side at countless New Jersey Devils games, but I have never seen a professional women’s athletic competition. Girls who participate in youth sports have better physical and emotional health, as well as education attainment and employment, to name just a few benefits. For the 26th consecutive year, girl’s participation in high school athletic programs has increased. Let’s keep that momentum going.