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Women’s sport receives just 10% of media coverage – Week 22

This month Feminist Fact Friday is focusing on SPORT, hot on the heels of the incredible success of this year’s Women’s World Cup. Last week we looked at the gulf between the prize money offered to men and women (men receive 10x as much as women) and this week we’re looking at an inequality in coverage that helps to contribute to the lesser status afforded to women’s sport.

As it says on the Women In Sport website in reference to their early research: “Commercial investment and media coverage of women’s sport remains shockingly low, particularly in comparison to the deals done in men’s sport. Women’s sport sponsorship accounted for only 0.4% of total sports sponsorship between 2011 and 2013. Media coverage of women’s sport shows similar level of disparity – women’s sport accounting for only 7% of total sports coverage.”

Estimates vary around how much coverage women’s sport gets, with the 7% figure above (as well as one statistic from the US in 2015) placing it as low as 4% of sports media coverage. I’ve chosen this statistic from the UK-based Women In Sport‘s Where are all the women? report, as it’s the most up-to-date number I could find, with the research having been published in October 2018. The highest number I could find is the pitiful 10% figure from 2018 – and the reports authors admit that this figure drops back down to 4% during times where there aren’t big events such as the Women’s Rugby World Cup or football World Cup.

Why is this important?

For many people the initial criticism of women’s sport is that it’s just not very popular (especially in comparison to the men’s). Unfortunately this argument misses the point that it’s hard for a sport to be popular when you can’t see it. Critics behave as if men’s and women’s sport has been given an equal opportunity and that women’s sport just hasn’t made the grade. When the dearth in coverage is pointed out the argument then returns to ‘well, if it were worth watching, someone would schedule it.’ As Petty & Pope’s extremely detailed paper A New Age for Media Coverage of Women’s Sport? An Analysis of English Media Coverage of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup examines, this simplistic argument ignores the entirely sexist structures built around sport and the way gatekeepers let only certain types of people in and keep all of the rest out.

An extensive body of research since the 1980s has examined the underrepresentation of women’s sport in the mass media, demonstrating how men’s sport is generally constructed as the pinnacle of sporting value and achievement and women’s sports are considered less worthy of attention (Biscomb and Matheson, 2017Bruce, 2015Hargreaves, 1994Godoy-Pressland, 2014Godoy-Pressland and Griggs, 2014Wensing and Bruce, 2003). Studies have also found that the type of sporting activity influences the amount of media coverage it receives. Women who participate in sports considered to be ‘feminine-appropriate’ (Hargreaves, 1994) generally receive far greater media coverage. When women do participate in traditionally ‘masculine’ team sports, the media focus on performance-irrelevant aspects such as their private lives or physical looks (see Crossman et al., 2007Kian et al., 2008). This has a number of potential consequences for the coverage of women’s football – a sport which has typically been associated with masculinity (Magrath, 2017).
Kian et al. (2008) discuss how the exclusion and trivialization of female athletes and women’s sports are major themes that consistently emerge in research. Thus, where sportswomen do receive media coverage they are often trivialized by: focusing on their physical characteristics or describing them as sex objects; emphasizing femininity; minimizing their accomplishments and skill level through unfavourable comparisons with men; and/or discussing their personal lives or using denigrating humour (Biscomb and Matheson, 2017Christopherson et al., 2002Kane et al., 2013).

Kate Petty and Stacey Pope in British Sociological Association A New Age for Media Coverage of Women’s Sport? An Analysis of English Media Coverage of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup 4 October 2018, Vol 53, Issue 3, 2019

To put it simply: the level playing field is a myth.

Continuing the thread from the simplistic argument above, there’s a very circular argument that abounds when criticising women’s sport which goes something like ‘women don’t bring in the same crowds or revenues that men do. First the women need to prove their value and then they’ll attract investment which might lead to more coverage and better performance on their part – after all they’re years behind the men, and anyway, they’re far weaker (that’s just a fact) so let’s not shy away from stating that they’ll never be as good as the men. But anyway, they just need to try harder. And be patient.’

Clearly I’ve caricatured some elements of these arguments and it’s clear that they’re often more eloquently delivered than the way I’ve written the above, but good writing doesn’t make up for the glaring, sexist holes in that argument and the way in which every element is based on the myth of the level playing field (where women have equal access and equal opportunity) as well as the male default.

There are many elements to an argument like this that need to be addressed, but I’d like to focus on just three in this instance: popularity, the male body default and timing (as I’ve covered biased interpretations of gendered behaviour in previous weeks’ posts). Let’s begin by defining the role of the athlete in this argument. It’s the women athletes’ role to perform to the best of their ability. That’s the same for the men. It’s not their role to go begging for coverage, or investment, or interest. If everyone else is doing their job as well as the athletes are doing theirs, the rest follows. Unfortunately, it’s mainly the women athletes who have been keeping their part of the bargain, not the broadcasters, sporting bodies or corporate partners.

As Springer writes, much of this poor coverage (and therefore poor performance on the part of broadcasters) is likely to stem from the very un-diverse make-up of media companies ‘The 2018 Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) Racial and Gender Report Card found that, at major newspapers and websites in the U.S. and Canada, 90 percent of sports editors are male and 85 percent are white. In 2015, a report by the Women’s Media Center stated that women generated only 10.2 percent of sports coverage.’

Thankfully some things are starting to change when it comes to coverage, as this year’s BBC initiative #ChangeTheGame goes to show. At the start of May they announced an effort towards broadcasting more coverage of women’s sport, including the Fifa Women’s World Cup, the Netball World Cup and the Women’s Ashes. And well before this BBC initiative popularity was already rising for women’s sports as Global Event Audiences research from Women In Sport showed, alongside comparisons to other major events ‘showing that women’s major events are now attracting significant audiences’:

  • Wimbledon 2017 274 million
  • UEFA Women’s Euros 2017 149.5 million
  • ICC Women’s World Cup 2017 87.4 million
  • Formula E 16/17 53.8 million
  • Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017 33.9 million
  • WRWC 33.9 million
  • ER Champions Cup 16/17 28.8 million
  • Lions Tour 2017 25.2 million
  • Ryder Cup 2016 20.9 million

Considering the poor coverage women’s sport receives, such strong viewing figures really put paid to the idea that women’s sport can’t be entertaining. Again, the women are overperforming while the system around them underperforms.

Upper-body mass is approximately 75% greater in men because women’s lean body mass tends to be less concentrated in their upper body, and, as a result, men’s upper body strength is on average between 40-60% higher than women’s (compared to lower-body strength which is on average only 25% higher in men). Women also have on average a 41% lower grip strength than men, and this is not a sex difference that changes with age: the typical seventy-year-old man has a stronger handgrip than the average twenty-five-year-old woman. It’s also not a sex difference that can be significantly trained away: a study which compared ‘highly trained female athletes’ to men who were ‘untrained or not specifically trained’ found that their grip strength ‘rarely’ surpassed the fiftieth percentile of male subjects. Overall, 90% of the women (this time including untrained women) in the study had a weaker grip than 95% of their male counterparts.”

Caroline Criado-Perez Invisible Women

The next part of the poor argument to address is the constant comparisons between men’s and women’s bodies. Because the default or ‘pinnacle’ is the male body, women are doomed to always be deficient and that’s the trump card for anyone arguing against equality: it’s not the women’s fault, but they’ll just never be able to be men, and men are the ideal; “Too many profiles of female athletes contort success into something that comes with qualifiers, whether it’s the implication that it might not last or, most commonly, the comparison to male athletes in the same sport.” We can enjoy both men’s and women’s sport without demanding that either side transform itself into the other. Further, it’s a weak argument to say that strength alone correlates directly to being ‘better’ or ‘more entertaining’. Just look at the example of ultra-runner Jasmin Paris who “won the 268-mile Spine Race along the full Pennine Way, in a record time while expressing milk for her 14-month-old daughter, Rowan, along the way. She crossed the line in 83 hours, 12 minutes and 23 seconds – more than 12 hours faster than the previous record holder, Eoin Keith (95:17).”

I’d like to end by addressing the point on timing. When arguing for change many counter-arguments revolve around ‘change takes time’ or ‘these things won’t happen overnight’. This is a comment that has come up time and again as I’ve written the past five months’ of content. To put some context around that argument I’d like to refer back to two previous Feminist Fact Friday posts, one from Week 1 and one from Week 7. The first centred around 2018 research from the World Economic Forum stating that by their estimates it would take 107 years for gender equality in political empowerment (and 202 years for financial equality) globally. The second was a post on one of my heroes, Marc Benioff, who on two occasions spent $3 million dollars, pretty much overnight, correcting the gender pay gap at his company Salesforce. If the will is there (and the courage to look the facts in the face and act) there’s actually a hell of a lot that can be accomplished very quickly (for everything else there’s another century or two to wait). Further, most people when complaining that you’re asking for too much, too quickly, fail to offer any suggestions on how much and when could be considered reasonable. It’s always just too much, too soon.

What can you do about it?

Be ambitious. I’m going to start by putting a number on that ambition: from 2019 50% of media sports coverage should cover women’s sports.* And to pre-empt any complaints about the supposed poor or inferior quality in performance let’s share investment figures alongside coverage – this could include but not be limited to kit/equipment (the womens’ national football teams only got their own unique kit for the first time this year), nutrition and wellbeing (nutritionists and physiotherapists on call) and accommodation. It would be especially worth comparing the men’s and women’s numbers there to truly offer a perspective. Very few people who maintain that men are better/more entertaining/more natural/more talented (ad nauseam) than women have had the opportunity to see them treated and supported in the same way. As Women In Sport noted in their research, just .4% of investment goes to women’s sports.

Check out a sport you love already or try something new. Ahead of us as part of #ChangeTheGame on the BBC we have:

  • Women’s British Open, golf, 1-4 August
  • Solheim Cup, golf, 13-15 September
  • Road World Championships, cycling, 22-29 September
  • World Athletics Championships, 28 September-6 October
  • World Para-athletics Championships, 7-15 November

Start by reading any and all of these three key sources, which offer great qualitative and quantitive analysis of the situation around coverage of women’s sport. They make for interesting reading and will put paid to a lot of the myths you might be holding onto around women’s sport and what’s been holding it back all this time (hint: it’s not their feeble bodies nor tendency to get over-emotional), as well as a lot of sources of hope:

Those three sources also offer plenty of solutions (something critics rarely offer) to the situation, including Giving women in sports more of a voice, Prioritising storytelling and Changing the culture in sports departments.

Finally, thanks to one of those articles I’m going to be trying out a new podcast called Burn It All Down – why don’t you check it out too? Its presenters have labelled it ‘the feminist sports podcast you need’ and Rewire described it thus: “The best part about the show? You don’t even need to be a sports fan to enjoy it. The hosts use sports as gateways into other issues like pay equality and gender equity in professional leagues, and, ultimately, just about every issue you could think of. I’ve played sports all my life and am ride-or-die for women’s soccer. So it is fantastic to finally have a show that delves into these issues and understands that not all sports fans live in man-caves in their basement.”


* As a nod to Ruth Bader Ginsburg I could always go with 90% but I’ll settle for 50% for now.

When will there be enough women on the United States supreme court Supreme court? Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg says when all nine seats are filled by female judges: “So now the perception is, yes, women are here to stay. And when I’m sometimes asked when will there be enough [women on the supreme court]? And I say when there are nine, people are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.”

Jill Filipovic writing in the Guardian Justice Ginsburg’s distant dream of an all-female supreme court 30 November 2012


Shira Springer in Nieman Reports 7 Ways to Improve Coverage of Women’s Sports 2018

Kate Petty and Stacey Pope in British Sociological Association A New Age for Media Coverage of Women’s Sport? An Analysis of English Media Coverage of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup 4 October 2018, Vol 53, Issue 3, 2019

Women In Sport Where are all the women? October 2018

Women In Sport Sponsorship & Media

UNESCO calls for fairer media coverage of sportswomen 8 February 2018