Being a professional athlete requires tremendous grit, perseverance and sacrifice. Both male and female elite athletes train vigorously, adhere to strict diets and often spend weeks at a time on the road. So, why is it that men and women aren’t playing on a level field?
First, sports media is male-dominated and male-centric. Most sportscasters are men, and the sports they focus on are played by and viewed by men. Sportscasters tend to focus on female athletes’ physical appearances rather than their skill level, which devalues them as athletes. When a female athlete triumphs, sportscasters often say it’s based on luck instead of ability. When she fails, the same talking heads will cite lack of physical ability or commitment. When a man succeeds, the talk is all about his tremendous skill and impressive commitment.
Studies have shown that both men and women prefer to watch men’s sports over women’s sports on both the college and professional level. Will more media coverage of women’s sports garner more interest in them, or do women’s sports have to first become more popular in order to gain more air time and advertising dollars?
According to the University of Southern California’s Center for Feminist Research, between 2004 and 2008, the percentage of women’s sports broadcast on television dropped from 6.3% to 1.6%. Men’s sports received 96.3% of the airtime, and neutral topics trumped women’s sports, receiving 2.1% of broadcasting time. Without money from advertisers, female athletes will always have much smaller salaries than male athletes, and their teams will receive far less support. At best, a female athlete will earn half as much as her male counterpart.
According to Armen Keteyian of 60 Minutes Sports, it is not up to female sportscasters alone to do more to promote women in professional sports. Keteyian does not feel that the onus should be on women sportscasters to promote any professional sport, female or otherwise.
“I do believe it’s their job — like their male counterparts — to point out any inequities and ask questions as to why they exist. It’s also their job to do features on female sports stars or executives, which by nature of their storytelling can act as an inspiration for others,” he said.
Most people know who won the NBA championship, but when asked who won the WNBA finals, most people just shrug. Sports fans are familiar with Indiana University Hoosier’s basketball coach Robert “Bobby” Knight, but the University of Tennessee’s Lady Vols basketball coach Patricia “Pat” Summit, who boasts only two fewer championships (and is a woman), is far less well-known than Knight.
The emphasis on female athletes’ physical appearance outshines any emphasis on physical ability. Professional tennis player Anna Kournikova has never won a major tennis tournament, but , according to Sports Management Resources, she is one of only a small handful of women who ranks as an important sports figure. This is primarily because Kournikova is attractive. It’s not surprising, then, to see more women featured in the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated than in any other issue of the magazine.
When asked if he thought sports fans would ever muster enthusiasm for women’s sports Keteyian replied, “The predominant force in sports today is television. The fact [that] no women’s sports league have network television deals hampers both growth and the ability to attract sponsors. The other issue is viewership. Live sports programming is the only event known to consistently attract that valued audience in large numbers. Women’s sports, other than Olympic staples like ice skating, gymnastics or swimming, have failed, to date, to attract a strong female audience. What women’s sports desperately needs is a superstar athlete with extreme crossover appeal. Until that happens, unfortunate and unfair as it is, male sports will continue to dominate.”
It is forty years after the Women’s Liberation Movement, yet when it comes to professional sports, it appears women are still benched. What the sports industry really needs is another Mia Hamm to scissor-kick her way into America’s hearts and sideline those boys.