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Dropping the Ball on Covering Women's Sports

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If you missed the Lakers-Celtics game in the NBA Finals, you could easily have watched the highlights later on local TV news. But if you wanted to know which teams were winning in the Women's College World Series, the NCAA's premiere softball tournament for women now underway, chances are you'd have to go online to find out.

For fans of women's sports like me, this is a frustrating fact of life. But there's a more disturbing story here, one with important social implications.

Coverage of women's sports on TV news and highlights shows has nearly evaporated since 1989, according to the latest findings in my 20-year study of the subject for the USC Center for Feminist Research. From a high of 9% of airtime devoted to the feats of women athletes in 1999, the coverage plummeted to a measly 1.6% in 2009. That's significantly lower than what I found 20 years ago. Women sports then received 5% of airtime.

Every fifth year, I compare coverage of men's and women's sports during two weeks in March, July and November, focusing on the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. 3-to-5-minute sports news segments on network affiliates KABC, KNBC and KCBS in Los Angeles. I also look at three weeks of ESPN's nationally televised hour-long highlights show "SportsCenter" during the three months.

When it comes to coverage of sports on television news and highlights shows, if it's male, it not only leads -- it totally dominates. Men's sports received 96.3% of the airtime on the three local stations. "SportsCenter" was no less male-dominant: Just 1.4% of its airtime was devoted to women sports.

More women's sports coverage could be found on the margins of the broadcasts - literally. KNBC and KCBS run a ticker text bar at the bottom of the screen during their sports broadcasts, reporting scores and other sports news. The proportion of "ticker time" devoted to women's sports in 2009 was 4.6%, more than triple the thin airtime on the main broadcasts. But over at ESPN "SportsCenter," women's sports garnered a mere 2.7% of the ticker time, a precipitous fall from 8.5% in 2004.

You might object that comparing news coverage of all men's and women's sports is misleading -- an apples and oranges comparison. After all, there are no fully developed women's equivalents to pro football and baseball.

Women's and men's college basketball offers a better comparison. During the two-week period studied in March 2009, the three local network affiliates devoted 60 stories to men's NCAA basketball, totaling 78 minutes of game footage, interviews with athletes and coaches, and commentary about upcoming games. By contrast, women's NCAA basketball received zero coverage. On TV news, March Madness news is for men.

The precipitous decline in women's sports coverage is especially outrageous because it comes at a time when girls' and women's participation in sports has exploded. In 2009, 3.1 million girls (versus 4.4 million boys) were playing high school sports in the United States, up dramatically from 1.8 million in 1989. The trend is echoed in college sports, with a typical NCAA college fielding at least eight women's teams today, up from two in 1972, when Title IX was enacted. And women's professional sports, including the WNBA, have developed a solid foothold in the larger sports marketplace.

Why the near-silence about women's sports in mainstream TV news and highlights shows? The expansion of new media at the expense of traditional outlets, leading to tighter budgets and a narrower focus, is one often-mentioned explanation. But ESPN's "SportsCenter," which bills itself the "most viewed ad supported cable channel," has no such excuse.

There's something else going on here that keeps women athletes on the sidelines. The content of these shows reflect "what fans want to see" and market realities. But the sports information they supply also helps to create and sustain enthusiasm for the sports covered. News and highlights shows are part of a larger promotional apparatus that builds audiences for men's sports, especially the Big Three of men's athletic competition -- football, basketball and baseball. Taken together, these sports received 72% of all the airtime analyzed in my research. Even when out of season, the Big Three received frequent news coverage.

Sadly, this male-dominant sports media complex ensures smaller audiences for women's sports down the road. For the millions of daughters and young women who spend hours practicing and playing their sports - not to mention the millions of parents who schlep them to and from practice and attend their games - this hardly constitutes respect for, let alone validation of, their athletic commitment.

There's another social cost. Sports are more than entertainment. They tell us stories about who we are and promote values that are important to our understanding of women's and men's roles in families and public life. In the not too distant past, the story that sports told was that men were naturally superior to women, and were thus destined to dominate in politics, religion and medicine.

The producers and editors (nearly all male) of TV sports news and highlights shows are helping to keep this outdated story alive by virtually ignoring women's sports. This is simply intolerable.

Recruiting more women sports reporters and commentators to appear in what amounts to an electronic men's locker room might induce change. Research suggests that they would be more likely to push for expanding coverage of women's sports. Unfortunately, that kind of change will take time.

But we can do something now: an old-fashioned e-mail protest campaign directed at the producers and editors of the TV news and highlights shows. It's long past time for reporters on local TV sports and national highlight shows to catch up with the gender revolution in sports that their broadcasts so cavalierly ignore.

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