Female Athletes Almost Invisible On Television — Except Abby Sunderland

Lorena Ochoa (MEX) on the day before 2008 Mast...
Lorena Ochoa. Image via Wikipedia

Women athletes are getting even less visible (if that’s possible) on television, according to a new study.

In 2004, they got a big 5.6 percent of network news coverage and today get — wait for it — 1.6 percent.

This, in the era of awesome women like race car driver Danica Patrick, golfer Michelle Wie, tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams, (recently retired) golfer Lorena Ochoa — and the wave of Korean women now dominating the LPGA.

Here’s an interesting post on what this might do to young girls who dream of sports careers. If you don’t see people like you (hello, men’s pro sports) playing at the highest levels of amateur, elite and professional sport, let alone talking about how they train, recover from surgery and injury, choose and work with their coaches, caddies and trainers — how will today’s eager young girls know it’s possible for them as well?

Anyone remember the media frenzy over soccer star Mia Hamm, who won Olympic gold in 1996 and 2004? Athletic little girls, and teens, need powerful, cool women role models much more than little boys — there’s no lack of guys on TV playing sports.

I burst into tears of pride and awe when the U.S. women took bronze, silver and gold (!!!) in saber fencing at the 2008 Olympics — because I was one of the first women (of about 300) to compete nationally in saber, back when it was considered too dangerous for women in the Olympics. That was only in the 1990s…Women who make sports history are often inspired by other women.

Ever heard of Isabelle Autissier? She’s my idol, a solo sailor in some of the world’s toughest races. She had to be rescued when her yacht went down mid-race.

I bet you Abby Sunderland, the 16-year-old sailor who’s been making headlines this week, knows exactly who she is.

Why are women athletes deemed so non-newsworthy?

10 thoughts on “Female Athletes Almost Invisible On Television — Except Abby Sunderland

  1. craig

    Why are women deemed so non-newsworthy?

    Largely, the news only reports what sells. There are more important ways in which this is demonstrated than women’s sports (wall to wall coverage of Michael Jackson, Duke Lacrosse, OJ Simpson instead of things like Oil drilling regulation. Covering death panels ad naseum instead of actual fact based health care reporting, etc.)

    In this backdrop, the fact of the matter is that women’s sports do not sell like men’s sports do. The WNBA finals will get no were near the number of viewers that the NBA finals will. Since their ratings are lower, why would network news cover them as much?

    But more importantly, the examples that you give are completely un newsworthy in any respect. Danica Patrick has not won anything, with the exception of one race in Tokyo that none of the circuit’s top drivers raced in. That is it. One race, in Japan, that everyone stayed home from. She is far more famous for flaunting her sexuality and for physically acosting people than she is for doing anything in her sport.

    Similarly, Michelle Wie was hyped because she was very young when she came out. But since then, she misses a lot of cuts, and is known for upsetting the other people on the LPGA than doing anything on the course.

    Womens sports are suffuring a decline, much like the NBA did when Jordan retired. You have to find a new Kobe and Lebron. Mia Hamm and Brandy Chastain were household names. But they were not household names because they were women playing sports. They were household names because they were winners. Unfortunately, the media is currently trying to market people on sexual attractiveness (Danica, long line of tennis starlots) or as prodigies (Wie, Sunderland). As soon as a woman or group of women comes up and excels at the highest level, they will probably gain the spotlight. However, the women that are currently in the spotlight have demonstrated no ability to compete at their level, and so interest in them wanes rather quickly.

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    Interesting. Chicken or egg? I bet if women received more attention as athletes — and men are covered whether they win or not on their chances or their bad behavior or their family dramas. Too bad no women athletes are out tomcatting on their husbands Tiger style or we’d hear a lot more about them.

    Coverage — and I’ve written sports for the NYT — is not only about winners. It is about all the issues that make any male athlete newsworthy, and losses or struggle or injury are all deemed of media value if the subject is male.

    Sexism rules, not just $$$.

    1. craig

      Certaintly other issues can make athletes newsworthy, not just winning, but you see that as well. Once again, lets look at Danica Patrick. The average person knows who she is. How many men who race on her circuit can the average American name?

      The survey you cited shows a large decline in network news coverage, which is more inclined to cover winners. (Yes, also major scandals like Tiger Woods, but it is heavily weighted towards winners) Sportcenter is a better barometer. The numbers listed for sportcenter may be too low, but their drop is not the precipitous.

      I think Jody hit a nail on the head with the Wal Mart theory of sports thing, but she kind of missed on the UConn thing, which I think explains the slight drop in women’s coverage on Sportcenter. (Basketball recieving a lot of coverage, a drop in interest in womens basketball would explain the drop.) Until there is a larger number of sports covered, female athletes will be undercovered because, with the exception of basketball, there are no really viable females in the big sports. There are no women in the NFL or the MLB or NHL.

      Women’s basketball was covered a lot more a few years ago. The reason is that there was competition. You had two great teams, Tennessee and Uconn. Now it is only Uconn. I watched a couple of the tourney games, and seriously, how many people will watch every day to see one team that has the ability to be up by 50 at the half?

      1. Craig, you are right. Even I was bored watching UConn games the last two years.

        A proper rivalry, along the lines of Tennessee-UConn would help women’s hoops a TON. Geno and Pat loathe each other, but the sport needs them, and it needs them to play each other every year, regardless of tourney seeding. It’s not gonna happen yet, but don’t be surprised if that rivalry isn’t renewed the second Maya Moore graduates.

  3. More to the point, there are women who are winners who could be covered, or covered more. Pretty much the entire UConn women’s basketball team leaps to mind and some of those UConn women are playing in the WNBA now. The Northwestern women’s lax team won five NCAA D-I championships in a row and lost in the finals to Maryland this year.

    It’s not just $$$ and it’s not just sexism. In this instance, sexism and $$$ are inextricably linked. The thinking goes (and it may be correct) that men spend most of the sports $$$ in this country, so they get to see what the networks think they want to see. And the $$$ spending men don’t really like women’s team sports. Or at least that’s the perception.

    It’s kind of like the Wal-Mart theory of sports, really. Just shove D-1 men’s football, D-1 men’s basketball, the NFL, the NBA and MLB down consumers’ throats (the NHL is kind of big time and kind of not, so it’s in a weird no-man’s land). Women’s athletics are like the mom and pop stores that die a slow death at the hands of the big box stores. I love women’s athletics, but I like choice even more. And as a rabid consumer of sports, I’d like to see a whole lot more out there in terms of choices, both men’s athletics and women’s. Why not women’s rugby? Why not men’s water polo? Choice is never a bad thing.

    Caitlin, I see your Isabelle Autissier and give you an Althea Gibson. I am shocked when people say, “who?” when I mention Gibson’s name. She is my favorite sports hero (and I have many of them.)

    And now, for my shameless plug for women’s sports. Of the many women’s sports which could be covered, there is women’s full-contact football. The IWFL (Independent Women’s Football League) playoffs start today. The Montreal Blitz, Boston Militia, D.C. Divas, Carolina Phoenix (in Greensboro), Sacramento Sirens, Bay Area Bandits (in Freemont, Cali), Dallas Diamonds, and Wisconsin Warriors (in Kenosha, Wi.) are hosting games today/tonight. Go check one out. And yeah, it’s regular football – helmets, tackles and all.

  4. jake brodsky

    The Wimbledon games with Venus and Serena Williams playing each other were major world news. We see far more about Women’s Tennis than we do of the Men’s Tennis. There is something about the star women athletes in this sport that simply outshines the men.

    Somehow, we just haven’t seen as much team sports where women excel as we have men’s team sports. The US Women’s Olympic Soccer team was the one notable exception that I can think of. It had a dramatic finish in a game that most thought they would lose.

    The original point of sporting events was to show off physical strength, endurance, and control. However, even the strongest women athletes have less physical strength than male athletes; but for endurance and control they can compete quite well.

    We as a society need to recognize that fact, and to arrive at sports where the primary focus is endurance and control. This is where we see women compete and win. And if you look at where women have made big inroads it includes sports like Tennis, Golf, Gymnastics, Fencing, Curling, and the like.

    The point is that when most people watch sports, the want to watch the best of the best. Not the best woman, not the best man. The Best. That’s what it’s about. We also want to see sports that are common everyday things that we can relate to. That’s why women can excel at tennis. That’s why women can excel at golf.

    And as for racing, I’ve never been able to figure out why more women don’t perform well at it. There are some very strong women who perform well in aerobatics demonstrations.

    The mystery continues…

  5. Caitlin Kelly

    Jody, thanks…UConn has always had amazing women whose names I memorized and whose exploits I followed. I’ve never been a huge (spectator) sports fan, so that was new for me.

    I am not surprised that people do not know Althea Gibson — how about Babe Didrikson? Women in all fields are so often “lost” to history that without visible and audible reminders they have little resonance for many.

  6. leonkelly

    In business, market share is grown by the age old SWOT technique. i.e Analyze Strengths, Weakness, Opportunities and Trends. Female athletes (unlike men) are elegant while entertainingly skilled and gifted with skills. Athletic men in the news are horrible cads that too often partake of performance enhancing drugs. Women are increasingly visible in the newer extreme sports and training intensive competition. The popular athletes going forward will not develop a fan base in the traditional men’s sports where the opposite gender viewing is obviously more exciting. Think beach volleyball, tennis, golf, nordic sports, martial arts, auto racing, and gender-combined competition. Women’s fast pitch softball is a terrific sport. But it will never have a big fan base when MLB is a channel away.
    One additional comment: Nations that demonstrate an accelerating rate of international competitiveness in women’s sports are undoubtedly nations that are making social progress at an accelerated rate. Michelle, get in the game!

  7. jcalton

    You would think that coverage would peak during Olympic years, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. (Then again, only one network has the Olympics.)
    I can understand that the majority of sports revenue comes from male fans, the same as if you told me that most craft store sales are marketed to women, but 98.4% seems awfully high. Wouldn’t they want to capture a larger market?

  8. Caitlin Kelly

    What I don’t get is this…Many more women have grown up in the past decade playing sports as a result of Title IX so surely (?) they are hungry to see other skilled and athletic women on television, in whatever sport. I find this bizarre that we are — once more — so invisible.

    We hear all about disasters like Abby Sunderland (and much older sailors have also had to abandon such attempts) but little consistent coverage.

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