THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — Could the way women’s sports are covered by networks affect the way they’re viewed by the public? A new study shows that gender bias appears to extend to mass media coverage, with men’s sports being presented in more exciting and inviting ways to the common fan.
After analyzing data collected during a 25-year longitudinal study of how women’s sports are covered, three researchers from the University of Southern California and Purdue University found that female athletes are denigrated in comparison to men. The problem, they agreed, was so pervasive that they coined the term “gender-bland sexism” to describe how outlets superficially extends the principles of merit to women in sports.
“Televised news and highlight shows frame women in uninspired ways, making women’s athletic accomplishments appear lackluster compared to those of men’s,” lead author Michela Musto and her co-authors write, adding that “… this “bland” language normalizes a hierarchy between men’s and women’s sports while simultaneously avoiding charges of overt sexism.”
For the study, the researchers used data from a 25-year content analysis study, conducted once every five years using televised media. In 2014, the team examined six weeks of evening and late-night sports news programming from three Los Angeles network affiliate stations. They also examined three weeks of the hour-long nationally broadcasted program SportsCenter on ESPN.
Compared to women’s sports coverage between 1989-1999 — which the authors found often included outwardly sexist comments towards female athletes, marginalizing them by discussing their roles as mothers, wives and girlfriends — today’s coverage is respectful, but lackluster. “On the rare occasion when women’s sports are covered, their segments tend to be shorter and lack the same high-quality production values regularly applied to men’s stories,” the study concludes.
Specifically, men’s sports highlights averaged two minutes and five seconds in length on SportsCenter, and about 47 seconds per sport on local newscasts. Conversely, women’s stories averaged one minute and 17 seconds on SportsCenter, and 44 seconds on the local affiliates. The noticeable difference even extended to interviews. Players and coaches were interviewed in one out of every three men’s sports segments on SportsCenter and the local affiliate stations; but that ratio dipped to one in four for women.
The authors cite the overwhelming predominance of men in sports media coverage: 90.1 percent of editors, 90.2 percent of assistant editors, 87.6 percent of columnists, 87.4 percent of reporters, and 80.8 percent of copy editors and designers are male.
While the researchers don’t see coverage of women’s sports as openly disrespectful as in years past, “gender-bland sexism renders women’s athletic accomplishments less impressive and less interesting than men’s” when it comes to media coverage, the authors write.
Even though there has been a notable increase in female participation in sports, most media coverage is still devoted to men’s athletics. According to the authors, coverage of women’s sports made up only three percent of televised airtime. And perhaps even worse is the fact that a dearth of that coverage came off as “respectful, but boring,” when compared to the men.
“Rather than being insulting or ambivalent, most women’s sports coverage lacked the action-packed, humorous language, lavish compliments, and dominant descriptors routinely found in men’s sports commentary,” the authors write.
Officials, employees, and fans of women’s sports teams shouldn’t take these findings lightly. The authors believe the disparity in media significance may play a major role in revenue for women’s leagues, and that problem trickles down to the player.
“Ultimately, the continued belief that women’s sports are less interesting may limit television ratings, ticket sales, the amount advertisers are willing to pay for broadcast time during women’s events, the potential for corporate endorsements for women athletes, and the salaries of players and coaches,” the authors believe.
The full study was published in the journal Gender and Society.