Call to Action: Women’s Sports

As women’s sports advocate for greater recognition and support from mainstream media I have recently become more aware of powerful voices from female athletes and their allies than ever before. With the Tokyo Olympics almost upon us, our media feed runs the risk of once again being flooded with the quadrennial acknowledgement of women’s sporting excellence before typically being ignored by SportCenter et al for the next four years.

I am delighted that this week’s blog post addresses just this issue and comes from Minnesota’s 2020 Health Teacher of the Year. Thank you to Jessica Matheson for sharing her thoughts in this paper. It was written for her Gender Issues in Sport class as part of the Mizzou Positive Coaching and Athletic Leadership Master’s of Education program at the University of Missouri, under the supervision of Dr. Leigh Neier.

Introduction

As a female former high school athlete, and now a high school coach of female athletes, I have felt and observed a lack of support for female athletes.  I admit, I, myself, was part of the problem as a youth, high school, and college athlete and I can still do better as an adult, parent, and coach today.  We, females, cannot simply ask males to support female athletes and sports; males will attend, watch, and click on sports they are interested in.  In order to support female athletes and increase media coverage for female sports, other females need to stand behind female sports by attending, watching, and clicking female sporting events and news about female athletes.

Rationale

Females account for approximately 40% of high school and collegiate sport participants, a number that has been steadily increasing since Title IX was enacted, but the amount of coverage, less than 5% of sports media, has declined in the United States over the last 30 years (Lavoi, 2013).  Why is there this disparity?  According to a 2018 Nielsen report on the rise of women’s sports, 84% of general sports fans now have an interest in female’s sports and of those, 51% are male.  This tells us that males are interested in female sports but “making [females] invisible and/or stereotyping them in the Twitter accounts of the sports media continues, going from female athletes to female non-athletes to continue maintaining a clear gender bias in sports news in their audience” (Sainz-de-Baranda, et al., 2020).  Females have to remain the positive driving force in visibility of media coverage for female sports by attending, watching, and clicking female sporting events and news about female athletes.

Attending

According to Stef Reid, a Paralympic athlete, she believes females are the biggest barrier in driving visibility in female sports.  She states, “men love sport, and spend lots of money to see their counterparts play.  Aside from the athletes I train with, I don’t have any female friends who regularly watch and follow women’s sport leagues.  So much effort is made trying to convince male audiences to watch female sport.  Women need to value and enjoy sport if we want female athletes to have more visibility.  Women need to value female athletes more than models and reality stars” (Reid, 2014).  Stef Reid opened my eyes to a solution that I have now been preaching for five years:  females need to support other female athletes.

When I reflect on my youth, high school, and collegiate athletic careers, I agree with Stef.  Personally, I never attended my female friends sporting events as a youth and rarely attended as a high schooler.  I wouldn’t say that it’s not because I didn’t want to, but it’s because I felt busy, I felt priorities were higher for other things, and I often made the decision to watch my male classmates instead.  In college, I attended many more female sporting events, but I would attribute it to free admission and a rewards program where I accumulated points for every event I attended; had it not been for the rewards program, I can guarantee that I would have attended significantly fewer female sporting events throughout college.  As an adult, I need to do a better job of attending female sporting events; I have more time, I have the means to attend, and I have my children to be a positive role model by attending female sporting events.  A few months before the pandemic changed our sporting attendance, I had the opportunity to attend a Minnesota Golden Gopher volleyball game with my mom and daughter and it was a blast!  Gopher volleyball home games are typically sold out and are known to have amazing energy in the arena with a strong, loyal fan base and I look forward to being able to attend in the future with my husband and other two children.  Although we are limited in the way we can attend sporting events due to the Covid-19 pandemic, once things start opening up more and allow additional spectators, I plan on taking my kids to a Gopher Softball game or other female sporting events.

Watching

“The rise in cultural visibility of … strong, tough and beautiful female athletes, [leads to the] emergence of a potentially new form of femininity that refuses to cede physical strength and sporting excellence to men” (Bruce, 2015).  Unfortunately, “if women’s sports stories don’t lead to more subscriptions or more viewers, decision-makers question whether those stories are worth the investment of time, money, and talent” (Springer, 2019).  Oftentimes, a reason why people claim they don’t like to watch a female sport compared to a male sport is because they are comparing the two and expecting the same atmosphere, flow, intensity, and masculinity.  As Stef Reid identified, “we need to eliminate the expectation that women’s sport needs to take on the same shape as men’s sport.  By and large, female athletes are not as strong or as fast as their male counterparts.  This is a neutral statement, and all it means is that females will play the game differently.  Women may have to play more creatively or strategically.  It is still exciting, it is still entertaining, and it is still an impressive display of sporting talent.  If women’s sports keep trying to mimic men’s sports, they will simply end up being a second rate version.  We need to find a way to do sport on our own terms and be proud of it” (Reid, 2014).

When it comes to viewing, as a youth and high schooler, I would often choose to watch male sports on TV, perhaps it was because it’s what my dad wanted to watch, because I’m sexually attracted to males, or because I felt as though the level of competitiveness was better.  I’ll be honest, I never really thought twice about watching female sports versus watching male sports as I automatically turned on male sports.  As I’ve grown older, I find myself watching more and more female sports, especially my hometown favorites, Gopher volleyball and softball, two powerhouses at the University of Minnesota.  I need to do a better job of seeking out opportunities to watch additional female sporting events and stories about female athletes.

Within our sports-dominated household, we are constantly looking for any and every sporting event to watch on TV.  There have been several times where I have been very frustrated as I’m looking for a sporting event to watch, and I see “bags” or “corn hole” or whatever you call the game where you throw bean bags at a circle cut out target on wooden, slightly elevated boards, on ESPN but I have to find the other sporting event on ESPN 2, Fox Sports North, or Big 10 Network.  How is it that a yard game will supersede a sporting event, regardless of the gender?  I will continue seeking out opportunities to view female sports and stories about female athletes on TV, regardless of the channel they are on, in hopes that one day, I won’t have to keep searching for the channel they are on; they’ll be on the main channels, just like the males.

Clicking

“Despite overwhelming evidence which demonstrates girls and women are highly skilled athletes who participate in sports in record numbers, coverage and portrayals of sportswomen in both traditional and digital media depict a much different picture” (Lavoi, 2013).  “Only 1.6% of sports news on Twitter has to do with sports by women (Sainz-de-Baranda, et al., 2020).  We went from 40% of high school and collegiate sports participants being females, to less than 5% of sports media coverage, to only 1.6% of Twitter coverage; that’s a significant disparity.

When analyzing the University of Minnesota Gopher Athletics Twitter accounts and comparing like-sports based on season and popularity, there are significant differences between Twitter followers for each of the sports teams, with most instances of the male teams having a significantly higher number of followers than the female teams.  The largest disparity of followers comes from the football team compared to the volleyball team, the University’s two top attended, viewed, and followed sports for each gender.  The football team, who was a powerhouse in the 1930’s and early 1940’s, well before Twitter existed, has 131,700 followers (fig. 1) while the volleyball team, who has made an appearance in the NCAA Final Four six times, has 41,100 followers (fig. 2), a disparity of 90,600 followers.  Next, the men’s hockey team, a consistently dominant team in the regular season and in the Frozen Four, has 84,600 followers (fig. 3) while the seven-time national champions, women’s hockey team has 18,400 followers (fig. 4), a disparity of 66,200 followers.  Then, the men’s basketball team, with recent changes in the program by releasing Richard Pitino and hiring Gopher alumni, Ben Johnson as head coach, has 54,100 followers (fig. 5) while the women’s team who three years ago added Lindsay Whalen, a Minnesota native, Gopher alumni, and former Minnesota Lynx player, as the head coach has 15,300 followers (fig. 6), a disparity of 38,800 followers.  Finally, out of the main sports with Twitter followings, the baseball team, who consistently has a win-loss record over .500, has 21,200 followers (fig. 7) while the softball team, coming off of their first Women’s College World Series appearance in 2019,  has 30,800 followers (fig. 8), the smallest disparity of 9,600 followers, but this time in favor of the female team.  These disparities are alarming and are why we need to continue to ensure females are supporting female athletes and sports programs.

I’m very active on social media and make sure to follow my favorite female sports teams so I can see their updates and like their statuses.  I will continue to seek out, like, and follow organizations that support female athletes such as @ESPNw, @PlayLikeAGirlMP, and @TeamSheIS.

Call to Action

I am asking females to attend and watch more female sports, follow more female teams and organizations on social media, and read more articles and watch more videos of female sports stories and recaps.  “There are plenty more … stories waiting to be discovered, plenty [of] female pioneers from the past and elite female athletes from today with unique histories that deserve more attention” (Springer, 2019).  With our support of each other, and as we build each other up, more and more stories and successes of female athletes and sports will be shared and the popularity of female sports will increase for years to come.

As a former female athlete, coach of female athletes, parent of a future female athlete, and supporter of female athletes, I need to advocate for others to support female athletes.  As a positive coach, leader, and advocate, it is important for me to show my female athletes that I support them and I support others supporting them as well.  We need to support female athletes and increase media coverage for female sports, other females need to support female sports by attending, watching, and clicking female sporting events and news about female athletes.  I will keep attending, I will keep watching, and I will keep clicking because female sports have come a long way, but we still have further to go.

An increase of females watching and attending female sporting events, following more female teams and events on social media, and reading more articles and watching more videos of female sports stories and recaps would benefit female athletes and female athletics. Not only would this obviously increase the support base, but would also yield an increased level of interest in potential future female athletes and male counterparts.  Together, we can make a difference, one ticket, one event, one article, and one click at a time.  Together, let’s build female athletes and female sports up and increase media coverage of female sports.

Works Cited

Bruce, T. (2015). New Rules for New Times: Sportswomen and Media Representation in the Third Wave. Sex Roles. (2016) 74:361-376. doi: 10.1007/s11199-015-0497-6

Leading up to the early 2000s, feminist researchers identified numerous representational practices through which the sports media ignored, trivialized and sexualized sportswomen. At that time, a distillation of the research into a set of six unwritten media ‘rules’ concluded that, at best, the traditional media approached women’s sport ambivalently within an either/or discourse of pretty or powerful that constructed femininity and athleticism as incompatible.  This research article analyzes implications of third wave feminism for understanding the emergence of a pretty and powerful discourse in the U.S. that challenges dominant interpretations of sports media coverage and points to the value for feminist sport media researchers of expanding their interpretive frameworks for making sense of media coverage.

Lavoi, N. M. (2013). Gender and sport media. In E. A. Roper, Gender relations in sport (pp. 39-52). Rotterdam, Netherlands: Sense.

Drawing from the work of leading scholars within sport studies, Gender Relations in Sport provides a comprehensive examination of the intersecting themes and concepts surrounding the study of gender and sport.  This particular chapter analyzes various aspects within sport media and the impact and disparities between male and females.

Nilsen Company. (2018). The rise of women’s sports. Retrieved May 8, 2021, from https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/report/2018/the-rise-of-womens-sports/

The rate of change in women’s sports is one of the most exciting trends in the sports industry right now. For rights holders, brands and the media, this represents a chance to develop a new commercial proposition and engage fans in a different way.  This report identifies that the rate of change in women’s sports is one of the most exciting trends in the sports industry right now and examines key statistics and figures related to the rise in visibility of women’s sports.

PBS (2013). Media Coverage & Female Athletes. Retrieved on April 8, 2021 from https://www.pbs.org/video/tpt-co-productions-media-coverage-female-athletes/

Forty percent of all athletes are women, but only 4% are represented in the media–and too often how they look is more important than their skills.  This documentary from the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, uses voices of scholars, the media, coaches at collegiate, Olympic, and professional levels, and athletes themselves and examines media coverage within female sport.

Reid, Stef. (2014). A Discussion on Women’s Sport. Retrieved on May 8, 2021 from http://www.stefreid.com/blog/2014/11/13/a-discussion-on-womens-sport-part-1

Stef Reid is a Paralympic long jumper who competes for Great Britain. When she was 15, Stef was involved in a boating accident, suffering severe propeller lacerations. Her life was saved but her right foot was amputated.  This blog post highlights a conversation, written in a question and answer format, Stef Reid had about barriers that drive visibility in women’s sport.

Sainz-de-Baranda, C., Ada-Lameiras, A., and Blanco-Ruiz, M. (2020) Gender Differences in Sports News Coverage on Twitter. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17145199

Gender stereotypes influence boys’ and girls’ self-perception, with the differential treatment received by sports figures in the media being one of the main factors in the perpetuation of stereotypes about sports. The objective of this research is to analyze if the new communication channels, such as Twitter (where my original photos and call to action will focus on), maintain gender stereotypes when reporting sports news.  The sport with the most media coverage was football (72.11%), for men as well as for women, followed by basketball (6.63%). Female athletes receive more media coverage according to the sport which they engage in (“gender-appropriate” sports), with the exception of football, and not in accordance with their accomplishments. Twitter remains at the service of traditional media replicating the same gender biases and even augmenting them.

Springer, S. (2019). #TIREDOFTHEBIAS. Nieman Reports. (2019) 73.1:16-23.  Retrieved from http://web.a.ebscohost.com.proxy.mul.missouri.edu/ehpl/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=9&sid=24fac63f-9e2f-4cba-a5a8-f2dd3f54024d%40sdc-v-sessmgr01

Women’s sports in the US. receive only 4 percent of sports media coverage.  How–and why–to change that.  This news article breaks down the biases between male and female sport with a focus on journalism and includes its own call to action for increasing media coverage of female sport.

Appendix

Figure 1. Minnesota Gopher Football Twitter Account. (2021). Minnesota Gopher Football Twitter account followers. Twitter. Retrieved April 17, 2021, from https://twitter.com/GopherFootball. Screenshot by author.Figure 2. Minnesota Gopher Volleyball Twitter Account. (2021). Minnesota Gopher Volleyball Twitter account followers. Twitter. Retrieved April 17, 2021, from https://twitter.com/GopherVBall. Screenshot by author.
Figure 3. Minnesota Gopher Men’s Hockey Twitter Account. (2021). Minnesota Gopher Men’s Hockey Twitter account followers. Twitter. Retrieved April 17, 2021, from https://twitter.com/GopherHockey. Screenshot by author.Figure 4. Minnesota Gopher Women’s Hockey Twitter Account. (2021). Minnesota Gopher Women’s Hockey Twitter account followers. Twitter. Retrieved April 17, 2021, from https://twitter.com/GopherWHockey. Screenshot by author.
Figure 5. Minnesota Gopher Men’s Basketball Twitter Account. (2021). Minnesota Gopher Men’s Basketball Twitter account followers. Twitter. Retrieved April 17, 2021, from https://twitter.com/GopherMBB. Screenshot by author.Figure 6. Minnesota Gopher Women’s Basketball Twitter Account. (2021). Minnesota Gopher Women’s Basketball Twitter account followers. Twitter. Retrieved April 17, 2021, from https://twitter.com/GopherWBB. Screenshot by author.
Figure 7. Minnesota Gopher Baseball Twitter Account. (2021). Minnesota Gopher Baseball Twitter account followers. Twitter. Retrieved April 17, 2021, from https://twitter.com/GopherBaseball. Screenshot by author.Figure 8. Minnesota Gopher Softball Twitter Account. (2021). Minnesota Gopher Softball Twitter account followers. Twitter. Retrieved April 17, 2021, from https://twitter.com/GopherSoftball. Screenshot by author.

If you liked this blog post, you’ll also like the following:

‘Being (an) Female Athlete’ by Emily Zien

One Life by Megan Rapinoe

Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story by Wyomia Tyus

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s