Women’s Sports Are Getting Less Airtime

Thanks to Title IX, more American women are playing sports than ever before—so why is coverage of women’s sports actually declining?

Ned Dishman/Getty

My son doesn’t think women can play sports. He’s five. Who taught him this?

When I looked around to point the finger at the forces corrupting my child, I was surprised when my search led right back to us: We love to watch sports on TV. And on TV women athletes wear a cloak of invisibility.

Nachos, beer, and ESPN Game Day make a great fall Saturday at our house. March Madness leads right into opening day in the MLB, and then it’s a short jump to the NBA playoffs and the Stanley Cup. This year we got lucky and the FIFA World Cup made our summer sing. We’re not alone. Neilsen’s 2013 Year in Sports Media Report confirms that fans’ hunger for watching sports just keeps growing.

When my son started talking about how girls don’t play sports, we jumped in with counterexamples and talked to him about the importance of being fair. Our family bought season tickets to the Portland Thorns, the National Women’s Soccer League team. Going to a match proves to any little boy that women’s sports are exciting, their fans passionate, and their level of talent high.

Yet he still insists that women don’t play sports. “You’re raising a little misogynist,” my family keeps telling us. My son’s certainty that women don’t play sports opened my eyes to the fact that America’s leaders in sports coverage are giving us a high-production-value education in what’s important in sports—and it almost completely excludes women.

Even as I write this, I struggle with the very powerful cultural assumption that men’s sports are more important, and the exclusion of women’s sports in media is only natural. As a sports fan, it’s what I’ve been taught.

Over 40 years after Title IX, we’ve made amazing headway in girls’ and women’s access to sports throughout childhood and college. In 1971, the year before Title IX was passed, about two in every 50 girls took part in high-school sports; in 2012 the numbers were about two out of every five. Development programs and—consequently—talent are high. The U.S. has professional women’s basketball, golf, soccer, and even football leagues. Generations of women are growing up with access to and passion for women’s sports. Yet, according to a study by the Center for Feminist Research at the University of Southern California in 2010, coverage of women’s sports on national television has declined to 1.6 percent of total airtime. A blip? Perhaps, but ESPN’s SportsCenter covered women’s sports 2.2 percent of the time in 1999, 2.1 percent in 2004, and 1.4 percent in 2010—abysmal across the board. Whereas market share should be consistently growing, it’s suffering a slow, apathetic decline.

As more women play sports, the less important they become.

Online coverage has potential to be the equalizer, since women’s sports don’t steal precious airtime from men’s. But sites like Yahoo Sports, ESPN, The Bleacher Report, CBS Sports, Sports Illustrated, and NBC Sports (listed in order of web dominance) often send the women’s sports fan down a navigational rabbit hole that leads straight to the bowels of the site. With the exception of tennis, and—to some extent—WNBA, women’s sports are ignored or pushed aside. NBC Sports’ National Dog Show coverage is substantially better than their treatment of women’s basketball. The Bleacher Report’s latest women’s soccer story is from the 2013 championship; we’re almost at the 2014 playoffs. The only woman athlete featured on their home page on a recent Tuesday was WNBA star Monica Wright under the headline, “Durant’s Ex-Fiance Explains Reason for Leaving Him.”

But wait! What about ESPNW? Unlike the other major sports media players, ESPN created a site specifically for women’s sports fans: The cursive W and soft colors are bellwether enough, but the stereotypes built in to the site’s architecture solidify ESPN’s treatment of women’s sports as separate but equal. The women’s site has a measely three tabs that can be boiled down to news, lifestyle, and charity. In contrast to where real-time, meaty sports content is everywhere you click, women’s sports fans get lost trying to find sports among the lifestyle pieces. If ESPN is a sleek bachelor pad, ESPNW is the cottage next door filled with Activia and ultra-soft toilet paper. There’s some trickeration going on here.

I just want a cold beer and an #SCtop10 list that includes a Vero Boquete goal. Why do I feel so marginalized? Tom Hawking, in a great Flavorwire piece, “Why Does Sports Media Ignore Women,” hits the nail on the head: “[T]here doesn’t need to be sports commentary or analysis aimed specifically at women. It just needs to be less unthinkingly aimed solely at men.” There are a few excellent examples of how to do it out there; for example, Hoop Feed for women’s basketball and The Equalizer for women’s soccer—sites that treat women’s sports fans like grown-ups. SB Nation and their Swish Appeal site do a pretty bang-up job, as well. The equation for these sites is surprisingly simple: cover women’s sports. Write about games, trades, and playoff berths. Don’t assume all women’s sports fans are women.

Sports media is powerful. It doesn’t just respond to our desires as sports consumers, it helps create our demands and perceptions. How can we think of women’s sports as anything other than amateur if they’re given D-League attention?

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A 2007 study by The SMART Journal about online coverage of the NCAA basketball tournament on nails it: “[T]he way sports are covered and reported plays a huge role in how female athletes and female sports are viewed by society.” Sports media isn’t waiting for us to get interested in women’s sports, it’s creating our apathy. If it’s not on SportsCenter, America doesn’t care.

There’s some hope that the winds are shifting. The 2013 U.S. Open women’s final viewership outpaced the men’s; ESPN has a nine-match broadcast deal with the NWSL for the 2014 season; the WNBA has an ESPN deal through 2022. But we want more. You know what would be amazing? If the WNBA got consistent ticker time, if Christine Sinclair’s July hat trick hit the #SCtop10, if next year’s Women’s World Cup sponsors handed out free brackets at MLS games at the beginning of June, if #wewantmore started trending on Twitter.

I’ll work on the ethics of equality as I’m raising my son, but it’s money that talks. Women are the primary breadwinners in approximately 44 percent of households, they already make up about 30 percent of the fan base for major American sports, but they’re ignored on TV and online. We are a market waiting to be tapped (and not by ESPNW).

I am a sports fan. I have a lot of purchase power. There are more where I come from. We want real sports coverage for women’s sports, and we want more of it. At the signing of the WNBA broadcast extension in 2013, ESPN president John Skipper said, “[W]e're putting a commitment of our time on the air, commitment of our… company, to continue to help grow women's sports and the importance of those sports in this country.” I’m thrilled to hear it, but my five-year-old isn’t convinced. #wewantmore