Chris Neary is a producer for On the Media.
Creating an Audience for Women’s Sports
Friday, July 15, 2011 - 02:59 PM
The U.S. Women's National Soccer team will play for the World Cup title this weekend. How many people will be watching depends on how many people actually know it's going on.
On Sunday, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team will take on the Japanese team in the final of the Women’s World Cup.
I’m forfeiting the opportunity to open with a snappy, bloggy lede and just laying out the facts because according to Purdue Professor Cheryl Cooky (as in oatmeal cookie), many people might not be aware the final is happening this weekend.
The news coverage of women’s sports has declined significantly in the last 10 years. In 1999, fresh off the the women’s team World Cup win and Brandi Chastain forcing America to acknowledge the existence of sports bras, women’s sports received 8.7 percent of the time in sports news coverage (in the form of highlights and short features). By 2009, that number was down to 1.6%
Cooky: “We tend to think about change as happening in a linear way, in an onward and upward fashion. Increased equality for women, a better quality of life,” Cooky said. “If you talk to most people they'd say, 'yeah more women are playing sports, of course they're covered more.' But that’s not the case. So how do we make sense of that? Part of it is the lack of news coverage.”
Cooky and University of Southern California Sociology Professor Michael Messner (and research assistant Rob Hextrum) published those findings in a 2010 report from the Center for Feminist Research at USC. Cooky says that despite increased broadcasting of women games, news coverage of those games lagged.
Why is lack of news coverage, and the lack of quality game coverage, important? Because television doesn’t just respond to demand, it creates it. Television won’t broadcast more women’s sports until there’s more demand for it. But there won’t be more demand until more people know about the games via things like sports highlights. It’s a chicken or the egg situation, but either way you need the chicken and the egg.
“We watch television in a very passive way. Most people don’t take note of all the production. They see it as a totally natural representation of a live event. I don’t think many people think about the way the media is really framing sports for us,” says Cooky.
At the moment, you might feel inundated with coverage of women’s soccer. And with baseball having its All-Star break earlier in the week and the NBA and NFL quiet during their respective lockouts, ESPN has been giving the team and the tournament plenty of play. But keep in mind the lesson of 1999, a spike in ratings doesn’t necessarily mean a new upward trajectory for women’s sports.