No Hype for Women’s Hoops

An “unnatural silence” may keep women’s basketball from having a larger fan base.

By Michael A. Messner

Another year of women’s college hoops is in full swing. Can anybody stop UConn from three-peating as NCAA champions? Will Baylor’s Brittney Griner break out as the game’s most dominant post player? How will the school I teach at, the University of Southern California (USC), do this season?

While pondering these questions, I remember a moment of March Madness last season when I invited a friend to watch a USC game with me. It turned out to be a thriller, with the outcome decided in the final minute of play.

The next day, my friend e-mailed me to say that he had tried in vain to watch a recap of the contest on local TV news. He was shocked.

I was not. Local media are nearly silent on my favorite sport, women’s basketball.

The morning I received my friend’s e-mail I was working on my research report,“Gender in Televised Sports,” analyzing data collected throughout 2009. Starting in 1989 and every five years subsequently, I’ve tracked coverage of women’s and men’s sports on TV news and highlights shows. (The report, co-authored by Cheryl Cooky of Purdue University, was released earlier this year by the USC Center for Feminist Research.)

In past years, the proportion of time devoted to women’s sports during the 3- to 5-minute sports-news segments of Los Angeles’ three TV network affiliates was low: 5 percent in 1989 and 5 percent in 1993. When news coverage of women’s sports climbed to nearly 9 percent in 1999, I thought it might signal a new trend. Slowly, perhaps grudgingly, local TV sports reporters were catching up with the late-20th-century explosion of women’s sports.

And why wouldn’t they? After all, more than 11 million fans annually attended women’s NCAA games the past three seasons. The average attendance for top-division schools was 1,637 spectators a game, while perennial powerhouses Tennessee and Connecticut drew huge average home crowds of 12,896 and 10,182, respectively.

But I was wrong about TV news coverage of women’s sports. It dipped back to 6.3 percent in 2004, and in 2009 it nearly evaporated: Only 1.6 percent of all TV sports-news airtime in our sample was devoted to women athletes. SportsCenter, ESPN’s popular highlights show, spent even less of its total time—1.4 percent—reporting on women’s sports.

Some might argue that comparing news coverage of men’s and women’s sports is akin to comparing apples and oranges. After all, men’s college sports such as football and baseball have no fully developed women’s versions. That’s why it’s useful to contrast coverage of women’s and men’s college basketball—two equivalent sports played during the same time of year.

So let’s compare: During March 2009, the three network affiliates in Los Angeles aired 60 stories on men’s NCAA basketball, including game footage, interviews with players and coaches, and commentary on upcoming games. How much coverage did women’s NCAA basketball receive during that time? Zero.

ESPN’s SportsCenter was slightly better: It aired four such stories, totaling 1:12. That’s 1 minute, 12 seconds. Over the same two weeks, SportsCenter aired 40 stories on men’s college hoops, totaling 1:37. That’s 1 hour and 37 minutes.

The local newspaper does no better. In the past few years, I have sent an annual e-mail to the editor of the Los Angeles Times sports section pleading for more coverage of women’s college basketball. In 2008, then-editor Randy Harvey replied, “As you no doubt know, attendance for women’s basketball in Southern California is very low. …[Yours], in fact, [is] the only letter we’ve gotten this season about our coverage. The sport must attract more interest before it gets more coverage.”

But fan interest operates as a self-feeding loop: TV and newspaper coverage may reflect fan interest, while fan interest grows with more TV and newspaper coverage. Which is the chicken and which the egg?

Last season, I wasn’t the only one to complain to the Times about its coverage of women’s college basketball. In a March 2010 blog posting, the new sports editor there, Mike James, responded to reader complaints by writing, “True, we haven’t been covering a lot of women’s basketball this season, aside from a couple of features, largely because women’s basketball hasn’t been a major draw in L.A. …Our decision has been to try to make sure we reach the greatest number of readers we can with resources available, and regrettably, that means that some areas don’t get much regular coverage.”

True, the print media is going through economic woes—but that doesn’t explain the paltry coverage of women’s sports on TV. What’s astounding is that declining coverage of women athletes is occurring at a time when participation in women’s sports—in particular, basketball—is exploding. Linda Jean Carpenter and R. Vivian Acosta, who have tracked college women’s athletic participation rates since 1977, have found a steady and continuing climb in the number of college women’s teams. According to their 2010 survey, 99.1 percent of all colleges have a women’s basketball team, making it, by that measure, the number one women’s college sport. At the high-school level, nearly 440,000 girls play the game competitively, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations’ 2009–10 survey.

When big games are shown on TV, people tune in: The 12 women’s games in the NCAA tournament broadcast on ESPN last March averaged a more-than-respectable 1.6 million viewers. The 2010 women’s title game between Connecticut and Stanford attracted 3.5 million TV viewers, up 32 percent from the previous year.

Despite this increasing fan interest, though, viewers of sports news and highlights shows still experience what novelist Tillie Olsen called “unnatural silences” about women’s basketball.

Why does this matter? Let’s return to my shocked friend. Yes, he knew the final score and had experienced the emotional ups-and-downs of the game—so why did he need a news recap?

If you are a sports fan, you know the answer. We seek out wrap-ups and highlights of games we’ve seen, especially when our team has won, not so much to learn new information as to enhance and amplify the feelings— tension, suspense, exhilaration—we experienced watching the games. News and highlights shows do not simply “reflect” fan interest in certain sports, as sports producers and newspaper sports editors—who, let’s face it, are nearly all men—often contend. Rather, they are important cogs in what media scholar Sut Jhally called “the sports/media complex.” Popular men’s sports and mainstream sports media feed on each other, generating profits for themselves and fueling fans’ emotional connections. Meanwhile, college women’s basketball remains boxed out of this self-perpetuating loop of financial interests, thus remaining for the most part a well-kept secret among its growing cadre of loyal fans.

My friend’s disappointment in not seeing coverage of the women’s basketball game was all about being robbed of one more emotional hit as he chased the high of an exhilarating experience. Fans of men’s sports are used to having this fix routinely delivered in their living rooms, and it’s a key element in building audiences for men’s sports. Couldn’t the media do the same for women?

Instead, the media silence surrounding women’s sports ensures smaller audiences and lower revenues. Come on, media guys: Just turn up the volume!

Michael A. Messner is a professor of sociology and gender studies at USC and author of It’s All for the Kids: Gender, Families and Youth Sports (University of California Press, 2009).

Photo of OSU vs. Minnesota from Wikimedia Commons.

Excerpted from the Winter 2011 issue of Ms. To have this issue delivered straight to your door, join the Ms. community.

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  1. I don’t know if I can consider you a REAL sports fan after you stated this was your favorite sport. The level of competition doesn’t even compare. It’s alright to like Women’s Basketball maybe just for the reason that it’s actually better than the WNBA, but I just can’t condone such thoughts.

    You teach at USC, right? I’m sure you got a good Football you could get behind even with their post-season bans. Good luck getting your manhood back.

    • Ya bro, chicks playing basketball isn't a REAL sport. Because, like, it's only real if you have a penis, amiright? He totally just lost his manhood for declaring his admiration for women playing basketball. No self-respecting man shows the same amount of reverence towards people who dribble a ball down a court and shoot it in a basket who have type A reproductive organs as they do for people who dribble the ball down a court and shoot it in a basket who have type B reproductive organs. Man foul.

      • I think KIF, in a less-than-elegant way, was trying to point out that women's basketball is a less compelling product relative to the men's game. That doesn't mean it isn't competitive, much in the way YMCA or pick-up basketball at any level can be, whether it is between women or men, able or disabled persons, older people or children; nor does that mean women's basketball is inherently bad either. It just means that more people are entertained by the level of play in a men's game than a women's game – the dunks, the alley-oops, the blocks, the speed of play, the action above the rim, etc. – all of these are absent from or in short supply in the women's game. To each his own, as far as interests, but I think most would agree that it is much more painful to watch the women's game, where players react slower, can't jump as high or run as fast, shoot from the distance the men's long-range shooters can, etc. Sorry if you find that offensive KIF 2, et al.

  2. Thanks for this really thoughtful article. I'm looking up your report to show my sports-loving boyfriend right now. I did notice that at least last night, there was a lot of coverage of the tournament selection. Maybe they'll keep it up through the whole tourney.

  3. Thanks for a great article! It supports an article I wrote earlier here –

  4. KIF-why is it that men constantly feel a need to compare the women's game to the men's? Do you do the same with pro men vs. college, college vs. h.s., h.s. vs. jr. high? No! Why? Because you know they are different and can't be compared. But you can still appreciate them for what they are.

    It's the same with the women's game. Instead of comparing it, appreciate it for what it is, like you do with other levels of men's/boys' basketball, instead of criticizing it for what it isn't (men's basketball).

    If you feel the women's game isn't "exciting" because of no dunks, then you're not a fan of basketball, but of dunking. Basketball on every level needs dribbling, shooting, rebounding, etc. to function as a sport. It doesn't NEED dunking. That's just a bonus. If you can't appreciate women's basketball as a sport, then maybe you're the one who's not a REAL sports fan.

    • No way, man. It is simply because the level and style of play is less entertaining. The level at which the sport is played is inferior, much like HS is to NCAA and NCAA to NBA or Euroleague. All of the levels you mentioned are regularly discussed in conjunction with one another. Even more, the same reason could be argued as to why Division II, NAIA, and Division III NCAA mens games are not as popular. Your argument would only work if comparison among levels and aggregate popularity are not related, but they are very much related. Higher levels garners greater attention, not just in the U.S., but worldwide. So Women’s sports being of a lesser level of competition in blunt comparison with mens is doomed to be met with complacency. Nice article but I disagree.

  5. As for the article-it's spot on with its assessment. Media like to hide behind the excuse of "we'd show/cover it more if more people were interested". But more people won't get interested if they don't know it exists. When they do, the viewing numbers reflect the interest. When the NHL had their lockout a few years ago, ESPN started showing more of the women's college softball world series. Ratings were high enough that ESPN has expanded their coverage every year of women's softball and the college championships because of its increasing popularity.

    Part of the media's job is to make people interested. Very few people knew or cared about sports such as bobsledding, ski jumping, or even figure skating or track until "Wide World of Sports" started showing them and other less known/popular sports on TV. They were responsible for more people being interested in a wider range of sports than any media outlet, and their numbers reflected it, both in their WWOS telecasts and Olympic coverage.

  6. I'm enjoying both tournaments why can't you promote the women's without playing the 'victim card'.

  7. I do not watch women's basketball. I also do not watch (1) men's college basketball, (2) regular-season NBA games, or (3) early postseason games from outside my region. Basically, I only have the time and inclination to watch the very best.

    Put me in an arena, with almost anybody playing, and I will get into the game. I've been invited to an NBA game an enjoyed the halftime show between special olympics teams more than the main event. Seeing what the top teams in the world are capable of appeals to me. But really, either I am watching the very best athletes, or it doesn't matter to me what the skill level is.

  8. I think some of you guys haven’t even watched a WNBA game. The women in the games play just as hard as men. Only difference between the two is: Men are men, women are women, the women use smaller balls and they don’t get the RESPECT they need because of guys like you. I would like for y’all to actually attend a WNBA game and see what y’all think

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