Time Out: Who Carries The Ball for Women’s Equality in Sports Media?

On February 5, 2017, more than 100 million fans will watch the Super Bowl. Almost half of all the viewers will be women.

Online viewing of sports is increasing at an astounding rate. More than 22 million viewers watched a recent Thursday Night Football match up  between the Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings, reversing a downward trend for football live viewing. According to ESPN Nielsen-rated television networks, 179 million fans viewed more than 100 billion minutes of college football games across ESPN’s Nielsen-rated television networks in this past year. 

If watching sports was like the Oscars, we would be using the hashtag #SportsTooMale.

Title IX has been federal law since 1972 and has changed the world of sports more than any single act. Women in college have participated at almost three times the rate since enactment, and high school girls’ participation jumped from under 300,000 in 1971 to 2.8 million in 2002. The NCAA today sponsors more women’s championships than men.

Sports now tries to cater to women and one third of the adult audience for ESPN events programs are women. Women are more than 40 percent of the professed fans for major league soccer, baseball, football and hockey and almost that figure for basketball. New York Yankees’ shops sell more women’s apparel than men’s. In the London Olympics in 2012, 44 percent of the participating athletes were women, creating a huge differential from 1908 when men outnumbered women 53 to 1, according to an Ernst and Young study. Even advertisers have begun to change focus. Under Armour’s campaign featuring Misty Copeland has over 10.5 million youtube views as the business is growing 60 percent, year over year, according to Forbes’ Kristi Dosh.

Women as fans might pat themselves on the back at having achieved parity.

But there remains a dearth of women in sports and resources devoted to their teams. The 2015 Market research in the United Kingdom found that almost 2 million fewer women than men exercised regularly—and that appearance and ability were two key factors. Fear of being judged kept women is keeping women from exercise and sport. Another study spotlights that sports internationally suffer from a female deficit in the governing bodies—just 13 percent of the directors of the 76 international sports federation boards are female, while only 21 percent of the directors of national sports organizations in 38 countries are women.

FC Zurich Women plays regularly in the UEFA Women’s Champions League—but no one shows up and there is very little media attention on the games. Turning the normal sexism on its head, the women invited men to apply to be escorts to bring them onto the field at the championship match. More than a thousand men applied and the chosen 11 escorted the players onto the field before a crowd ten times the normal size.

The way female athletes are treated by the media and athletic organizations also shows persistent sexism.

In sports journalism, the editors are mostly male. And so are the sports reporters. Sports reporting from the sidelines is a place for talented women to break into the business, yet the literal sideline is both an entry point and a worry. “Most sports fans aren’t tuning in to watch their favorite sport to see the seductive sideline reporter,” Amber Lee wrote in the introduction to a 2013 Bleacher Report on The 40 most popular female sports reporters, “and they probably aren’t clicking over to ESPN to see which of its statuesque blondes is co-anchoring the latest edition of SportsCenter.” 

This kind of overt sexism in sports media representation isn’t new. Sarah Spain’s details of aggression against women from important names in sports was fodder for a recent podcast from ESPN radio. Julie DiCaro, a writer for The Cauldron from Sports Illustrated, was targeted online for what she thinks is “a sense of women invading a male space.”  

Coverage of women who play top tier sports also shows a gender bias. Cambridge University Press parsed 160 million words used in many sources to describe male and female Olympic athletes. The males were described as mastermind, beat, win, real and great. Women are associated with terms such as aged, older, pregnant, and marriage status. Men are referred to as men; women as girls and ladies. 

A study by the Department of Sociology at the University of Louisville claimed that only 5 percent of Sports Illustrated issues published in one decade of the 21st century had female athletes on the cover—yet each year they feature a scantily-clad woman for their swimsuit edition. Total ProSports displays bare women with well-placed jerseys on the homepage of their website, telling visitors that “it’s a scientific fact that the NHL has more hot girls per capita than any other sport in North America (except college football).” They go on to claim that “there just seems to be something about big athletic guys knocking each others’ teeth out that appeals to the female demographic.” Let’s be clear: These are not scientific facts. This isn’t acceptable sports reporting.

The Association for Women in Sports Media advances the cause of women in sport and at Medill we have a robust graduate program in sports media that attracts talented journalists of both sexes. Some changes have been happening recently to showcase more women as hosts of shows. It is a small but growing opportunity for women. Rachel Nichols on her new show “The Jump” took issue with a guest comment that the basketball team was playing “little girly basketball,” declaring that “girly” is not a substitute for weak.

Given that women enjoy going to sport events, it is surprising that the outreach is still mired in pink gloss. There are still Ladies Nights at ballparks with fashion shows. And pink jerseys to showcase favorite players.

Sportsmanlike is a word we apply to people who exhibit fairness and good temper. We tend to attribute good losers with the term. Let’s apply it to sports media and outreach. It is time for the sports world to embrace women with talent and knowledge as fans and personalities. Otherwise, we are all losers.


Dr. Candy Lee is a Professor at Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University. She was the co-chair of the graduate program in Sports Media and is an NU Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.