Some of the greatest athletes in the world are women, yet when we watch ESPN or read a copy of Sports Illustrated, we see far fewer women than men. The main problem is the lack of coverage and inequality of broadcast time, but the focus of coverage is also an issue. Through the language used to describe them and how they are depicted, female athletes are largely marginalized in the media.
Female athletes and athletic events are dramatically underrepresented in the media. A study done by the University of Southern California in 2015 found that the coverage of women’s sports has barely increased in the last 25 years, despite the number of female athletes greatly increasing. The survey analyzed Los Angeles broadcasts, as well as ESPN’s SportsCenter, and found that coverage of women’s athletics has actually dropped since 1989. Michael Messner, co-author of the study and professor of sociology and gender studies at USC, stated that it “demonstrates the unevenness of social change.” Messner and his colleagues began analyzing what was dominating the 96 percent of broadcasting that focused on men’s athletics and released this list of stories that were featured over women’s sports:
• A swarm of bees invading a Red Sox/Yankees game
• A giant corn dog that cost $25 at an Arizona Diamondbacks game
• A ribbon cutting for a restaurant opened by Tommy Lasorda
• Where former Lakers player Kendall Marshall will find a good burrito in Milwaukee (Chipotle)
• A stray dog that became a spring training mascot for the Brewers
These stories are humorous and interesting, but it’s shocking that a corn dog takes spotlight over a headline about women’s athletics when only 2 to 4 percent of coverage is about female athletics.
It’s not just an underrepresentation of female athletes in the media that dominates this problem but the portrayal of women when they are covered. When we hear about female athletes, how much of the coverage is about their athletic ability? And how much is about their relationship status, body shape or physical appearance? The majority is about the latter. Ben Wasike, a professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, analyzed every cover of Sports Illustrated and ESPN the magazine in 2016 and found that not only are women “ridiculously underrepresented,” but there are significant differences in how male and female athletes are depicted. “Women appearing on the covers were likelier than men to be portrayed in a sexualized manner, in terms of skin exposure and suggestive poses.” Wasike noted that ‘sexually suggestive poses’ referred to athletes pictured with “arms spread overhead, lying down, lips spread, lips pouted, sensually embracing a partner, suggestive eye look and so on.”
Wasike found that women were twice as likely to be depicted with more skin than men and 61 percent of female athletes, versus 21 percent of male athletes, were pictured smiling. Tom Jacobs of the Pacific Standard comments on these statistics, stating that “female athletes are depicted in such a way to make them less threatening to male readers. While we celebrate the remarkable accomplishments of Serena Williams and Lindsey Vonn, we still want to see them smile.” Women are highly sexualized in the media and still underrepresented compared to men.
In order to increase the attention of female athletes, we need more female broadcasters or broadcasters who show equal interest in women’s athletics. In a study done by Women’s Media Center in 2017 on 20 of the nation’s top sports news outlets, men produced 62.3 percent of news reports, while women produced just 37.7 percent. While this number is a huge increase from the results from the same study conducted in 2012, those numbers are far from equal.
These studies have shown that the representation of female athletes in the media is a problem and we need to see change. More female representation in the newsrooms could lead to better representation of female athletes. There also needs to be an increase in broadcast time for women’s athletic events and an increase in coverage of athletes and events in print media. The underwhelming representation of female athletes is astounding and needs to change.