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Take Back the Sports Page?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The political wing of the women’s sports movement is in trouble. These activists are accustomed to challenging timid bureaucrats and university administrators. But in taking on TV sports coverage, they are challenging the market itself.

Since 1989, the Center for Feminist Research at the University of Southern California (USC) has published a study of “Gender in Televised Sports” every five years. The latest report has just been released and the Women’s Victim Industrial Complex is reeling from the findings. “Shocking,” says the Women’s Sports Foundation.

According to the report, coverage of women’s professional teams has “nearly evaporated” and a “deepening silence” has enveloped women’s professional soccer, basketball, golf, field hockey, and softball. “Nothing short of stunning” says author Michael Messner, a feminist sociologist at USC. “This is simply intolerable.”

Diana Nyad, sports show host for National Public Radio affiliate KCRW and a celebrated distance swimming champion, was moved to write a special introduction to the latest report: “Women’s athletic skill levels have risen astronomically over the past twenty years ... It is time for television news and highlights shows to keep pace with this revolution.” She describes the neglect of women’s sports as “unfathomable and unacceptable.”

The Women’s United Soccer Association and the American Basketball League were supposed to appeal to the same passionate demographic: both folded after a few seasons.

But the heavy focus of news and highlights shows on men’s sports is not only fathomable but obvious—that is where the fans are. And that is where advertisers expect to find customers for “male” products such as beer, razors, and cars. Men’s professional sports are a fascination (obsession is more like it) to many millions of men, because they offer extreme competition, performance, and heroics. Women’s professional sports, however skilled and admirable, cannot compare in Promethean drama.

Even women prefer watching male teams. Few women follow the sports pages and ESPN, but many enjoy attending live games—featuring male athletes. According to Sports Business Daily, 31 percent of the NFL’s “avid fans” are women.

Nyad and the USC study authors demand that television cover women’s sports “fairly and equitably,” but the study never once mentions the word “attendance.” Shouldn’t fan interest in the games drive the media stories? Economist Mark Perry, my colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, looked at the numbers. For the 2009 season, the NBA got 92.3 percent of the total attendance for pro basketball (NBA plus WNBA), while the WNBA got only 7.7 percent of the total attendance (see chart below). But according to the USC study, the WNBA received 22.2 percent of the coverage. Perry’s conclusion: “So women’s pro basketball got a hugely disproportionate share of media coverage. Total attendance at NBA games was 12 times greater than attendance at the WNBA games, but media coverage was only 3.5 times greater for men than for women.”

‘Women’s pro basketball got a hugely disproportionate share of media coverage.’

Nyad and the USC researchers claim that current media neglects and under-serves a large audience of female fans. Where are these fans? Sports Illustrated for Women, first published in 2000, was marketed to females between the ages of 18 and 34 with a “passion for sports.” The magazine lasted less than two years. The Women’s United Soccer Association and the American Basketball League were supposed to appeal to this same passionate demographic: both folded after a few seasons. The WNBA loses money every year, but survives because of the largesse and determination of NBA Commissioner David Stern—whom ESPN’s “Sports Guy” Bill Simmons refers to as the WNBA’s “Sugar Daddy.” (According to Slate, the NBA owns and subsidizes 6 of the 13 WNBA franchises, and the WNBA teams lose between $1.5 million and $2 million per year.)


The latest USC report is silent about the near-total absence of sports in women’s media. The limited coverage consists mainly of human-interest stories about women athletes. By the logic of the USC authors, shows such as “The View” and “Oprah” should be offering sports highlights and scrolling tickers with scores. Magazines such as Vogue, Allure, Cosmopolitan, and Better Homes and Gardens should be bursting with stories about draft picks, photographs of awesome plays, and up-to-date information about fantasy teams and brackets.

The WNBA teams lose between $1.5 million and $2 million per year.

The USC study praises one alleged positive development: "In 2004, we noted a decline in disrespectful or insulting treatment of women, compared with previous years. In 2009, we saw even less of this sort of sexist treatment of women.” On this point, the researchers have not been doing their homework. The women’s sports hype-machine, with its relentless ads, insipid slogans (“We Got Next” and “Expect Great”), and grating theme songs—not to mention the relentless Title IX war on college men’s teams—has created a men’s resistance movement that is now brazenly out in the open. And its weapon is humor—sexist, “disrespectful,” and often funny. The last decade, coinciding with the life span of the WNBA, has seen an avalanche of politically incorrect jokes and parody articles at the expense of female sports. Here are a few examples:

• TiVo refusing to record women’s basketball. —

Female Athletes Making Great Strides In Attractiveness. — The Onion

• The odds a man will attend a WNBA game this year are 1 in 168.2. And the odds he'll do so willingly are 1 in no freaking way. — Steve Hofstetter, National Lampoon "Sports Minute"

Breast Cancer Launches WNBA Awareness Month. — The Onion Sommers_Joke

WNBA Franchise Moving to Tulsa Sounds About Right. — The Onion

New "Girls Gone Wild" DVD to Feature WNBA's Sexiest Hard Fouls. —

• Flat-Chested Sorenstam only a perky set of C cups away from Superstardom —

• “The mere concept of the WNBA is inherently flawed, like someone opening an inferior pizza place right next to the best pizza place in town, then using female chefs as a marketing hook. Who cares? It's still subpar pizza, right?” — Bill Simmons, ESPN’s “Sports Guy.”

Oh wait, the last one’s not a joke. It is the plain truth. And it points to a big problem for the political wing of the women’s sports movement. These activists are accustomed to challenging juicy institutional targets—such as timid university administrators and government bureaucrats. But in taking on TV sports coverage, they are challenging the market itself—the enthusiastic preferences of vast numbers of Americans in a central pursuit of their daily lives. It is a game the sports feminists will lose.

Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Sommers has also discussed “Are There More Girl Geniuses?” “The Equal Pay Day Reality Check,” and “Baseless Bias and the New Second Sex.” She also writes of “The World Cup Abuse Nightmare,” “The UN Women’s Treaty,” and “Gender Bias Bunk.”

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.

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