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  • Subject area(s): Marketing
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  • Published on: 14th September 2019
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Women's Basketball Media Coverage: Professional and Collegiate

In in the twenty-first century, especially in 2017, an issue that has been brought to the forefront of progressivism is equality; one aspect in particular that affects me directly is the strive for gender equality. This fight has taken place in almost every aspect society, with the largest strides being taken in traditionally male-dominated fields of work; this includes STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), politics and positions of leadership in the government, and athletics. As a female student-athlete living in an age of vast technological use, the issue of female athletes and their representation in media struck close to home. So, I decided to explore this topic, first looking at people expressing real opinions about the divide between men's and women's athletics coverage before looking at the hard, observable data.

Early on in my project, I was still far from narrowing down my core topic and exploratory question when I was introduced to an article that served as a compilation of opinions on women's and men's athletic media coverage. It wasn't a highly technical or scientific analysis and didn't contain empirical evidence on women's athletics coverage, but it did serve a valuable purpose in bringing up interesting points on the subject from people all across the internet. The article from the Atlantic, entitled, “Why Aren't Women's Sports as Big as Men's Sports? Your Thoughts,” began with an excerpt from another Atlantic article by Maggie Mertens. In the article, written at the time of the 2015 Women's World Cup, Mertens expressed her frustration with the lack of attention that female soccer players, and female athletes in general, received compared to their male counterparts. Mertens first dismantled the idea that, “if women's sports were worthy of more coverage, they would receive it,” by noting Perdue Professor Dr. Cheryl Cooky's claim that our perceptions of women's athletics come from the media itself. Cooky says, “Men's sports are going to seem more exciting. They have higher production values, higher-quality coverage, and higher quality commentary...When you watch women's sports, and there are fewer camera angles, fewer cuts to shot, fewer instant's going to seem like a slower game, [and] it's going to be less exciting.” Mertens's article was highly contentious among readers and started a whole stream of commentary on this issue, bringing up multiple interesting points. The first commenter brought up the idea that the lack of coverage must be playing in conjunction with the fact that men's and women's physiology is simply different. Men have certain natural athletic abilities that women do not, for example, men (on average) are taller, stronger, and faster than women, thus, according to this commenter, their athletic contests receive more coverage and views. Another commenter elaborated on this, noting that women's sports with direct female equivalents (i.e soccer, basketball) will never be as popular as their male counterparts, whereas sports that specifically highlight the physical abilities of female athletes, like figure skating, gymnastics, or tennis, have more popularity. Following this, another commenter broke down the idea that, “strength+speed=a more interesting game,” in athletic contests. They noted that because women don't have equal arm strength to men, sports like tennis and volleyball are actually more interesting because there is more of a back-and-forth contest between both sides. According to a study conducted by Brigham Young University, in women's volleyball, the game is essentially won by a team's ability to stay alive through digs rather than quick points on strong services. Thus, a better team women's team will contest for much longer and will volley longer with the other team, creating an arguably more interesting game.

The list of commentary extended on much longer as people brought up multiple interesting points on the subject. But, after reading those first lines of commentary, I personally had developed two major takeaways. First, it was clear that there was a discrepancy between the coverage of women's sports with direct male equivalents (i.e basketball, soccer) and sports that highlight women's natural ability (i.e gymnastics, figure skating). Secondly, I took away the idea that strength and speed don't necessarily make for a more interesting athletic contest, and that sometimes the strength of male athletes prevents teams from volleying back-and-forth for longer.

Personally, I was struck by this first concept of the difference between sports like basketball and soccer, versus sports like gymnastics and figure skating. As a soccer player and former basketball player, I immediately became interested in further exploring  this idea. In social settings and on different basketball teams that I was a member of, often my friends and teammates would only discuss NBA (National Basketball Association) basketball games and players, and not mention or even disparage the WNBA (Women's National Basketball Association). I have not seen this sort of criticism of professional women's soccer by my fellow female soccer players,  so this prompted me to explore women's basketball coverage in the media.

Now that I had multiple interesting concepts and a focused area of study in regards to women's athletic media coverage, I began my research in terms of empirical evidence. I was introduced to a report created by the same Dr. Cheryl Cooky that was cited in Merterns's article, and her co-investigator Dr. Michael Messner, which seemed to be exactly what I had been looking for in terms of a technical analysis of the issue I was exploring. The report, entitled, “Gender and Televised Sports,” provides empirical data and the hard numbers on women's athletics coverage, with an entire section analyzing that of women's basketball. In the summary of their findings, they noted three crucial points: 1) the WNBA received a fraction of the coverage as the NBA both in and out of season, 2) though collegiate women's and men's basketball teams both have a March season, coverage of women's basketball was either minimal or nonexistent while men's received huge amounts of air time, and 3) women's coverage was often relegated to the scrolling “ticker” coverage rather than the channel's main program.*

Source: Messner, M., Cooky, C. Gender in Televised Sports. Center for Feminist Research. University of Southern California. June, 2010.

Figure 4 displays the clear disparity of coverage between the behemoth red slice representing men's basketball as compared to the tiny orange slice representing its female equivalent. In the following table, the authors of the report display a direct comparison between coverage of women's professional basketball (WNBA) and men's (NBA).

Source: Messner, M., Cooky, C. Gender in Televised Sports. Center for Feminist Research. University of Southern California. June, 2010.

Here, the number of stories and minutes of coverage, both in and out of season, are compared side by side. Again, the values of men's coverage are considerably higher. In another table, they report the coverage of men's and women's basketball in the same fashion, but this time, on the collegiate level (NCAA).

Source: Messner, M., Cooky, C. Gender in Televised Sports. Center for Feminist Research. University of Southern California. June, 2010.

Again, the disparity between men's and women's coverage is made entirely apparent. But, as opposed to the previous table that displayed a difference of “a little coverage” (women's) versus “a lot of coverage” (men's) , this table shows “a lot of coverage” (men's) versus “zero coverage” (women's).

This last table (Table 5C) came across as the most striking and glaringly sexist of all the tables and graphs in the the report. While men's NCAA basketball and their respective tournament has existed much longer than that of the women's, there exists something in the world of collegiate sports that does not exist on the professional level: Title IX. Title IX refers to the federal law that states: “No person shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subject to discrimination, under any education program or any activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” While ESPN (Entertaining and Sports Programming Network) is not an institution of education, nor must it comply by the rules addressed in Title IX, it seems highly contentious that the NCAA teams, players, tournament, and even it's logo can be affiliated with and used by a company that blatantly prefers to cover men's sports over women's. ESPN, who makes incredible revenue off of the men's NCAA tournament, otherwise known as “March Madness”, is not the business of equal opportunity and representation, they're in the business of making money. In 2014, they raked in a revenue of $10.8 billion dollars, according to an estimate from the Wall Street Journal.

In my opinion, while there is a problem with ESPN's lack of women's coverage, the key issue in this case is not with ESPN, but rather with the NCAA. In addition to ESPN, Turner Sports and CBS both have a contract with the NCAA that allows them the rights to televising, digitizing, and marketing the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament (aka “March Madness”). It isn't free either, the NCAA recently extended their rights agreement with these companies through 2032 for a total rights fee of $8.8 billion. Fortunately, according to the NCAA website, 90% of the revenue generated from this contract extension will go towards programs and services for student-athletes in all divisions of the NCAA. It's incredible that the men's tournament is able to generate impressive revenue for all athletic and even educational programs within the NCAA, but unfortunately, it seems to come at the price of unequal coverage of the women's tournament.

Over the course of this project, not only did my topic of exploration become more concise, but it ended up hitting closer to home for me. Initially, I was introduced to the topic of women's media coverage through the example of women's professional soccer, and as my research continued, it eventually brought me to the NCAA, which directly affects me as an NCAA Division III student-athlete. I find this issue extremely relevant, especially in our current political climate, as it has many implications not only for female basketball players, but for any demographic without considerable monetary influence. In our current state of politics, politicians, particularly Senators, are constantly being “bought over” by corporate lobbyists to do their bidding. Rather than representing and advocating for the people whom they represent, their leadership serves only to support the companies who are funding them and their campaigns. It seems that whenever money is involved, all other notions of ethics, particularly equality, are set aside. The issue of women's basketball coverage is no exception. The behemoth Men's Division I NCAA tournament creates substantial revenue through its marketing and televising, so no effort is put into making room on these television programs for the women. While other issues of women's inequality need to be prioritized higher, such as the wage gap and sexual assault crimes, I believe this issue of media coverage can be aided through sweeping government reform that affects all areas of women's equality. Despite having a Republican majority and a Republican president, who are traditionally “hands-off” in terms of business regulation and intervention, these companies need to legally be held to a standard of equality, including gender equality. It's 2017, and even if the traditional Republican stance is to not intervene with businesses, I believe this issue goes beyond party lines; it directly affects more than 50% of the population (women) , and indirectly affects the other half of the population (men) who have women in their lives. Thus, if I were to continue this project, it would view it on a more political level, as everything stems from the actions of the federal government, even something as seemingly trivial as the coverage of women's basketball in the media. Overall, this project has allowed me to dig deeper on these issues of gender inequality in sports and media coverage, and has allowed me to developed a sense of where these issues stem from, and thus, what can be done to resolve them.

Sources and Cited Articles/Studies

Bodenner, Chris. Why Aren't Women's Sports as Big as Men's Sports? The Atlantic. June 9th, 2015.

Gaines, Cork. More than 60% of ESPN's revenue comes from their dwindling subscriber base. Business Insider. November 30th, 2015.

Hadfield, Joe. Volleyball skills study: Men should serve, women should dig. Brigham Young University. September 14, 2010.

Mertens, Maggie. Women's Soccer is a Feminist Issue. The Atlantic. June 5th, 2015.

Messner, M., Cooky, C. Gender in Televised Sports. Center for Feminist Research. University of Southern California. June, 2010.

Title IX Frequently Asked Questions.

Turner, CBS and the NCAA Reach Long-Term Multimedia Rights Extension for NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship. April 12th, 2016.

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