Media coverage is extremely important to whether a sport can become more popular or not, and important to a league’s ability to gain sponsorships and advertisement money. There are major difference to coverage of men’s and women’s sports. Both at a practical level of how often the sports are covered, and at a cultural level of how the athletes are covered.
Amount and Quality of Media Coverage
In 2016 I conducted an analysis of media coverage of UAAP Women’s Basketball in comparison to media coverage of UAAP Men’s Basketball for season 79 (which you can read here). Basketball is by far the most popular sport in the Philippines. Yet media coverage of the college level is heavily skewed towards men’s basketball. 90% of media coverage was for men’s basketball. 27% of media coverage for UAAP Women’s Basketball was by one organization, Tiebreaker Times, the publication that covered men’s and women’s basketball most evenly. Even this publication, that ran the most even coverage, had 3 times more articles covering men’s basketball. Tiebreaker Times ran 85 articles about UAAP Women’s Basketball, and 240 articles about UAAP Men’s Basketball. The majority of UAAP basketball games, men’s and women’s, took place on the same days at the same arenas, yet only a few media publications bothered to cover women’s teams in any capacity.
Media publications need to make money, and will attempt to cover the stories that they feel will bring them the most business and most views. However, with the exception of Tiebreaker Times and a few school publications, whenever media publications did get around to covering UAAP Women’s Basketball their overall level of effort was absolutely minimal and the articles completely lacking in the personality and writer enthusiasm of the articles for UAAP Men’s Basketball. The vast majority of articles were a paragraph long, listing the final scores, a sentence or 2 about the top scorers, and a note about the team records. It can be wondered why many of these publications bothered to spend any of their resources on the topic if they weren’t going to apply any writing production value whatsoever, and the articles reflect poorly of the ability for these media publications to produce content.
There is a tremendous amount of room for improvement for media coverage of women’s sports. There is so little media coverage of women’s sports, that an easy way to stand out and above your competitors as a media publication is to simply offer better coverage of women’s sports. It doesn’t have to be drastically better coverage, but the complete lack of coverage currently taking place makes it incredibly easy to rise above the competition in this respect. Personally, I would recommend articles that highlight the personalities and attitudes of the players. Listing the scores of a match and providing no photos is the least interesting, most boring way to cover a sport. Interviews are extremely simple to conduct and write about, and go a long way to providing more interest to read an article, something that is often lacking in the coverage of women’s sports.
Sexualization in the Media
There is a lot of debate on the topic of sexualization of women athletes. Some feel that the sexualization of women athletes diminishes their athletic accomplishments and achievements. Some feel that sexualization of women athletes is the best way to expand and market women’s sports in order to attract more fans.
Part of the appeal of women’s sports is that women are sexy. Cuteness. Beauty. Sexiness. Attempting to downplay, ignore, or deny it only results in misunderstanding why some female athletes and some women’s sports have more appeal than others. Gymnastics and ice skating are among the most popular women’s sports in the USA, due in part to how cute the competitors are, and in part because the sports show off the flexibility and grace of women. Beach volleyball is a much more popular viewing sport than indoor volleyball in the USA, for obvious reasons. The female athletes that get popular are nearly always the prettiest or sexiest (Maria Sharapova, Alex Morgan, Rachel Anne Daquis, Danica Patrick), even if they aren’t always the top or most successful athletes in their given sport. If you ignore that aspect, then you will misread and misinterpret the reasons why some athletes find more success than others. This happens naturally regardless of how the athletes are covered in the media. People are naturally drawn towards the most beautiful and most handsome people, which is why the most famous actors and singers are nearly always the most beautiful and handsome.
Sometimes physical appearance can overshadow the athletic accomplishments in media coverage, and this can cast an annoying light on the sport from the players’ perspectives, primarily when it draws attention away from the best players in the sport. For a time, Anna Kournikova was the most popular women’s tennis player, despite never winning a tournament and despite not being a successful tennis player by any metric. She was considered the most sexy player, she did a myriad of photoshoots for magazines, and from the media coverage you would almost assume she was the only tennis player that mattered on the women’s side. However, women’s athletes famous only for their looks fade quickly due to their inability to compete and remain professional players, and soon Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Li Na and far more competent players were again the most popular women’s tennis players. Oversexualization can be a problem within a sport when it takes away too much attention from the top athletes. But beauty fades, and the best players in a sport far outlast the players that only have the ability to look pretty.
Part of the debate of sexualization is whether professional women’s leagues should or shouldn’t restrict the appearance of players in the league. Restricting which hairstyles players can wear, forcing them to wear makeup while playing, and other methods of tightly restricting the appearance of women athletes in an attempt to attract more fans and viewers seems to be detrimental to overall message that women’s sports provide, the message of women empowerment. Rather than being enforced from a board of directors, it is probably far more beneficial for individual athletes to decide for themselves how they want to be viewed as women. Freedom can have positive affects on a player’s popularity. The tomboyish appearance of US soccer player Megan Rapinoe does not make her considered traditionally beautiful like her fellow teammate Alex Morgan, but Rapinoe’s tomboyish looks are arguably a big part of what makes her one of the most popular soccer players in the USA due to appealing to a different segment of fans.
Something to keep in mind when considering why some athletes choose to pose for magazines such as FHM, is that top athletes are in peak physical condition. People in peak physical condition tend to want to flaunt it, both men and women. Rather than seeing this as oversexualization, it can potentially be viewed as athletes showing to others what hard work and dedication can achieve with regards to physical health. Ultimately it is up to each individual athlete to choose how they will present themselves to the public. Whether they will be very reserved and conservative, or tomboyish, or portray themselves as traditionally beautiful or sexy. Allowing athletes to make this choice themselves let’s their individual personalities shine through, and as a result different players will appeal to different fans, broadening the appeal of a team, a league, or a sport.
This is part 4 of a 6 part articles series. You can view the rest of the series “Making the Case for Women’s Sports” here:
Part 1: The value of girls and women playing sports
Part 2: Being a fan of women’s sports
Part 3: Financing women’s sports
Part 4: Media coverage of women’s sports
Part 5: Women’s sports in the Philippines
Part 6: Personal note “It’s just a game”