It’s Time to Stop Underestimating the Power of Women’s Sports

On Sunday, July 5, the U.S. Women’s soccer team soundly defeated Japan 5-2 in the 2015 FIFA World Cup Finals, setting “the highest metered market rating ever for a soccer game in the U.S. on a single network,” according to Fox Sports.

The U.S. Women’s win also calls into question the constantly reproduced media message that few spectators actually care about women’s sports.

Why does that perception— that women’s sports aren’t worth watching — persist?  Perhaps it’s due in part, as a recent USC study of TV news media determined, that media coverage of women’s sports has hardly changed in the last 25 years. That gap in coverage is hard to understand if we think about the progress made in women’s sports participation since the implementation of Title IX.  The number of high school girls participating in sports has risen ten-fold, and six times as many women now compete in college sports,

Recently, as reported by ESPN WSports Illustrated‘s Andy Benoit tweeted then deleted posts about women’s sports not being worth watching, igniting controversy across social media. Benoit is not alone.  andy benoit women's sports not worth watchingBarstool Sports agreed with Benoit, saying, “A lot of people feel that way, and it doesn’t make you a sexist.”

Yes, denigrating one half of the population does make you a sexist.  And, when you declare that men’s sports is inherently more interesting, or that male athletes perform at higher levels, you’re endorsing sport as an institution that reaffirms masculine privilege.

What is gender, and how do sports media contribute to gender divisions?  The term “gender” is a set of power relations where men hold and control more power than women.   Gender has culturally dominant, or what’s known as hegemonic, consequences. So, a hegemonic masculine discourse, culture, and organizational structure within sports media promotes coverage of primarily male athletes. And sports media perpetuate economic processes that hinder gender equity, as they endow commercial structures with institutional approval to give preference to male sports.  In doing so, sports media perpetuate athletic-consumer hegemonic masculinity.

Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers, of Saturday Night Live fame, reunited and performed a new “REALLY?” segment.  The segment offers comparisons between the FIFA 2015 Women’s World Cup semi-finals between England and Norway versus a missed USPGA putt. “REALLY?” They critiqued the propensity for prime channel broadcasts of, say, hours of pre-Kentucky Derby hat watching, versus a bunch of “bad-ass bitches” taking down the Columbian women’s soccer team on a secondary sports channel. “REALLY?” They gave a shout-out to Serena Williams and hammered SI for putting out “an entire swimsuit issue dedicated to women who aren’t in sports.” You guessed it:  “REALLY?”

We have to remember that sport reflects, as well as reproduces, the attitudes, beliefs, rituals, and values of the society in which it is developed. Sport as a domain has generally been labeled as masculine and reaffirms a gender hierarchy.  Importantly, sports are a way for a new generation to gain realizations about the social constructions of gender.  Young people  acquire gender sport stereotypes conveyed from the social environment of the media, which can influence their attitudes about equity in sports and life.

But many voices are emerging that may cause people to question commonly accepted viewpoints about the inherent dominance and place of men’s sports.  Dave Zirin, sports editor at The Nation, recently said, “It’s time to write more about women’s sports and be part of the grassroots struggle to do what the sports networks and sports-radio talking potatoes won’t do, and that’s tell the stories of what is happening in women’s sports.”  Instead of accepting sport injustices within compressed sound bites, we can have conversations in which we celebrate women’s performances with the same enthusiasm that we do men’s.  As we do so, we’ll start reasoned analysis as to why certain social constructions of gender are reproduced generationally.

Maybe Barstool Sports was prescient when it stated, “If it was all equal then we’d just have the World Cup where men and women played together.” Why not? If we disregard the social conventions that preference males, then we’d be looking at individual athletes and at collective team performances.  A combination of the best athletes on one team, regardless of gender, would be fascinating.

And it would be very entertaining.

Carolyn Fortuna, Ph.D. analyzes media messages in our digital world.  She provides workshops for non-profits and schools and helps to illuminate possibilities for social justice through understanding the media.