The Lack of Diversity in Sport Media Coverage

The world of sports is always changing, and traditional practices are getting deconstructed and reimagined. However, the coverage of sports is not as evolving as one might think. The quality of women’s coverage is nowhere near as respectful as the men’s, and the people that are covering them are not women, let alone people of color. The stories that are being put out there surrounding sports are a reflection of who is covering them. From examining women’s sports coverage on mainstream broadcasting, it is clear that there is a misrepresentation of women in sports and to increase coverage, we must restructure television broadcasts by hiring a diverse amount of people to cover both women’s and men’s sports. 

An issue that pertains to the coverage of women’s sports is the amount that is broadcasted on television. There is an even deeper problem within that. Out of the minimal coverage that does make it through, the quality of the story, or the “respectfulness,” is not there (Cooky et al. 205). The stories that are portrayed around women are not the same as the men, and this is blatant in the tennis scene. The Williams sisters are often at the center of this discussion, as they have been plagued by ridiculous stories for their entire careers. In the summer of 2018, Naomi Osaka won her first Grand Slam against Serena Williams. However, due to several incidents regarding the umpire, Serena Williams, and her coach, Osaka’s achievement lost its way from the headlines. An extremely racist cartoon came out of it.  (Johnson et al. 2018). Some of the vocabularies that came out of this match included the words: meltdown, controversy, outburst. The words were all used to describe Serena Williams, painting a certain picture of the incidents. Will Cain, a white male sports commentator, described the situation as a “meltdown induced by Serena Williams,” (ESPN 2018). This type of language making it to television for coverage of women’s sports is an example of the negative side of social constructivism. Social constructivism dictates that gender identity is formed by culture. Essentially, they are the product of discourse and narratives. The stories that we tell around gender are important in determining how women’s sports are perceived. The discourse around that 2018 US Open Women’s Final labels as women, and more importantly, black women, as hysterical. This is extremely harmful and a prominent example of the lack of “seriousness” or “respectfulness” in the television coverage of women’s sports (Cooky et al. 207). 

From the time that this study was published, authors Cheryl Cooky, Michael A. Messner, and Michela Musto completed the second part of this research. They explored how “respectful” women’s coverage was in more recent times, and they found that it has improved. However, as an indirect result of this, the amount of women’s coverage decreased as well, even if it was respectful. This is an interesting find, one that had concrete results because they expanded their research methods. They looked at gender, competitive level, type of coverage, time of the segment, and more sub-categories (Cooky et al. 265). They looked at what percentage of women’s sports were being showcased on highlight shows, and the results were not promising. They state that “ESPN’s Sports Center did no better, devoting a paltry 2% of its hour-long highlight show to women’s sports,” (Cooky et al. 266). This means that out of a 60-minute show (including commercials), only 1.2 minutes of coverage were dedicated to women’s sports. In addition to this, “Of the 405 total Sports Center segments in our sample (nearly 14 hr.), 376 covered men’s sports (slightly over 13 hr.), 16 segments were on gender-neutral sports (just over 20 min), and only 13 segments featured women’s sports (approximately 17 min), (Cooky et al. 267). This begs the question, are the stories in women’s sports not interesting enough? The answer is that they are, but men’s sports stories are consistently broadcast on television, even if they aren’t stories of interest. Several examples of this were referenced in the journal, including stories about a corn dog, a burrito, and a stray dog, all seemingly more of importance than a woman’s sports story. 

The results of this research boil down to a specific problem: who is covering them. In a study done in 2013,  they found that “In the 2012 Summer Games in London, researchers found that the language used by the mostly male broadcasters often framed female athletes “as ‘girls’ rather than ‘women’” and “gave them secondary status compared to male athletes. Additionally, stories that focused on female athletes often emphasized female body parts that appealed to the mostly male journalists covering the Games,” (as cited in Romney, Johnson 741, 742). Stations and companies are not hiring a diverse amount of reporters who are qualified to do a better job than their white, male, counterparts. Just last week, a story came out about Charles Barkley, a former NBA player and current “analyst” turning down an opportunity to do Monday Night Football. In a statement, Barkley says “I like football, but I ain’t gonna be one of these jackasses get on TV and act like he know about football,” (Florio 2021). Although Monday Night Football covers the NFL, the root of the problem is the same. Opportunities to cover more diverse and equitable stories will only come from those in higher positions hiring candidates that are both qualified and willing to cover a wide range of sports stories. 

In the first study done by Cheryl Cooky, Michael A. Messner, and Robin H. Hextrum, they found that “94% of sports editors, 89% of assistant sports editors, 88% of columnists, 87% of sports reporters, and 89% of copy editors/designers in the United States are male, and of those same positions the majority are White,” (Cooky et al. 207). The quality of coverage will improve with more diversity in the media, and they touch on that, stating that, “Lapchick (2006) argues that the ideological worldview of the mostly White, mostly male reporters, editors, and columnists has an impact on which sports get covered and how sport and athletes are represented. Indeed, Kian and Hardin (2009) found that female sportswriters were more likely to frame female athletes in terms of their athletic prowess,” (Cooky et al. 207). You can find this same type of data in recent studies too, just search up women’s sports coverage. I can throw statistical data and evidence at you all day, but the questions now are what happens when we have diversity in coverage and how can we continue to place pressure on the problem? 

Let us tackle the first question. What happens when we have diversity in coverage? Since most television programs have men covering sports, they are not always willing to cover women’s sports. A recent example of what diversity in coverage can do for women’s sports is the launch of Togethxr, a new sports and lifestyle media company for women. It was created by four prominent female athletes: Alex Morgan, Sue Bird, Chloe Kim, and Simone Manuel. These women have eight Olympic medals between them and they are some of the best in their respective sports, (Newton 2021). The objective of this media company is to highlight more women’s sports, and they are moving towards streaming content as well as special projects. Some people are willing to cover all sports, including all genders. Current female athletes can start to change the dialogue around women’s sports coverage, and that can certainly lead to more reporters and analysts getting into the various leagues. We know the statistics of highlights and coverage on shows like Sports Center are low for women, and as the world of traditional television sports coverage starts to move to stream services, this is a good step for Togethxr to push for more coverage of women’s sports. 

The last part of the equation: How can we continue to place pressure on the problem? It seems that with International Women’s History month wrapping up in March, we only see performative decisions year after year. The NCAA Women’s Final was on TSN5, while the Men’s final was on TSN1. The all-women broadcast for the Raptors game on March 24 was a one-and-done deal. These small things seem discouraging, and one more step that we need to take is to hire a diverse amount of people in the positions that make decisions on what goes on television. This is not a simple issue, there are many levels to tackle, and we must start somewhere. Whether that means a re-evaluation of who is covering a sport or the quality of each gender’s coverage, the excitement for women’s sports is at an all-time high and the television coverage needs to be held accountable in providing access to that enthusiasm. Only then will we start to eliminate disrespectful vocabularies, narratives, and more of the disadvantages in the portrayal of women’s sports and their athletes. 

Works Cited

Cooky, Cheryl, et al. “Women Play Sport, but Not on Tv.” Communication & Sport, vol. 1, no. 3, 2013, pp. 203–230., doi:10.1177/2167479513476947. 

Cooky, Cheryl, et al. “‘It’s Dude Time!’” Communication & Sport, vol. 3, no. 3, 2015, pp. 261–287., doi:10.1177/2167479515588761. 

ESPN, director. Will Cain: Serena Williams Drama Is a ‘Disgrace’ to Naomi Osaka | Will Cain Show | ESPN. YouTube, YouTube, 10 Sept. 2018, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NMAXEaGGoGk&t=67s.

Florio, Mike. “Charles Barkley Says He Turned down Monday Night Football.” ProFootballTalk, 12 Apr. 2021, profootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2021/04/12/charles-barkley-says-he-was-turned-down-monday-night-football/.

Johnson, Daniel, et al. History of Racism against the Williams Sisters. 21 Sept. 2018, theblackdetour.com/history-of-racism-against-the-williams-sisters/.

Newton, A.A. “Alex Morgan, Sue Bird, Chloe Kim, and Simone Manuel Just Launched a Women’s Sports Site.” SELF, SELF, 2 Mar. 2021, http://www.self.com/story/togethxr-launch-womens-sports-coverage. 

Romney, Miles, and Rich G. Johnson. “The Ball Game Is for the Boys: The Visual Framing of Female Athletes on National Sports Networks’ Instagram Accounts.” Communication & Sport, vol. 8, no. 6, 2019, pp. 738–756., doi:10.1177/2167479519836731. 

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