April 26, 2021

One and Done: Gender and Sports Coverage

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

More than 10 years ago I wrote a post called “Doing Research while Watching Sports Center” about a study of women’s sports coverage on local news and ESPN. The study found that women’s sports coverage declined between 1989 and 2009. The authors repeated the study in 2014 and 2019; has news coverage of women’s sports improved in recent years?

The short answer is yes, but the amount of coverage is still lower than it was during their analyses in 1999 and 2004. And the authors found that 80% of televised sports news includes no mention of women’s sports.

For their article “One and Done: The Long Eclipse of Women’s Televised Sports, 1989–2019,” authors Cheryl Cooky, LaToya D. Council, Maria A. Mears, and Michael A. Messner conducted content analysis as part of an ongoing project that began in 1989 to assess the quantity and quality of women’s sports coverage. (Full disclosure: most of the authors, and funding for the study, are affiliated with USC, my home institution.)

Click below to hear the authors discuss content analysis and how they conducted their study (approx. 5 min)

One and done content analysis

Content analysis involves counting the number of occurrences of a defined event; in this case, they counted the number of stories aired on local network affiliates’ news broadcasts and ESPN’s Sports Center during specific time frames (which are described in detail in their article) every five years. They counted the number of stories as well as the amount of airtime devoted to each story, to be able to measure changes in each wave of the study. They also conducted a qualitative analysis of the stories themselves, looking for thematic patterns in the coverage.

Click below to hear the authors discuss their findings and why they are important (approx. 13 min)

One and done study results

The authors conclude that, “spanning the 3 decades of this study, the quantity of coverage of women’s sports on TV news and highlights shows has consistently remained dismally low” (p. 20). This is probably not much of a surprise to people who watch sports news regularly. Some of you might be thinking that it didn’t take a formal research study to conclude that sports coverage is imbalanced, but it is worth noting the changes—or lack of changes—that take place over time.

In fact, the disparate coverage might be so expected that the casual onlooker might assume that men’s sports—especially the “big three:” football, basketball, and baseball—get more coverage simply because there are more men’s sports to cover. But the authors note that even when one of the big three is out of season, coverage of women’s sports is secondary to coverage of the big three in their off seasons.

This is not simply a result of greater interest, but as the authors note, “mainstream sports media works to actively build and maintain audience knowledge, interest, and excitement for these men’s sports” (p. 5). Rather than just fulfilling audience interest, these reports serve to create interest too.

That’s where the qualitative analysis is so useful. The authors counted the number of reports, but also studied the quality and delivery of each story. They noticed what they term “gender-bland” framing of women’s sports, when the excitement of the reporter wanes when describing women’s sports, with less catchy graphics and overall production value make stories about women’s sports less engaging. In one example:

Commentators were adept at amping up the enthusiasm in their men’s sports stories with statements such as the one SportsCenter’s John Buccigross deployed in describing then-college basketball phenom Zion Williamson: “He’s such an unpredictable bundle of energy that it reminds one of watching a swelling storm on Doppler radar.” Women athletes were rarely, if ever, described in this way (pp. 13-14).

They also observed that coverage of local men’s teams, such as college teams, are regularly featured while local women’s teams are generally left out of local coverage. Additionally, male athletes’ community service is much more likely to make it into a news broadcast as a stand-alone story than women’s charitable and community work. Thus, male athletes appear as regular “characters” on sports news while female athletes are less visible overall.

Women’s sports were not always presented in a bland manner; they found notable exceptions within international competitions, as when the U.S. women’s soccer team won the Women’s World Cup in 2019. Nationalistic pride can overshadow the gender imbalance temporarily, so long as the women are winning.

The authors conclude:

On the rare broadcast when a women’s sports story does appear, it is usually a case of “one and done,” a single women’s sports story partially-eclipsed by a cluster of men’s stories that precede it, follow it, and are longer in length. Social media posts and online sports newsletters’ coverage, though a bit more diverse in some ways, mostly reflected these same patterned gender asymmetries (p. 20). 

While conducting content analysis does not tell us how sports news audiences interpret and make meaning of these stories, it is still important to consider how and when athletes and their sports are considered “newsworthy,” and how this remains deeply stratified by gender. What other research do you think might be done to better understand stratification within sports?


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