“It is a lady’s business to look beautiful and there are hardly any sports in which she seems able to do it.” –Sportswriter Paul Gallico, 1936
In March 2015, former NCAA ice hockey player Dani Rylan announced the formation of the National Women’s Hockey League, the first paying professional women’s hockey league in North America. For players like Kaleigh Fratkin, a defenseman from British Columbia, it was a life-changing opportunity to continue playing, for a salary, after college. But both as a college player at Boston University and once Fratkin arrived as a pro in Connecticut—one of the league’s four franchise areas, along with New York City, Boston, and Buffalo—she was struck by how many people had never seen a women’s hockey game before.
“They just aren’t aware of it,” says Fratkin, who recently signed with the New York Riveters. Women’s hockey is largely ignored by the mainstream sports media, she says, and fans don’t have any “weird sort of telepathy” that tells them the sport exists.
It’s not just women’s hockey that’s being ignored. According to the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, women’s athletics receive only about 4 percent of all sports media coverage. Other studies have put television time as low as 1 percent.
Yet, 44 years after the passage of Title IX, women and girls in the United States are playing and following sports in unprecedented numbers. Forty percent of all sports participants are female, according to the Tucker Center, and roughly a third of fans of major sports are women. The evolution of women’s sports over the last four decades has been dramatic; the media coverage, not so much.
“Mainstream sports media outlets are essentially ‘mediated man-caves,’” said Dr. Cheryl Cooky, an associate professor of American studies at Purdue University. “It’s a space where men can go and know it’s going to be by, for, and about men.”
Cooky and two colleagues conducted the 2015 update to a 25-year study on women’s sports coverage. They found that, while blatant sexism by reporters against women athletes—like Paul Gallico and Bill Simmons’s quotes above, for example—has decreased over time, much of today’s sexism is subtle. It’s buried in ledes or conclusions that discuss a female athlete’s appearance or demeanor or her role as wife or mother, or in lackluster commentary and camerawork. Often it means women’s sports don’t get covered at all.
To understand why that is, let’s start by looking at who produces sports coverage. About 90 percent of sports editors are men, and 90 percent are white. The Women’s Media Center’s 2015 report on “The Status of Women in the U.S. Media” showed that just 10.2 percent of sports coverage in 2014 was produced by women. Women of color, who constitute over 70 percent of WNBA players, are particularly poorly represented in the media that cover them—one 2014 report revealed that just four sports editors at the US newspapers it surveyed were black women, and the numbers of reporters were correspondingly small.
All these statistics beg the question: Would we have more reporting on women’s sports if more sports reporters and editors were women? And would the quality of that coverage be better?
Sarah Spain, an espnW columnist, ESPN radio host, and SportsCenter reporter, said yes. Lindsay Gibbs, a sports reporter for ThinkProgress, agreed. “I think in general women are going to be more in tune to women,” said Gibbs.
Howard Megdal, editorial director at Excelle Sports, a media start-up dedicated to covering exclusively women’s sports, also agreed. Megdal is often the only man in the room during Excelle staff meetings; the organization was founded and is mostly staffed by women.
“Diversity makes sense for the reason that you’re expanding viewpoints and you’re eliminating blind spots,” Megdal said. “So I don’t really have any question in my mind that would be helpful on both counts.”
Jason Stallman, sports editor at The New York Times, also emphasized the importance of diversity, but stopped short of concluding that more female sports staffers would result in more or better women’s sports coverage. Purdue’s Cheryl Cooky wasn’t sure either. While she does think having more women journalists makes sense “on the surface,” in her mind the issue goes deeper than that.
“That can’t be the only space where change happens,” Cooky said. “This adage of ‘adding women and stir,’ that that’s somehow going to change things—in many cases what happens is that women, particularly if they’re ‘tokens’ within those institutions or organizations, or are a small minority, or not in decision-making positions or in positions of power—those women are often constrained in terms of their ability to bring about organizational change.”