The Marginalization & Exploitation of Women in the Sports Media Industry

Although women have made invaluable contributions to the world of sports, their accomplishments have been drastically marginalized by the sports media industry.

Written by Tim Pritchard

Women have always played an important role in the world of sports. Some of the greatest athletes the world has ever seen have been women. From Billie Jean King to Mia Hamm, the contributions women have made to the sports industry are undeniable. However, it seems that in today’s sports media landscape, female athletes are overwhelmingly represented as second tier in comparison to male athletes. This pattern may not necessarily be by design, however it is unquestionably present in the sports media we consume. It also personifies the way women have been viewed in society throughout history.

The world is in the midst of one of the most progressive eras in recent memory. Pressing social issues have been brought to the forefront at an almost unprecedented rate. From the passing of marriage equality to the Black Lives Matter movement, one could argue that the social uprisings today resemble the social uprisings of the 1960s. However, a major difference between social movements of the present day and those of the 1960s is the heavy influence of the media on society. The media have immense power over our everyday communication, consumption, and perception of our socio-cultural environment. Through technological innovations such as the internet, social media, and smartphones, it is now virtually impossible to escape the influence of media. While the power of media can be used as a powerful tool to initiate social change, this power can adversely affect the collective voice of minority groups, reinforcing a hegemonic hierarchy. A clear example of this hegemonic reinforcement is the portrayal of female athletes in sports media.

Female athletes have had a profound impact on the world of sports. In addition to their immense professional success in their respective sports, athletes such as Ronda Rousey, Serena Williams, and Katie Ledecky have also helped to empower the next generation of female athletes. However, the accomplishments of these female athletes are often overshadowed by the their male counterparts in the media. Sports media have contributed to a culture in which female athletes are represented as second tier within a culture that reinforces unfounded gender stereotypes. Through language, imagery, and broadcasting inequality, women are largely marginalized in the world of sports.

One of the most common, yet subtle ways women are represented differently than men in sports is through the use of language. Verbiage plays a major role in how people perceive events and the environment. The substitution of one word within a sentence can completely change the meaning of that sentence. In sports media, broadcasters and analysts often use different terminology to describe female athletes as opposed to male athletes. When they refer to female athletes, they are referred to as “‘ladies’, which portrays them as delicate, or ‘girls’ which infantilizes them” (Speer, year. p. # if provided). Terms such as “finesse”, and “elegance” are frequently used to describe their actions. In contrast, male athletes “are hardly ever referred to as ‘gentlemen’ or boys’” (Speer, year, p.# if provided). They are more commonly referred to as “men” and their actions are often described by words such as “strong”, “powerful”, and “tough.” Although broadcasters and analysts who use these contrasting terminologies are not necessarily sexist people, they are still contributing to a culture in which untrue gender stereotypes are accepted as reality. This differing terminology is not exclusive to sports broadcasting, however, as various universities use contrasting verbiage to recognize their sports teams along gender tropes. For example, the University of Tennessee’s athletes are nicknamed the “Volunteers.” In contrats, female athletes at the University of Tennessee are called the “Lady Volunteers.” One may argue that this distinction is simply used to differentiate between the men and women’s sports programs, and while this may be true, it still has an influence society perceives female athletes at the University of Tennessee.

Another way that sports media represent female athletes differently is through image. Image is one of the most influential factors in the process of developing a perception of our environment. While image is a result of one’s actions, it is largely manufactured by the media to adhere to a preconceived agenda. One of the most profit-yielding elements in today’s media is the exploitation of sex. In today’s media landscape, sex sells. Today, “beauty and sexuality are the new, more pervasive standard by which women-and increasingly men- are judged within media representations and culture at large” (Campbell, Jensen, Gomery, Fabos, Frechette, 2014, p.242). This exploitation of sex is not exclusive to reality shows and film, as it has become a major moneymaker in the sports media industry. Female athletes are frequently shown as sex symbols in the media as opposed to athletes who have dedicated their lives to their craft. This not only diminishes women’s success and accomplishments in their respective sports, but it also creates the illusion that the primary role of the female athlete is to be a sex symbol as opposed to an athlete. A 1997 study discovered that 62% of the print media front covers of male athletes were shown in action related to their respective sports, while females were shown in action only 41% of the time (Buysse, J. A., Embser-Herbert, year, p.# if provided). These figures reinforce the notion that the sports media do not depict female athletes in an equitable way. A clear example of this is the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition. This issue of the popular sports magazine shows supermodels, as well as female athletes, in little to no clothing at all. While Sports Illustrated is a magazine known for its sports journalism, it is equally popular because of its famous swimsuit issue which is devoid of sports content and abundant in sexual content. The most recent edition of the swimsuit edition featured star (explain what MMA is first in full –what it stands for, and then in parenthesis, put MMA. After that, you can list it as MMA). MMA fighter Ronda Rousey on the cover. Although she has had a profound impact on the sport of MMA, almost singlehandedly bringing the sport to the limelight, the swimsuit issue simply represents her as a sexual figure who also happens to be a dominant athlete. Inversely, female athletes who do not fit sexual norms perpetuated by the mass media are often subject to greater scrutiny and diminished recognition. Often times, female athletes who display “athleticized, muscular bod[ies] are ridiculed as not ‘proper’ women, and are labelled as ‘butches’ or ‘dykes’” (Speer, year. p.# if offered). One of the most gifted female basketball players in recent memory, Brittney Griner, has been the subject of heavy criticism based on her looks. The WNBA star has been bashed repeatedly on social media due to her physical appearance. This diminishes the wealth of success and accomplishments she has made in basketball.

The growth of the internet has further bolstered the way females are represented in the sports world. One contemporary example of this is the popular website Barstool Sports. Barstool Sports is a website specializes in creating blogs that feature “hot takes” on a wide variety of topics from sports stories and pop culture. However sports stories make up a majority of the content. The target audience for the site is prominently college males. One of the most popular elements of the website is the “smokeshow of the day,” a daily post which features a picture of a female college student deemed to be sexually attractive. The objective of this is clearly to appeal to their main demographic of college males, which is comparable to Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue. Both are sports-based media companies that engage in the sexualization of women in the sports industry for profit and exploitation. As these examples demontrate, the sports media industry still largely adheres to a formula in which males are the primary target audience. Visual representations of female athletes and the sexualization of women in the world of sports media have greatly contributed to the discrepancies between the coverage of men and women within the industry.

Broadcasting inequality is also a major contributor to the polarized representations of male and female athletes. There is a major gap in the broadcast of women’s sports as opposed to men’s sports. A 1999 study showed that only one in ten sports articles or television sports stories focused on women (Huffman, p.# if provided. Year is already mentioned in this sentence). Another study demonstrated that men received 82% of all sports coverage, while women only received 11% (Koivula, year, p.# if provided). These powerful examples exemplify the sports media industry still heavily caters to the male population as opposed to the female population. Although the gap has narrowed in recent years, there remains a sizeable imbalance in the broadcast of women’s sports and men’s sports. Not only do the airtime figures for women’s sports reflect inequality, but the depiction of female athletes in sports broadcastings also contribute to the problem. Recently, the 2016 Rio Olympic Games were dominated by record-breaking performances from both male and female athletes. One of the most dominant athletes of the games, Katie Ledecky, set world records in multiple swimming events, becoming the most decorated athlete at the Rio games. Through gender-bias terminology and analogies, her accomplishments were often compared to fellow American swimmer Michael Phelps, as she was regularly referred to as “the female Michael Phelps.” Another example of this came when Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hozzsu won a gold medal in the 400m individual medley. As she came to the finish line, the broadcast turned to split screen, showing Hozzsu approaching the finish line on one side, and her ecstatic husband cheering her to victory on the other. As she won the gold and broke a world record, NBC swimming commentator Dan Hicks proclaimed that her husband was “the man responsible for turning her into a whole different swimmer.” This is yet another example of attributing a woman’s success to a male, diminishing her accomplishment. Although Hicks later apologized and likely did not intend to take credit away from Hozzsu, it demonstrates that male and female athletes, no matter how dominant they are in their respective sports, are treated differently within sports media.

Today, there are more women taking interest and participating in sports than ever before. In 1999, there were seven female college athletes to every ten male college athletes (Huffman, year). The number of women age 25 or younger that have taken interest and are actively involved in sports is three to four times higher than previous generations (Huffman, year). This can be linked to the passing of Title IX in 1972, which states, “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance” (Title IX) [can you provide a hyperlink to Title IX?]. The passing of Title IX was critical in empowering the next generation of female athletes to become involved in collegiate sports. Although this law established women with equal opportunity, the reality is that female collegiate athletics are broadcast far less than male collegiate athletics. In 2003, the NCAA reported that 41% of all collegiate athletes were female, however the amount of coverage they received was far less than that of their male counterparts (Huffman). The lack of coverage that female athletes receive clearly demonstrates that the sports media still favors men’s sports. Although women account for a major portion of the viewing population of sports, and are participating in them now more than ever, men’s sports are still viewed by the sports media industry as the preverbial ‘cash cow.’

Women have always been fighting for equal rights. They were the last minority group to be granted the right to vote in 1920, nearly 150 years after the United States was founded. Hegemonic norms of a male-dominant society have suppressed women’s rights and have raised difficult barriers to overcome in breaking free of these norms. Their fight for equality still continues in the present day with a range of issues, including wage equality. In the sports world, a clear example of wage inequality is the Unites States Women’s national soccer team in comparison to the Men’s national soccer team. Men’s soccer has consistently brought in more revenue than women’s soccer in recent years with one significant exception: in 2016, the women’s team brought in substantially more revenue than the men, representing a trend that United States soccer projects will continue in years to come (Das, year, p. # if provided). Although the women’s team has seen noteworthy success in competition, winning the most recent Women’s world cup, and turning a profit roughly three times larger than the men, there is a sizeable wage gap between them. At the high end of the spectrum, wages are relatively comparable, with both male and female star players earning slightly over $1 million on average since 2008 (Das). Notwithstanding, a sizable level of inequality is evidenced at the lower end of the spectrum, where the pay disparity for male and female non-star players is substantial. Since 2008, non-star male soccer players earned around $250,000 on average, while non-star female soccer players earned a miniscule $25,000 on average (Das, year, p#. if offered). So while the wage ceiling for both male and female soccer players is comparable, the wage floor for non-star players is far from equal. As the United States women’s national team is projected to continue generating more revenue than men in years to come, this pay inequality will need to be rectified.

Conclusion

Although women have made invaluable contributions to the world of sports, their accomplishments have been drastically marginalized by the sports media industry. Differing verbiage, manipulation of image, and disproportionate coverage have all contributed to the problem of the underrepresentation and misrepresentation of female athletes. This marginalization of women in sports is also reflected economically, as female athletes such as those on the U.S. women’s soccer team are heavily underpaid when compared to their male counterparts, even though the women’s team is projected to continue to generate more revenue than the men’s team. In today’s society, more females are becoming actively involved in sports than ever before, yet sports media does not reflect that. Corporate media and social media must evolve to capture the full potential of the sports industry, as men are no longer the primary profit centers. More importantly, the collective voice of women must be heard and their accomplishments must be celebrated by men and women alike, as they are an integral, irreplaceable facet of the advanced society we live in today.

Student Author: Tim Pritchard, Worcester State University

Faculty Evaluator: Dr. Julie Frechette, Professor and Chair, Dept. of Communication, Worcester State University

References

Campbell, R., Jensen, J., Gomery, D., Fabos, B., & Frechette, J. (2014). Media in Society. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Buysse, J. A., & Embser-Herbert, M. S. (2004). Constructions of Gender in Sport: An Analysis of Intercollegiate Media Guide Cover Photographs. Gender & Society, 18(1), 66-81. doi:10.1177/0891243203257914

Das, A. (2016, April 21). Pay Disparity in U.S. Soccer? It’s Complicated. The New York Times. Retrieved December 12, 2016.

Huffman, S., Tuggle, C. A., & Rosengard, D. S. (2004). How Campus Media Cover Sports: The Gender-Equity Issue, One Generation Later. Mass Communication and Society, 7(4), 475-489. doi:10.1207/s15327825mcs0704_6

Jones, R., Murrell, A. J., & Jackson, J. (1999). Pretty Versus Powerful in the Sports Pages: Print Media Coverage of U.S. Women’s Olympic Gold Medal Winning Teams. Journal of Sport & Social Issues, 23(2), 183-192. doi:10.1177/0193723599232005

Koivula, N. (1999, October). Gender Stereotyping in Televised Media Sports Coverage. Retrieved November 29, 2016, from Proquest.

Title IX and Sex Discrimination. (n.d.). Retrieved December 13, 2016, from http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/tix_dis.html

 

 

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Julie Frechette, PhD, is Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at Worcester State University, Worcester, MA. She is the co-editor of the book Media Education for a Digital Generation, as well as the book, Developing Media Literacy in Cyberspace. She serves as co-president of the Action Coalition for Media Education (ACME).
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