The Dramatic Drop in Women's Sports Coverage: An Interview with Mike Messner

Michael Messner is a professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of Southern California (USC) and is the author of numerous books including Power at Play: Sports and the Problem of Masculinity. He is the co-author, along with Prof. Cheryl Cooky, of a new report called, Gender in Televised Sports: News and Highlight Shows, 1989-2009. Here we discuss this fascinating study.


DZ:  Let's talk about your study on gender and televised sports.  What did you and Professor Cooky uncover in your research?


MM: We looked at the three local networks affiliates here in Los Angeles and also the ESPN Sportscenter at 11 o'clock in the evening.  The first time we did this study was 1989 and we have done it every five years since then. The first couple times we did it, 1989 and 1993 coverage of women sports on the evening news shows was about 5%.  I know a lot of people back then said that the number would continue to go up as time went by and the media caught up with this explosion of girls and women sports throughout the country.  Indeed in 1999 it nudged up to 8.7% of all sports coverage.  Then in 2004 it went back down to 6.3% and the most recent data we collected was in 2009 and the coverage on the evening news shows has almost evaporated to 1.6%, the lowest amount ever, and ESPN is right down there with 1.4% of their Sportscenter coverage.  We were pretty stunned by the drop off. 


DZ: To go from 5% in 1989  to at 1.6%, in 2009. How do we understand that coverage has actually gone down as women's leagues and play have become more prevalent?


MM: Well, that's what the puzzle really is. There has been this continued explosion of participation and interest in women's sports and it just hasn't been reflected in TV news and highlight shows. One of the more interesting findings we had was in 1989 and 1999 the big chunk of women's sports coverage we did see on these shows was what we called insulting or trivialization or humorous sexualization of women athletes, like a nude bungee jumper or leering court reports on tennis players like Anna Kournikova or later Maria Sharapova.  In 2004 and 2009 those kinds of stories declined to the point where we saw almost none of that insulting stuff about women athletes.  But I guess what we are wondering now is when they stop doing insulting or humorous sexualization stories on women athletes, it seems that they just don't know how to talk about women and women sports at all. 


DZ: When you talk about the sexualization and trivialization of women athletes, were you calculating that amidst the 5% in 1989? 


MM:  That's right.  That was part of the 5% in 1989 and part of the 8.7% in 1999 and it was a pretty big chunk of it.  When you see that kind of coverage disappear, what also disappears is coverage of women's sports at all. I think part of this has to do with the fact that a lot of these sports reporters on the evening news especially, are the same guys basically who we saw in 1989 and 1993: Fred Rogan at KNBC, Jim Hill at KCBS, it's the same reporters and they are doing the same stuff.  I think one of the keys to this when thinking about Sportscenter and the evening news is it's kind of a men's club, though Sportscenter does include a couple of women reporters but the news shows really don't.  It's been really interesting this week since our report came out: only women reporters have seen fit to cover this as a story.  I think there is some reason to think if we could desegregate the sports desk on newspapers and in TV news and so forth you might get a little bit more respectful coverage of women's sports.


DZ: What would you say to the argument that says, "look ESPN is not a non-profit and we are giving the people what they want and if that means less women's coverage then that's just the rules of the market."? 


MM: That's what they always say of course and of course I think all of these shows especially Sportscenter are an entertainment show and they're trying to hit the broadest market they can. But they miss a really big opportunity in ignoring women's sports. I think looking at the coverage of college basketball is especially useful. ESPN has done a pretty good job over the last few years of actually covering women's games in the tournament.  But it doesn't appear very much on Sportscenter and it doesn't appear at all on the evening news.  So what they're missing is a growing market for really interested and excited fans, I put myself among these: one of my favorite sports is women's college basketball.  Just to give you a couple of examples, in 2009 and 2010, over 11 million people attended women's NCAA games.  In 2010 the men's sweet sixteen games on CBS averaged 4.9 million viewers while women's games averaged 1.6 million viewers and the championship game between UConn and Stanford drew 3.5 million viewers.  So I think there is a tremendous audience out there but when we look at TV news and highlight shows what we found was that the women's NCAA tournament got no coverage at all on the network affiliates and it got a tiny bit of coverage on ESPN and most of that coverage was on that scrolling ticker at the bottom of the screen.  In contrast, there is just all kinds of coverage about the men's tournament, with speculation about bracketing and special feature stories of Shaquille O'Neal going one on one with a 90 year old granny on who's going to pick the best field and a tremendous amount of promotion of the men's tournament and almost complete silence on the women's tournament.  For a sport with a tremendous growing popularity and you would think that ESPN would use Sportscenter to build audiences for the event that they are actually showing live on television.


DZ: Why do you think they don't do that then?  Do you think it just can only be explained in terms of it being a boys club therefore their minds are closed to that perspective?  Or do you think they have a stake in institutional sexism? Is it subconscious or is it conscious?


MM: Well, I think they make conscious decisions about what they cover everyday but I think there is a tremendous amount of inertia as well.  And only a part of it has to do with the fact it's men making most of these decisions.  Men are capable of doing really good sports reporting on women's sports and a lot of men really like women's sports.  But I think there is a fear on a lot of their parts, if they don't stay with the big three sports. About 3/4 of all the news coverage we saw was of men's football, men's basketball and men's baseball.  So it is important that we recognize that it's not just women's sports that are getting edged out of this, it's a whole lot of the other men's sports as well. 


DZ: Professor Mary Jo Kane from the University of Minnesota Tucker Center studies how the sexualization of women's athletes - and the growth of popularity of some women athletes as sex symbols - actually hurts women's sports.  I'm raising this because one change over the twenty years of your study is the way top women athletes integrate themselves into magazines like Maxim and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. It didn't happen in 1989 but now women athletes, for example Danica Patrick, Lindsay Vonn, Jennie Finch are regularly featured in these magazines.  Your data seems to support Professor Kane's work, do you agree with that?


MM: Absolutely, I have been in long agreement with Mary Jo Kane on that issue.  What high-level women's athletes have to do to get coverage in mainstream outlets often times is to take off their clothes. It's sad to say, but that's the way it works.  For those individual women, it helps raise their profile and possibly make them some money.  But it certainly doesn't help promote women's sports. I think it's a way to really corner off women into an image that is acceptable and familiar to male audiences and male broadcasters.  It's not something that helps women sports. 


DZ: Do you think women's sports as a whole have ceased to be empowering or at least a vehicle for empowerment? 


MM: No, but I think the main place that's happening right now is with little girls.  There is a lot of research that shows that playing sports is an empowering experience for little girls and for young women and for so many different ways in terms of health, self-esteem, sexual responsibility and so fourth.  Whether sports will go to another level and go beyond that individual growth level and be part of a collective empowerment of women, as I think it has been in the past is very important.  I think the media plays an increasingly important part in that.  Unfortunately now I don't think the media, at least according to our study, is doing a good job of that.  One of the things people are talking about now is if we want good coverage of women's sports we can't rely on the mainstream media to do that. We've got to start creating some of our own venues on the internet, on television perhaps by organizations like the Women's Sports Foundation and maybe with some corporate sponsors to start just showing women's sports.  I would like to see that happen but I'm not quite ready to concede that the mainstream media is a lost cause.  It's really important because what we see on the media, what we see on Sportscenter is not just entertainment but really tells us a story about who we are.


[Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) Receive his column every week by emailing Contact him at]

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Why I Root (and feel guilty about) Spain

I've been thinking about how I can best display my leftist politics by who I root for in the World Cup Finals.

Here are my self-loathing reasons:

-- Good socialist politics (20% vat tax, euthanize grandma, etc.).
--Oppressed under Germany.
--Underdogs who never win anything.

-- White Europeans/white privilege.
--Prostitution (exploits women).
--Dutch East India Company! Yikes -- colonizers.

--Oppressed Latinos (kinda? Zirinist race-baiting can be confusing).
--Puyol is an Oppressed Catalan (doubly oppressed).
--Spanish-American War (the only anti-American angle in the finals).

-- Former colonizers.
--Oppressed Muslims during the Inquisition.
--Got mad about the 2004 Madrid bombings by American enemy Al Queda.

Despite their big-time negatives, I think I have to go with Spain. Viva Spain!

The collapse of the WNBA & Williams sisters

Dave doesn't mention it, but I'm guessing that would the reason for any decline from 99 to the present. And you can't say they didn't try, and try, to make male basketball fans watch it. With practically no success at all.

Second possible reason. The Williams Sisters. They've dominated the new era of power tennis, but it isn't pretty to watch. Too many errors, too much baseline line play, no finesse, all brute strength. And of course the rivalry between them has never been interesting as it seems to orchestrated by their father. It doesn't help that the only other women on the tour are an army 6-foot Russians with unpronounceable names.

Actually I doubt that coverage has really declined so much as it hasn't kept pace with the increase in coverage of male sports.

Williams rivalry

I should add that I don't believe they are fixing matches, but that the rumor has been floating around for awhile. And I think many causal fans of the sport do believe it.

What more could sports broadcast outlets reasonably do?

These are actually some very good points. @Mr. Definitely, you might be onto something with the Williams sisters. The 2 of them have been great, interesting, and have both managed to last. Whatever they couldn't do for the appeal of tennis in the US, probably nobody can.

@JJdynomite: the MMA comparison is highly relevant here, maybe even more than you know. Consider that UFC and the WNBA came out roughly the same time, but with very different media coverage and trajectories.

The WNBA began with a slick, agressive and calculated campaign, backed by a prosperous parent league. It had several advantages over most start-ups: 1) It started play in late spring, avoiding direct competition with a crowded sports season, 2) By doing so, they hoped, young women and girls, who otherwise play basketball and other winter sports, a better chance of seeing more of its games, 3) It immediately inherited its parent league's plum television contract, getting national games on NBC and even Lifetime, then later even Oxygen and ESPN, in hopes that it would reach female viewers outside of traditional sports channels, 4) It had the chance to learn from the mistakes of the ill-fated ABL women's league that tried and failed to capitalize on the residual buzz of the 1996 summer olympic team. For all that planning and promotion after 13 years so far, the league has not averaged a tv audience above 500,000 that I know of and can't fill an arena.

As for UFC, it started humbly, but slowly built a following despite sitting in the margins of pay per view. When it did finally get a tv contract it was with the new and obscure Spike network. ESPN actually refused to air mixed martial art events, highlights, and even advertisements for fights, hoping that UFC was some unwelcome fad that would die quietly. For years the network did all it could to orchestrate such a fate until reluctantly acknowledging the sport's existence in 2008. By 2009 the UFC 100 event reported selling 1.7 million pay per view subscriptions. Considering that bars and households with multiple viewers make such purchases, it is noteworthy that the sport has a sizable following that will make an effort watch a bout.

Whatever accusation you want to level at ESPN, you cannot honestly include slighting women's sports, what with the WNBA, women's college basketball, and other women's college sports it has televised since adding the ESPNU wing. Not to mock the "worldwide leader in sports," but if you look at its history with sports leagues, you too will doubt its power to drive interest. It held onto the NHL for years despite languishing ratings, plugged the now-defunct Arena Football League, and has plugged the declining college basketball more than any other network over the last 30 years. If people like a sport they will find a way to watch it, and a media outlet will jump on it. Insofar as a sport caters to spectators, though, it is an entertainment product. You can put it out there, but you can't make people love it.

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to
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