Trying to make sense of nonsense

It’s a man’s world: gender imbalance in sports reporting

Sport is a man’s world. At least that’s the impression I get when I watch any. Reporters are (mostly) men, reporting on (mostly) men, except where beach volleyball is concerned, and then it’s still seemingly just for men to look at. Not surprising then, the Olympics were a breath of fresh air this summer. Everyone cheered when Jess Ennis finally won that gold medal, when Lizzie Armitstead was the first Brit to step onto the victory stage, and when the aquatics centre exploded after Ellie Simmonds made it to the finish first. After all those Olympic success stories, you might expect women to get a bit more attention on the BBC’s sports pages*.  However, as this tweet in @EverydaySexism’s timeline made clear, it doesn’t seem to have happened. Out of three months of sport’s coverage highlighted on the BBC’s Facebook page, only 5.4% of posts covered women’s sports. Abysmal seems an appropriate description here.

So how does the sports coverage measure up? The BBC Sport’s Facebook page highlights only some of its sports coverage, so there is a chance that women are covered, but they just don’t make it onto the Facebook page. Unfortunately, the Beeb isn’t very good at archiving their sports material, so apart from collecting data from Facebook, there doesn’t seem to an easy way to retrospectively see how often they covered women in sport**. Luckily, the Dutch public broadcaster – the NOS – does archive all their sports coverage by date on their website. And to make this international comparison complete, I also added a bit of Belgian (or rather: Flemish – my French isn’t what it used to be) sports coverage by adding their public broadcaster’s sport Facebook page (Sporza). For all three broadcasters, I gathered all their (highlights of) sport coverage for the whole of November.

So how do these three countries’ public broadcasters compare on reporting on men and in sport? Well, not very good. The BBC had no posts relating to women’s sport at all, while the Belgians only specifically covered women in sport once: a story on professional female cyclists appearing in a ‘sensual’ calendar. The Dutch, who contributed all stories not just highlights, score ever so slightly better. Though with only 11% of articles covering women, it’s hardly an improvement.

Public broadcasters' articles on sports

Public broadcasters’ articles on sports

But hey, what about confounders, things that might mess this quick analysis up? Maybe there’s one particular sport (let’s call it football) that’s skewing these results. Women’s football is famous for its lack of coverage, so maybe these nations’ football obsession is partly to blame for the lack of coverage of women in sports? Well, football does make up the majority of posts and articles, especially when looking at Facebook highlights.

Sports reporting - sports by country

So what happens if we just ignore football (something we ought to do more often)? Well, nothing much really. Women are still massively underrepresented on the sports pages, with 1 in 5 articles focussing on them at best, and even fewer articles mentioning both men and women.

Ignoring football, there is still massive gender bias

Ignoring football, there is still massive gender bias

What about those other sports? The UK and Belgian Facebook highlights didn’t include too many sports besides football or other male-dominated sports such as Formula 1. The Dutch broadcaster did include a lot of other sports though, so surely there must be some sports where reporting is more equal?

And yes: there seems to be some good news: for skiing, swimming and long-track ice speed skating*** gender balance looks a lot more promising with generally equal coverage. There are also some more disappointments though with cycling and tennis, which I expected to be more balanced.

Coverage of men and women by sport (all the more reason to like long track ice speed skating!)

Coverage of men and women by sport (all the more reason to like long track ice speed skating!)

Especially for cycling I personally expected better. Mostly because coverage tends to be biased towards people or teams who win, and the current women’s world and Olympic road cycling champion happens to be Dutch. The men in Dutch cycling on the other hand, have hardly anything to boast about this year, apart from being mentioned in relation to Lance Armstrong just a bit too often. Still, only one single story covered women’s cycling.

Broadcasters aren’t the only ones to blame though. Especially in the case of road cycling, there just isn’t that much to broadcast. While the men will be plastered over the television every weekend from March till September, there are just two women’s races that tend to be covered live on Dutch television: the world championships and the Olympics. For almost all other classic road cycling races such as the Tour de France, Paris-Roubaix or Milan-San Remo, there are no races for women. The men race, amateurs often get a chance to go on the course, and there might even be a special race for under-23s, but not for women.

This seems to lead to a vicious circle: there are fewer events for female athletes, leading to less media coverage, which in turn makes women’s sport less interesting for sponsors who’d like some air time by plastering their logo onto some sporty people, resulting in less money to actually put on those events.

It has to change. Sports like skiing seem to make it work. Lindsey Vonn is so far ahead of the rest of the field that she has asked to compete with the men. She’d stand a fair chance. A mixed gender relay was introduced in swimming so men and women can compete together rather than having separate events. We loved seeing our women competing in the Olympics as much as we did the men. Now let’s get them back on their screens.


*And after the amazing Paralympics you might also expect some more attention for those athletes. However, the BBC Disability Sport page still seems to be stuck in September.

**Do let me know if I missed something obvious – the overwhelming onslaught of male pheromones and yellow banners screaming off the page may have messed up my brain.

***i.e. the greatest sport on earth: athletes reach speeds of up to 70km/h (43mph) while basically wearing nothing but razor sharp knives under their feet and a tight fitting body suit – no helmets or any other type of protection is used. Its popularity is sadly restricted to Holland and Holland alone – though we like it that way as we can scoop up lots of Olympic medals without anyone else noticing.


29 responses to “It’s a man’s world: gender imbalance in sports reporting

  1. broadsideblog December 10, 2012 at 2:23 pm

    I’d be curious to see your analysis (nice work!) applied to sports coverage in the U.S. and/or Canada. I suspect it would be *marginally* better as women’s college sports are more noticed in the U.S. (where I live), depending on the medium (i.e. local or regional press and broadcast much more likely.)

    I’m a career journalist and athlete, so this is a subject dear to my heart; I read the New York Times (my local paper, living in NY) every day, including the sports section. There are only a few ways to increase media coverage of female athletes — and one of the most important is to ensure that women reporters and broadcasters are in every newsroom and, more important, at the managerial and decision-making level, as it is they who decide what will be covered and to what extent. I’ve covered sports, including sailing, fencing, ice skating and skiing, and know that a smart, passionate, well-connected reporter is a powerful force for getting more women athletes, whatever their sport, more notice. Advocacy matters!

    • epidemiologista December 10, 2012 at 2:46 pm

      Thanks for your comment! It would definitely be interesting to do a similar thing for the US/Canada, and compare national/regional media – if you can recommend any websites to watch, let me know! As an Dutch expat in the UK I’m not that up to speed with US sports media 🙂

  2. rami ungar the writer December 10, 2012 at 2:49 pm

    I remember when Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liuken were competing in gymnastics. There seemed to be a lot fo coverage on them, but as I remember it a lot of it seemed sexualized in a strange way, like more focus on the girls and their body types and how hard it would be for them to get boyfriends than on their particular skill sets. It’s just so wrong, because a male gymnast would probably not get that sort of coverage.

    • epidemiologista December 10, 2012 at 2:59 pm

      There seems to be a lot of that going on as well – during the Paralympics this year, one Dutch athlete was constantly referred to as ‘Blade babe’ rather than actually using her name (Marlou van Rhijn). If you’d do the same for a sport like say, football, and describe every player by their physical attributes, it would be obvious that it’s ridiculous.
      Metro managed to capture this bias excellently (if not slightly disturbing) in this photo series: What if every Olympic sport was photographed like beach volleyball?

      • rami ungar the writer December 10, 2012 at 3:47 pm

        I felt like I was looking at Playgirl magazine. It was horrible.

      • Joe Garrick December 11, 2012 at 5:24 pm

        Yeah, I’ve noticed that about beach volleyball as well, but I’ll risk sounding sexist to say that the athletes do appear to be encouraging that sort of coverage based on the style of the “uniforms” they’re wearing. You don’t see the men in that sport with half their backsides out of their shorts. If the women want to sell their sport by making the most of the eye candy side of it, then you can hardly blame the photographers for taking photos they can sell.

  3. camdenstables December 10, 2012 at 3:14 pm

    How many women eat,sleep, and breathe sports statistics? How many women want to be a sports broadcasters? How many women want to watch women athletes? I like good sport no matter who is playing, but I do not think the demand for women’s sport coverage is really there. We have a really good commentator for equestrian events here in Canada, but her female predecessor made me want to leave the volume off.
    I ref basketball and am 1 of 4 in my area where there are probably 20 men. The refs selected to officiate National women’s basketball championships were predominately, if not all, male. They definitely have the qualification, time and commitment.
    I think I am a good role model for young girls at the level I am at and I will encourage them to be better people.
    I also don’t believe media coverage is what really drives female athletes to excel.

    • TAE December 10, 2012 at 3:47 pm

      I was thinking along those lines as well (being a female who couldn’t care less about sports). But the point about the relationship between coverage and sponsoring is worth a mention, and I do wonder if the coverage is up to date. I’m sure there are many especially younger girls who’d like to watch female athletes (soccer…), but it’s not being covered, because the bigger audience (and hence money) is with the male athletes.
      A thanks to the autor for putting the numbers together!

    • skyride December 12, 2012 at 3:42 am

      Being a female who cares about/watches/participates in sports, I must answer… Me. Me. Me. And various other women and girls I know. But the greater implication of this article is not that women are being deprived of the breakfast sports stats. It’s that all of humanity is telling women “you do not or should not play sports”, “women playing/watching sports is necessarily less valuable than men playing/watching sports”; thus the mantra “women do not like sports [or at least not as much as men] becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in accompaniment with all the other sociocultural mechanisms that steer girls toward “more appropriate”/normative behaviors that are based on culturally-constructed gender roles and stereotypes.
      Even when women broadcasters are chosen to cover male-dominated sports, they do so in ways that are still considered appropriate to their sex. Hence the seemingly ludicrous image of women journalists in “sexy business attire” covering, er, “rugged” American football.

  4. rohan7things December 10, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    Really interesting post! I love watching the female gymnastics, table tennis and badminton during the Olympics. In fact the only male sport I watch is the running. My only non Olympic sport is football (yes, I know) but I would seriously like to watch and be able to follow something like female badminton throughout the year like I can with female tennis tennis, I find male tennis boring for the most part.

    Anyway cool article, it’s amazing to see just how under represented women are!


  5. bharatwrites December 10, 2012 at 3:49 pm

    I like the idea of women competing with men directly. And if a woman beats even some of the men, she’ll get a lot of attention and respect. If women keep competing in women’s leagues, we can never shake off the idea of “She’s fast—for a woman” or “She’s strong—for a woman.”

  6. mdprincing December 10, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    my opinion most women’s sports are boring, exception would be beach volleyball for reasons not of sport. I think you see this lopsided due to the fact that TV coverage needs a return on their investment and big advertisers want to buy spots where the most viewers are like football or car racing.
    Reporters are predominantly male, I think this is just one of those things that will gradually change, I for one enjoy the female reporters on ESPN, they are smart and informed and do a good job covering the news.

  7. Northern Narratives December 10, 2012 at 5:19 pm

    I see lots of male sports on the TV here in the US but very little coverage of womens sports. I keep thinking that a TV channel is needed that will only broadcast womens sports.
    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed 🙂

  8. allaboutwork.org December 10, 2012 at 5:24 pm

    This is a really well-done and thoughtful analysis. Thanks for your hard work!

  9. Bridget December 10, 2012 at 6:03 pm

    Great Post. It is shocking how under-reported and under-valued women’s sport is. Take netball – in the UK it is the biggest sport for longevity. More women play for longer than any other amateur sport – in my squad of eight, 2 of us are over 50, 3 are in their 40s, 2 in their late 30s (and one teen). Very few men will continue playing football for their village team past the age of say 37, yet my sport is poo pooed by most men I speak to about it. The fifty year + struggle for equality in all walks of life has a long way to go. In many respects the position of women in the society is at its lowest in my lifetime. We need to keep reminding people, so well done!

  10. jaschmehl December 10, 2012 at 6:40 pm

    Really interesting read – well done. My only question would be, what are the Actual numbers of women participating in professional sports? I mean, if there are only 5 women for every 100 men participating in professional sports than the 5% coverage would sort of make sense? Wouldn’t it? (I won’t be surprised if I am totally wrong about this.) 🙂

  11. segmation December 10, 2012 at 7:18 pm

    Interesting blog, I look forward to the future when It’s a woman’s world: gender imbalance in sports reporting! Perhaps that will happen? What do you think?

  12. billlattpa December 10, 2012 at 8:19 pm

    Two thoughts: Firstly is that women do not watch sports or attend nearly as many sporting events as men do if you believe any of the statistics presented. Secondly, many women’s sports don’t generate anywhere near the revenue than men’s sports do. This may not be necessarily be fair but they are facts. I for one love watching tennis and golf no matter who is playing, but on the whole men’s sports are much more dominant on a national scale.

  13. G December 11, 2012 at 3:16 am

    Couldn’t agree more. But if fashion and modelling are taken as sports (quite sportingly), the women definitely score there 🙂

  14. T.Loasby December 11, 2012 at 11:22 am

    Very interesting, it is awful how little coverage womens sport gets but I did not realise it was as little as this shows. A real eye opener.

  15. bobbyd3 December 11, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    LOVE the analysis. Great write up! Obviously the cold hard truth is the best male atheletes are far superior than the best woman athletes. For a sports fan like myself it’s hard to be entertained watching woman athletics knowing the men can play the game at a much higher level. Now I’m not saying woman aren’t athletic because as a competitive golfer I’ve had some ladies SMOKE me but without the viewers there isn’t any money and let’s be real money rules all in athletics.

  16. Feit Can Write December 11, 2012 at 5:13 pm

    Good post. I can tell you that across the pond, things aren’t much better for women in sports broadcasting. The best way to get on air is to be:

    A. Stunningly beautiful (i.e. most of the sideline reporters on American football – Erin Andrews, Samantha Steele, etc.)
    B. A former athlete in the sport being broadcast. Unfortunately, as you note, there are not a lot of women’s sports broadcast outside of the Olympics. And even then, the networks may still opt for a male commentator who knows the sport instead of a comparable female.

    Frankly, as a male consumer of (mostly male) sports, I care more about the quality of the broadcast than the gender of the announcer(s). There are dozens of male announcers that I cannot stand, and there are some female announcers (Pam Ward & Beth Mowins from ESPN) whom drive me up a wall too – so at least in that aspect, gender equity has arrived

  17. orecchio14 December 11, 2012 at 5:55 pm

    Generally speaking, a greater number of men watch sports (just like a greater number of women are into fashion, celebrity gossip, etc.). I don’t think the gender gap in sports reporting is anything sexist. Just networks appealing to a target market.

  18. Hannah Burke December 11, 2012 at 7:23 pm

    Interesting post! I am a sports mad female, and I can understand these statistics. Growing up, I was really one of very few girls who had such an interest in sport. Most girls were more interested in fashion or celebrity culture. Television and other broadcasting is all about audience and ratings. If something isn’t going to appeal to the wider audience, then companies are not going to effectively waste money on them. Take football (soccer) for example. I played soccer up to county level for my whole life until I went to university, and although I loved to play it, I cannot bear to watch women’s soccer. There is no argument- it just does not compare to men’s soccer. So although it is nice to see the games being broadcasted on television, I can understand why the games may not be on prime channels or in prime time slots.

  19. Goddard December 11, 2012 at 9:26 pm

    Why does this even matter?

    • Karen Datangel December 12, 2012 at 3:25 am

      It matters because women in general are so poorly represented in mainstream media. They’re seen as hypersexual, naggy, bitchy, and other negative things. Even women in politics, for one, aren’t immune to how they’re represented and talked about in media: Think about how Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin were portrayed during the 2008 presidential election. Hillary was compared to an annoying wife and people put a lot of focus on Sarah’s looks.

      If I had a daughter, I’d want her to see more female athletes on television, because what if she wants to be a basketball player, softball player, tennis player, or gymnast? She needs a good role model to show her that can she can play those sports and be a team player. Of course, not everyone who dives into sports is going to be a professional athlete, but what if participating in sports is going to be what keeps her out of trouble when all the other kids her age are? What if that’s the thing that gives her life? This gender imbalance in sports is only just part of the problem: Young girls and women need to see the whole breadth of what women do and what women are. It’s harmful if they only see that women have to be super sexy and be on a dumb reality show to be accepted in this world.

  20. adversarialart December 12, 2012 at 1:13 am

    Yes. Gender discrimination does exist.

  21. Jean December 12, 2012 at 2:25 am

    As a long-time cyclist (not a competitor) for last 21 yrs. (I returned to it in my early 30’s), it continues to disappointing to far less coverage and corporate sponsorship dollars for women’s competitive cycling. It does change abit with some Summer Olympics but it takes a highly dynamo competitor woman cyclist who has an interesting “story” for the media in addition to cycling competence.

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