What’s the right way to cover women’s sports?
The Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Jul. 05, 2015
Four years ago, in June of 2011, I wrote a column posing the question, “How should women’s sports be covered by television and other media?”
The upshot was that it’s not an easy question to answer. It’s an issue loaded with mixed emotions and misogyny, and polluted by male rage. The occasion in 2011 was the Women’s World Cup of soccer, then under way in Germany. Now we’ve just concluded the Women’s World Cup here in Canada. So let’s assess.
The Women’s World Cup is a peculiar beast of a tournament. I’ve covered many major soccer events featuring the top male players and the tournaments have their own narrative. I was reminded of this after a couple of days in Moncton recently covering the women’s tournament there. The players and their families and friends were everywhere. One evening I saw Louisa Nécib, the great French player, out for a stroll. I must have stared, looked awed, because she gave me an indulgent smile and, I’m pretty sure, winked at me.
I also met Laura Bassett, the England defender who scored that heartbreaking own goal against Japan to knock England out of the World Cup at the semi-final stage. In Moncton, Bassett was instantly recognizable because she had a black eye, the result of an elbow in the face from a French defender. When I met Bassett, she was carrying a carton of milk and a bag of other stuff from a variety store. She was visiting friends staying at a different hotel from hers.
It was unnerving, really. At the men’s World Cup or Euro tournaments, you never see the players, except on the field or on TV. It’s like they breathe a different air. They’re remote, godlike figures.
And that brings us, in a roundabout way, to the matter of how TV and other media treat female athletes. Should they be treated as godlike superstars, or as skilled, hard-working athletes or as a charity case requiring special coverage?
The latter issue – special, cheerleading coverage – arises every time there is a major sports event featuring women. Some men will blithely assert that since, say, Toronto FC could probably beat the Canadian women’s team with ease, why bother with the women’s game? It’s a lesser, subordinate game.
And it’s not only men who assert this view. While Australia did well at the Women’s World Cup, one of that country’s most adversarial pundits, Rita Panahi, was vigorously dismissive. “Here’s a shameful confession that will no doubt enrage the sisterhood: I couldn’t care less about women’s sport,” Panahi wrote.
“Like most sports fans, of both sexes I hasten to add, I prefer to watch the very best in their chosen field, and in just about every major sport, the male competitors are vastly superior to the female equivalent.”
What she suggests is probably the unspoken reason why so many major media outlets, especially TV, devote such little time to women’s sports.
An ongoing study of ESPN’s coverage in the United States, done by Purdue University scholars, indicates that while involvement by women in sports keeps going up, ESPN’s coverage is flat.
In 2014, SportsCenter, the ESPN flagship sports-news program, devoted just 2 per cent of its airtime to women’s sports. That figure has remained the same since 1999. The same Purdue study looked at coverage of women’s sports on the three main Los Angeles TV stations and found just 3.2 per cent of airtime went to women’s sports.
Here in Canada, TV coverage of the Women’s World Cup was exemplary. TSN did blanket coverage and numerous games were aired on the main CTV channel even when Canada was knocked out. It was standard soccer coverage – analysis of tactics, player strength and weaknesses, and there was no hint from the male and female analysts that women’s soccer was getting less serious coverage than the men’s game.
This newspaper devoted considerable resources to covering the Women’s World Cup. As did The Guardian and the BBC in Britain. Notably, all sophisticated outlets unafraid to cover events outside the mainstream.
At the same time, the experience of covering it could be as unnerving as seeing star players on the street in Moncton. Anything negative written by me or colleague Cathal Kelly would bring a backlash. Countless readers exhorted me to be more positive, to lay off the criticism of our national team. What a lot of people wanted was cheerleading for the Canadian heroines, as if they were untouchable.
Which leaves those of us who cover women’s sports in a ridiculous position. I still don’t know the answer to the question, “How should women’s sports be covered by television and other media?” I only know there should be more of it.