Every day of the Olympic Games in Rio seems to have generated at least one cringeworthy story about female athletes. Each incident on its own can be addressed with little more than an eye roll — sexism is nothing new, especially for women athletes. But cumulatively, the portrayal of female Olympians points to a real issue of inequality for women in sports, compared with their male peers, and how poorly (if ever) they are typically represented in mainstream sports media.
The frustration comes down to a very real truth: Women are barely ever shown competing in sports on primetime television. Aside from the Women’s World Cup (and when those matches are broadcast, due to the host country’s time zone difference), the rare WNBA game, high-profile tennis, and a few March Madness matchups, the Olympics pack in the most female athleticism on our television screens, during highly coveted primetime spots. And they only come every two years between Winter and Summer Games.
Meanwhile in the US, men’s sports are everywhere, all the time. Every point in the calendar year aligns with a men’s pro sports season on TV. We essentially go from basketball and hockey season to baseball season to football season. And that doesn’t account for draft periods, tryouts, trades, and preseason — not to mention the constant punditry around those events. Even when you set aside the pro seasons, men’s college sports also get plenty of airtime to fill in the gaps.
So when there are women athletes competing against other world-class athletes from nearly every corner of the globe, it actually means something.
During the games in Rio, 58.5 percent of NBC’s primetime coverage has featured female events, including gymnastics, swimming, and track and field, the Associated Press reports. Jim Bell, executive producer of the Olympics for NBC, told the AP the network takes “great pride in knowing that no one devotes more broadcast network prime-time coverage to women's sports than NBC.”
Sure, 2016 presents a record high for the proportion of women competing in primetime. But is it really worth a pat on the back when NBC, or any other broadcaster, in addition to sports powerhouse ESPN, rarely ever shows women athletes during primetime outside the once-every-two-or-four-year Olympics?
The coverage of women’s sports in general is abysmal
A 2009 study by the University of Southern California and Purdue University showed that over a 20-year span (plus an update in 2015), 96 percent of time on ESPN’s SportsCenter, and on the Los Angeles-area network affiliates’ sports coverage, was dedicated to men.
Yet, as the Women’s Sports Foundation points out, this statistic was true even as more women than ever participate in all levels of sports. In fact, the amount of coverage for women’s sports had actually declined as participation has increased. SportsCenter went from devoting 2.2 percent of its time to women in 1999 to 1.4 percent of its time to women athletes a decade later.
Our 1999 selves would have believed that by 2016, this whole imbalance would have evened out, at least a little. The novelty of seeing women play elite sports on television should have worn off by now — after all, this is the 20th season of the WNBA.
Some blame the lack of attention on the WNBA and other women’s sports leagues on the fact that the athletes look like, well, athletes, when they’re on the court. Tennis player Serena Williams acknowledged this when accepting the title of Sports Illustrated's Sportsperson of the Year: "I’ve had people look down on me. I’ve had people put me down because I didn’t look like them — I look stronger."
Of course, TV executives are thinking about the old saying "sex sells." But as ESPN's Kate Fagan wrote last year, researchers have found that this conventional thinking when it comes to women's sports just isn't true.
It turns out that images of women athletes marketed as sex symbols make them appear less athletically talented. University of Massachusetts Amherst sports management department chair and professor Janet Fink told Fagan her research showed that "each time a female athlete is pictured in a sexualized way, it diminishes the perception of her athletic ability."
Even in an Olympic sport like beach volleyball, most women competitors usually play in a uniform that resembles a swimsuit, but they will be the first to tell you that it’s not for the sake of sex appeal. It’s out of necessity: “When it comes to beach volleyball, we’re playing in 100-degree-plus weather,” Olympian Kerri Walsh Jennings explained earlier this year. “I think we’ve just gotta educate the public, take it with a grain of salt and make sure that we’re working hard and not playing up the sex appeal because it’s inherent anyway.”
Though men are generally more likely to be fans of sports, 51 percent of women also identify as fans. But as the New Republic's Jamil Smith wrote last year, that figure always seems to be ignored, as sports is mostly always filtered through a white, heterosexual male gaze. So when a league like the WNBA, which is 71 percent black, also features strong women and many openly queer women, hoping to win over your typical male sports fan is just going to be a losing game.
For the US, successes in Rio can be boiled down to the effects of Title IX
Still, it’s not like the women in Rio are just scantily clad wallflowers. Some, like gymnast Simone Biles and swimmer Katie Ledecky, are pushing the limits of their sport, while others are perfecting it, like the consistently dominant US Olympic women’s basketball team. As Bill Plaschke wrote for the Los Angeles Times this week, the US dominance at the Olympics is largely do to these women athletes, and for that we have Title IX to thank.
Title IX, passed in 1972, was originally designed to make all educational opportunities available to all students regardless of their gender, in all K-12 schools that receive federal funding. This had the effect of altering school sports programs a great deal, feeding America’s arsenal of Olympians. The opening of opportunities to compete from middle school through college opened the door for women and girls in the US over the past four decades to create a boom of world-class athletes.
At the Rio Olympics, Team USA has the largest female contingency in world history: 292 women, plus 263 men. In 1972, the year Title IX was passed, there were 90 women on Team USA and 428 men.
It’s not just numbers that show how much has changed since Title IX opened up more opportunities for girls and women to play sports. It’s also pushing American women to excel over their peers around the world. Aside from the hits like sprinting, gymnastics, and swimming, American women are starting to dominate in wrestling, weightlifting, shot put, and other events where the US has typically languished.
Out of Team USA’s 95 medals as of Thursday afternoon, the US women have won about half of the country’s hardware this year, Plaschke notes.
So we laud them when they earn medals to take home to the States, but between Olympic Games, it’s as though elite female athletes — minus a handful like Serena Williams, Diana Taurasi, and Hope Solo — essentially disappear.
Sure, many male Olympic athletes disappear between Olympics because they tend to come from not-that-popular sports like kayaking and badminton. But men’s sports in general don’t vanish from the national attention after the Olympic torch is extinguished. Women’s sports as a whole get about as much attention as that of a single middling NBA player.
When it comes down to it, advertisers have to show women athletes the money
And really, so much of all of this does come down to money. Popularity on television means advertiser support and athlete endorsements; without those endorsements, most women athletes don’t get paid.
The average NBA player earns nearly $6 million a year (the median is $3 million), while the average WNBA player earns about $75,000 — plenty of these women could make more money in non-athletic pursuits. The average salary for men’s soccer players is $316,777.33, while the average salaried women’s player earns about $32,000 from the National Women’s Soccer League. In tennis, the gap is becoming nonexistent in the top tournaments like Wimbledon, but that’s because women demanded equal prize money years ago — and it’s not consistent at other professional-level tournaments.
That disparity often begins at the college level, where there are more female athletes and fewer scholarship opportunities, and sometimes even earlier. Title IX may officially require schools to provide equal opportunities for girls to play, but altogether, US high schools still provide “about 1.3 million fewer chances for girls to play sports in high school as compared to boys,” particularly for girls of color, according to the National Women’s Law Center. Additionally, more than a quarter of LGBTQ students say they’ve been harassed or even assaulted over their identity while playing on a school sports team.
Things are getting better, at least by a little
Still, women continue to play, and compete, and win. And fans still find ways to watch.
The 2015 Women’s World Cup proved that the best women athletes can draw fans; the final game in the tournament featuring the United States verse Japan was the most watched soccer event in the nation’s history. The national team will be continuing their legal fight to be paid on par with their male counterparts.
And this year, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN3, and NBA TV have plans to air at least 74 of the WNBA’s regular season’s games in light of its 20th season. That’s a big change from last season, which had just 47 games aired nationally across its 12 teams.
These are marked improvements, but the fact of the matter is televised sports is still regarded a domain for men, controlled by a section of the media that is about 90 percent male and 90 percent white.
Meanwhile, women compete all year, just like their male counterparts, with or without the promise of an Olympic medal or even a big paycheck. Maybe once women athletes get covered less as a novelty — like seeing a woman hulk out in the pool or spike a volleyball in a crop top (or a hijab) — and more as business as usual, we’ll start to see a difference.