Co-Authored by Brett Pardy and Courtney Szto.
Mainstream (sports) media has no idea what to do with well-spoken and educated women. If they also excel at sports the confusion is compounded. This likely has a lot to do with the fact that 90% of sports editors, 70% of assistant sports editors, 83% of columnists, 89% of reporters, and 80% of copy editors are white cis-men (according to the Racial and Gender Report Card of “Associated Press Sports Editors”). As the Burn It All Down crew discussed recently in Episode 102 (but really, like every episode) sports media has no idea what to do with women athletes. Advertising, much like every other field, has been built around men as the normative construct, meaning that a lot of work has gone into making men’s things successful. Women have largely been used to advertise to men but little effort has been invested in marketing women for the sake of marketing women. Beyond the “sex sells” paradigm, advertisers and marketers are often at a loss as to how to make women athletes seem interesting, likeable, athletic, and/or human.
This lack of caring/understanding/interest has resulted in what Musto, Cooky & Messner (2017) refer to as “gender-bland sexism,” where media simply check the box ✅ of women’s sports coverage through “lacklustre and uninspired manner[s]” (p. 575). “We covered it,” becomes a shield to avoid complaints of gender discrimination. Sports media has shifted from overly sexualized and trivialized coverage of women athletes to either no coverage, results relegated to the ticker, or straight-up boring-ass coverage. Conversely, men’s sports is characterized by, “high production values and techniques; fast-paced, humorous, action-packed language; dominant descriptors; and lavish compliments,” whereas women’s coverage is overwhelmingly “matter-of-fact [and] monotonous,” (p. 581) when presented by mainstream outlets.
Case in point, after this year’s controversial Women’s World Championship final with Finland’s overtime goal being called back, Sportsnet gave the whole final maybe a 30 second recap, which didn’t even remotely tell the story of what happened in that game. If you watched that game you knew it was an intense affair from start to finish. None of that was conveyed in this recap. Courtney was in the locker room the next day where some women were talking about it. They saw that Team USA had won but had no idea what led up to that point because mainstream media was too busy checking their boxes: Women’s World Championship ✅.
If that whole incident were to have occurred in a men’s World Championship final or even just a regular season NHL game, rest assured that there would have been replay after replay, and manel after manel (panels comprised of only men) breaking down everything that happened for at least 10 minutes. To illustrate, you didn’t have to watch Game 3 between the San Jose Sharks and the St. Louis Blues to know that Timo Meier’s hand pass led to the game winning goal and that it was not well received by the Blues. Sportsnet featured multiple replays from various angles, player and coach interviews, and men in suits talking at length about the game. Sportsnet made it very clear that what happened in that game was important for viewers to know. If only there were advocates who believed that strongly in capturing the drama and intensity of the women’s game (or helping to build it) in order to present it as a story worth telling and watching. The blandness is, in part, what contributed to the demise of the CWHL. It is what continues to keep women’s sports at the margins of media.
Not only is the little coverage of women’s sports often bland, but the amount of coverage by mainstream outlets has actually gotten worse in the last couple of decades. Despite rapidly rising participation rates across the board, television coverage has declined since 1989 (Cooky, Messner & Hextrum, 2013). In 1989, women’s sports received approximately 5% of prime time US network coverage. It “peaked” in 1999 with almost 9% of coverage but Cooky et al. (2013) warn that the increase in time was buttressed by more sexualized coverage of athletes. By the time 2009 rolled around, women’s sports coverage dropped to 1.6% of all televised sports stories.
One point six.
The Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport have reported that despite women making up 40% of all NCAA athletes and interest consistently on the rise, women’s varsity sports only receive 4% of the media coverage. Any way you slice it men are given a disproportionate amount of air time.
There is far more men’s sports available, this is a fact. But even when there isn’t as much men’s sports to cover mainstream outlets find a way to keep them in the news:
While one could argue that women’s sports receive less attention given that there were fewer major women’s events or professional leagues competing during our sample time frame, reporters continually delivered stories on men’s sports that were out of season, including stories on professional (and occasionally college) football in March and July, pro baseball in November, and pro basketball in July. (Cooky et al., 2013, p.212)
You might want to argue that time is money and there just isn’t enough time to cover both women’s and men’s sports appropriately. Yet, Cooky et al. (2013) noted that “gag features” were often chosen over relevant women’s sports stories. Gag stories include things like talking about a ridiculous burger that could be found at a minor league (MINOR LEAGUE!) ball park or featuring a Japanese putting bra, all while the UConn Women’s Basketball team completed a 39-0 season.
Japanese. Putting. Bra. (Oh, it’s even dumber than you think).
Women’s sports coverage should first and foremost position them as athletes. But women’s hockey is also distinctly different from men’s hockey because they are not full-time athletes. One implication of gender-bland coverage is that we lose all the context, nuance, and struggle that is women’s hockey. Repeating the fact that Ann-Sophie Bettez works as a financial planner just makes her seem like an eccentric athlete as opposed to one who has needed a full-time job all of these years to support her hockey habit. When these stories are told with thought and depth they highlight the inequalities between the women’s and men’s games. After the CWHL folded, everyone and their dog threw their hands up in despair with the same reactions: “What do you mean they only make $2,000 a season?” and “I didn’t know these women needed full-time jobs to support their hockey!”
Tell the world that they struggle to find practice facilities. Tell viewers they pay for their own equipment (or that national team members share what they can with their teammates). Tell people that many of them lose money playing professional hockey. Tell them that a whole bushel of the players have committed themselves to graduate school because playing professional hockey is not actually a career in the traditional sense.
As academics ourselves, we have a soft-spot for players who voluntarily run the grad school gauntlet while also playing professionally. We were super excited to find out that Brianne Jenner completed her Master’s in Public Policy before heading off to Pyeongchang. Seems like a factoid that could have been sprinkled in during the World Championships coverage in between the 500x that we were told Bettez is *gasp* 31 years old 🙄 or the obsessive patriarchal hockey “bloodline” tidbits that rival Game of Thrones. Did we know that both the Lamoureux sisters have their Master’s in Kinesiology? Nope! Did we know that Alex Carpenter has her MBA? Again, nope. Going back further, Thérèse Brisson was an Assistant Professor in Kinesiology at the University of New Brunswick while playing for Canada at the 1998 Olympics! There is no shortage of stories to help liven up the little coverage that women’s hockey receives.
Courtney recently met Anissa Gamble of the former Toronto Furies and asked her to autograph her journal article that was published last year:
It was fun times talking about hockey, research, and diabetes advocacy/activism. The questions that media can ask these women are limitless, that is, if you are willing to ask different questions.
(Fielding Montgomery, you’re up next on the autograph list for your Journal of Environmental Management article: “A habitat-based framework to predict the effects of agricultural drain maintenance on imperiled fishes.“)
But let’s call a spade a spade. The vast majority of media that we have groomed for men’s sports are ill equipped to tell stories beyond the score (of course, there are great sports writers out there but they are not representative of the average hire). As we wrote in January, highlighting the “renaissance women of the CWHL“, women athletes have to cultivate a life outside of the playing field because the ability to live a one dimensional life in the name of dedication to one’s craft continues to be a “privilege” only accessible to men. But most media only know how to engage with the one dimensional man. All the cool and important things women players do off the ice is outside the realm of what media can imagine a hockey player might do. Instead, in the NHL, Ben Scrivens was nicknamed “The Professor” because he had an undergraduate Ivy League degree (in Hotel Administration). If this were the case in women’s hockey we would be calling every other player “Professor.” We are beaten over the head with any and all semi-interesting facts about NHL players, yet the average hockey fan knows nothing about women hockey players because…1.6% and the whole bland thing.
This reality likely won’t change until the statistics in paragraph 1 change. The reporters they send to cover women’s hockey often do not know who these women are. They don’t recognize them, they don’t follow the game consistently, and they certainly don’t know how to ask Gamble about islet cell transplantation or Jenner about the legislative barriers associated with child advocacy work (more info below). As a result, this is the sports media status quo that we have created for ourselves:
Social media and outlets like The Player’s Tribune have altered the sports media landscape. This is not to say that power isn’t still congregated amongst the big outlets but athletes have a lot more to say these days and they have ways of speaking directly to fans and sponsors without the middle-man. Kyle Korver’s (Utah Jazz – NBA) recent piece on white privilege for The Player’s Tribune was something so beyond what mainstream sports media can handle it’s not even funny. That was their loss and the winners were Korver, The Player’s Tribune, and the readers who were inspired by his introspection. He was able to speak in his own words and on his own terms. And, if you haven’t noticed, the women’s players who are supporting the #ForTheGame boycott are also doing it on their own terms via their own social media accounts. No press conference needed. No camera crews needed.
Women’s sports needs and deserves media coverage but this isn’t the whole story. The media needs women’s sports more than it knows. In the last couple of years, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Grantland, VICE, and Yahoo have all had significant layoffs or closures because the times are changing. Re-producing the status quo is no longer a safe path to a paycheque. Realistically it only takes one site or national broadcaster to cover game scores, which means that original content is an increasingly valuable resource. The good news is that women’s hockey is re-organizing itself and there will be a chance to make amends. There will be another chance to get it right, so make sure you are ready to write the wrong.
Because we are hockey-loving geeks, we created a spreadsheet of women’s professional hockey players with graduate degrees to highlight some of the women that the media have actively chosen to ignore over the years. We’ve already found almost 100 past and current players! This is in no way a slight against those who have not pursued graduate degrees or to say that these women deserve any more attention than anyone else. It is merely one way to draw attention to the gendered inequalities of professional hockey: How good can you make your resume and still not register as worthy of print or screen time in the eyes of those in power? It is also important to recognize that women being slighted by the media isn’t a fight that is unique to women’s hockey or sports. It happens to women in politics, business, film, education…you name it. And, that’s when you know it’s an issue of gender inequality and not a hockey thing.
Please comment below if you know of players who should be on the list with what you know about their degree. And, if that person is YOU don’t be shy, let us know how awesome you are! The women on this spreadsheet could not only start and run their own league but also their own little civilization and be just fine.
To all the media out there, consider this some homework to do while the women are getting their ducks in a row. Don’t be part of the 98.4%.
“From the shattered pieces, we start again. We pick up the pieces. We take care; we must take care, because history has sharpened their edges; sharpened our edges. We pick up the pieces; we start again.”
Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life
Cooky, C., Messner, M.A. & Hextrum, R. H. (2013). Women play sport, but not on TV: A longitudinal study of televised news media. Communication & Sport, 1(3), 203-230.
Musto, M., Cooky, C. & Messner, M.A. (2017). “From fizzle to sizzle!”: Televised sports news and the production of gender-bland sexism. Gender & Society, 31(5), 573-596.