By Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 4, 2010; D01
After watching the highlight shows earlier this week, I could tell you about Urban Meyer's esophageal pain, exactly how much fluid Andrew Bynum had drained from his knee (2 1/2 ounces), the make of Tyreke Evans's car (Benz s550), and that Ben Roethlisberger wore a yellow T-shirt at his first practice back with the Steelers. Here are some of the things I couldn't tell you: who won in the WNBA, and which women are still alive in the French Open. I can, however, tell you all about Venus Williams's controversial undergarments.
Ever had this experience: You want the score of a women's game, and can't get it? You wait through a half hour of the evening news or ESPN's "SportsCenter," hoping to be rewarded with a fleeting mention of the Mystics, or the NCAA softball championship. You stare at the crawl line, trying to read the tiny print, only to hear about an NFL player's Achilles' in June.
Female athletes and the people who watch them don't ask for much; they're used to being marginalized in the sports news, given that they are a smaller audience (for now). But lately there seems to be almost no news coverage at all, and it's not your imagination. A study released this week entitled "Gender in Televised Sports: News and Highlight Shows, 1989-2009," sampled the content of highlight shows and found that they devote barely 1 1/2 percent of airtime to women's sports.
Michael Messner, a sociologist at the University of Southern California, has tracked how female athletes are treated on television for the last 20 years. In his latest project, Messner and colleague Cheryl Cooky of Purdue catalogued the content of the 11 p.m. edition of "SportsCenter," as well as nightly sportscasts on three network affiliates in Los Angeles over two-week periods in November, March, and July 2009. According to their numbers "SportsCenter" spent just 1.4 percent of its airtime on women, and the network affiliates weren't much better at 1.6 percent. Those are the lowest figures Messner has recorded in two decades, a span in which women's sports participation has exploded.
In 1971, the year before Title IX was enacted, just 294,000 U.S. high school girls played a varsity sport. As of 2009, the number is 3.1 million.
Yet there has been a precipitous decline in news coverage since 2004, Messner finds. Five years ago, the network affiliates gave 6.3 percent of airtime to women, "SportsCenter" 2.1 percent. Now women aren't even getting on the ticker at the bottom of the screen. Just 2.7 percent of ESPN's crawl line went to women's news or scores in '09, down from 8.5 percent in '04.
"Back in '89, people would say the media was lagging behind the tremendous growth in women's sports, but it will catch up," Messner says. "It would evolve as women's sports grow up. But this study found it's not."
Without question, mainstream sports viewers are more interested in LeBron James's free agency than the Maryland women's lacrosse championship. We can hardly blame ESPN's producers for recognizing that in programming decisions.
"First off, I'm not sure the study accurately reflects the overall presentation of 'SportsCenter,' " coordinating producer Craig Bengtson says. "It's on the air 14 hours a day. I can tell you this: Every day every sport and every event is on the table . . . We consider all of them. But we can't do all of them. In general, we do focus on the most popular athletes and teams in sports, those the majority of fans have interest in, and that enable us to satisfy a greater number of viewers at one time."
To give credit where it's due, ESPN fills airtime on its ancillaries such as ESPNU with plenty of live coverage of women's sports, 1,300 hours worth this year. It does a particularly good job on the NCAA women's basketball tournament, showing all 48 games on various outlets.
That said, why such a near-total eclipse of women on the highlight show? The TV audience for major women's sports isn't that small. Take college basketball. The men's sweet 16 on CBS averaged 4.9 million viewers. By way of comparison, the 12 women's tournament games aired on ESPN's main outlet averaged 1.6 million viewers. The title game between U-Conn. and Stanford drew an average of 3.5 million viewers, up 32 percent from last year.
Yet, oddly, the women's tournament was hardly mentioned on ESPN's flagship, "SportsCenter."
Messner looked at the "SportsCenter" 11 p.m. edition over a two-week period in March 2009, when both tournaments were in full swing. "SportsCenter" aired 40 reports on the men. How many stories did it devote to the women, airing on its own channel? Four. On the ticker crawl, the men got 56 references. The women? Seven.
ESPN wasn't alone. If you lived in Los Angeles and counted on your local network affiliate for a story about the women's tournament, you were out of luck. If you watched KABC in the evening of March 20, you were treated to a lengthy feature about Shaquille O'Neal "going mano a mano" with a 97-year-old grandmother in filling out his men's bracket. On March 24, KABC did a lengthy feature on a local toddler who is already a "pool prodigy" at the age of 2.
Basically, even toddlers bumped U-Conn.
Why does it matter what's on highlight shows? Because they set the agenda for viewers. "These shows have a centrality," Messner says. "They tell us what's happening out there, and they are important in telling us what matters and what we should be paying attention to. It becomes part of what either builds or contracts the public sensibility for what to watch, what's exciting, or even what's available."
There's no easy answer to the question of why women's sports don't get more traction with mass audiences. The issue is not just that men aren't watching women's sports, but that huge numbers of women aren't watching either. Personally, a pack of mules couldn't drag me to an LPGA telecast.
That said, it's difficult for any sport to develop connections with viewers when no one sees their replays, hears their echoes, or gets to know the players.
The trouble with assumptions about audiences is that they can be faulty. Focus groups can't factor in our desire to be surprised. Ask a focus group if they want to read a mystery about a bisexual girl computer hacker set in Sweden, and Stieg Larsson's books would never be published. Ask a focus group if they want to see a TV show about a high school glee club.
Sports highlight producers may be similarly underestimating the audience. By failing to respond to cultural shifts and narrowing their coverage, they risk boring us. Market forces are one thing; poor editorial choices based in stubborn entrenchment is another. Their only obligation is to seek to expand the sports audience, not contract it by deprivation.