This article about the relatively low profile of women's sports described an article in the New York Times on a record-breaking win by the University of Connecticut women's basketball team as getting "inside-the-section play." The article appeared on the first page of the sports section, which is contained inside the paper's metro section.
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Whither the female sports fan?
But the scanty coverage raises the classic which-came-first question: Does a lack of media attention cause lack of interest in women's sports or simply reflect it?
"Follow the money," answers David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at USC. The multibillion-dollar sports business, Carter points out, is driven largely by the desires and preferences of male fans. They're the primary consumers of sports tickets and merchandise, the main audience for sports radio and sports news, and the target audience for sports advertisers.
Women? "You can legislate [equal funding for sports], but you can't mandate that [women] consume sports the way men do," Carter says. "If there was more interest, I guarantee you there would be more coverage."
To be sure, a growing number of women call themselves sports fans, though far more men do. Of the people who described themselves as "avid" sports fans in a nationwide poll of 2,700 adults this year, 74 percent were men. Among those who identified themselves as "casual" fans, the sexes were more balanced: 47.5 percent of this group were women, according to Burst Media, the research company that conducted the poll.
None of this does much for women's sports, however. Study after study confirms that female sports fans tend to watch what male fans watch, a correlation that suggests TV-sports viewing is a bonding activity for many women. Among men, for example, Sunday-night telecasts of National Football League games on NBC are the top-rated program on TV. Among women, the NBC games rank third (after "Dancing With the Stars" and "Grey's Anatomy").
Andrei Markovits has been exploring the role gender plays in sports fandom through his research and teaching at the University of Michigan. In one study of undergraduates, Markovits found profound (though perhaps anecdotally evident) differences: Men watch far more sports television, talk about sports more and have far wider knowledge of teams, players and statistics than women.
Markovits can't definitively answer the bigger question - why? - but he suspects it has something to do with early childhood. Young women with the greatest interest in and knowledge of sports tend to have had an older family member who took them to games, watched sports with them on TV or otherwise immersed them in "sports culture."
"I don't think there a clear, definitive reason," he says. "It's a social construct. It says something about how we're socialized as human beings."
For men and boys, who are taught to define themselves through physical competition at an early age, sports become a universal language. "It's the way men can form connections, in the absence of having anything else in common," Markovits says. "It's the only kind of discourse in which they can shed their social differences. The CEO and the janitor can talk to each other for 40 minutes about the collapse of the Giants last week. There's nothing else that would be as pervasive or as prominent in their lives. . . . Women have other forms of language and expression."
As it was, UConn's record-setting women's team probably silenced some (male) doubters. Geno Auriemma, who has coached the Huskies women to seven national titles, said after the team's 88th victory Sunday that chasing a record held by men generated more interest than if UConn had been after a record held by a women's team. UConn's streak, he suggested, threatened those who venerated the great UCLA streak, its legendary coach and men's basketball in general.
If the team had beaten a record held by women, he said, the sentiment would have been: "Aren't those girls nice?"
Which suggests an ironic and deflating subtext to UConn's achievement: When it comes to women's sports, some still have to play by men's rules.