Liz Clarke covers the Washington Redskins for The Washington Post.
Women and sports are two topics about which people tend to be long on opinion, even if they’re short on knowledge. So it’s no surprise that women’s sports are mired in misinformation. With the success of the U.S. women’s soccer team in the World Cup, let’s dispel five myths about women’s athletics.
1. Women’s sports don’t get enough media coverage.
Despite serious strides in the past 25 years, female athletes continue to lag behind men when it comes to media coverage. One five-year study concluded that the time devoted to women’s sports on local TV news and on networks like ESPN “remains dismally low” compared with coverage of football, baseball and men’s basketball. But it’s far from clear that media coverage of women’s sports doesn’t meet demand for it. If TV ratings are a meaningful gauge, then coverage of women’s sports is in proportion to their popularity.
In tennis and figure skating, women’s championships are often more popular among U.S. sports fans than men’s, and coverage of those events correlates. The U.S. Open, for example, moved its women’s final to prime time in 2001 to capture that interest and was rewarded with the top-rated show that night, as 22.7 million viewers tuned in to watch Venus Williams defeat her younger sister, Serena.
But ratings for women’s team sports, whether the WNBA, college basketball or soccer, don’t come close to those of the NBA, men’s college hoops or the behemoth NFL. The NBA’s top-rated broadcast of 2014 (Finals Game 5) drew 18 million viewers. The WNBA’s most-watched game (Game 2, West Finals) had less than 5 percent of that audience on the same network — 828,000 viewers . The 2015 NCAA men’s basketball championship game attracted 28.3 million viewers to the CBS broadcast. The following night, the women’s championship drew just over 10 percent of that audience — 3.1 million viewers — on ESPN.
Yes, it is hard for women’s sports to find an audience if the public isn’t given the chance to see them. But for media outlets, decisions about what to cover are market-driven. And the clamor for more coverage of women’s team sports doesn’t appear to be a clamor at all.
2. Men won’t watch women’s sports.
ESPN’s Graham Hays offered a litany of reasons men don’t watch women’s sports, including the spelling of WNBA team names and the prevalence of commercials for feminine hygiene products. And this past week, Sports Illustrated writer Andy Benoit let Twitter know that “women’s sports in general [are] not worth watching.”
But the numbers aren’t on Hays and Benoit’s side. In general, more men than women follow sports, outnumbering them 2 to 1 among viewers of major events. In 2013, ESPN says, men accounted for the majority of its WNBA audience — 66 percent. At any college women’s basketball game, the crowd has male fans as crazed as those at the men’s games. Men also dominated the TV audience for the most recent women’s World Cup: 61 percent of the 13.5 million viewers for the U.S.-Japan final in 2011.
3. Women’s pro sports leagues are viable.
Every few years, a stellar performance at the Olympics or the World Cup prompts enthusiastic calls for professionalization of women’s sports. Australian cyclist Rochelle Gilmore started a pro cycling team in Britain after the 2012 London Olympics, saying: “It was the amount of people on the side of the roads who were engaged in the race. It showed me there was clear potential to go to sponsors and ask them to invest.”
Upon the launch of the Women’s United Soccer Association in 2001, on the heels of the American women’s triumph in the 1999 World Cup, one investor declared: “WUSA is an idea whose time has come. There is an unprecedented wave of enthusiasm toward women’s soccer here in the U.S. and around the world, and we’re proud to be part of an organization that will not only entertain, but will inspire and empower young Americans.”
Empowerment aside, women’s team sports have yet to prove commercially viable as a stand-alone enterprise. The WUSA fizzled after three seasons. It was followed in 2009 by the similarly short-lived Women’s Professional Soccer. A third crack at women’s pro soccer was launched in 2013. The National Women’s Soccer League may have legs, given the financial support it draws from U.S. Soccer and the Canadian and Mexican soccer federations, which bankroll the salaries of their top stars competing in the NWSL. But will a women’s pro sports league ever stand on its own?
The WNBA, now in its 19th season, would never have launched in 1997 and would have folded many times since had it not been financed by the NBA, whose former commissioner David Stern was its mastermind and godfather. The league started with eight NBA-owned teams playing in NBA arenas. It has expanded and retrenched over the years, and attendance and TV ratings have similarly waxed and waned. For the past two years, only half its 12 teams have turned a profit. Average attendance isn’t quite 7,500 per game.
The WNBA recently signed a six-year extension with ESPN, which reportedly pays the league $12 million a year, making it the most successful women’s pro league to date. But as business incubations go, it has demanded significant investment with nominal return.
4. Title IX is hurting men’s sports.
Men’s college sports that don’t generate a profit — wrestling, tennis, gymnastics — are endangered species. To close multimillion-dollar budget shortfalls, athletic directors increasingly are dropping men’s sports teams and the scholarships and educational opportunities they represent. In response, the American Sports Council (formerly the College Sports Council) was created to rally support and spread the word that a wrongheaded application of Title IX, the U.S. law that guarantees equal opportunity for men and women at schools receiving federal funds, is the culprit.
“The long-term impact,” Eric Pearson, the organization’s chairman, wrote in the National Review, “. . . is that colleges will continue to eliminate men’s teams in order to comply with Title IX’s gender quota.”
It’s a fallacy. The real battle lines are between college sports’ “haves” ( football and men’s basketball) and its “have-nots” (men’s Olympic sports and women’s sports), as three-time Olympic gold medalist and law professor Nancy Hogshead-Makar explains in her book “Equal Play: Title IX and Social Change.”
The richest athletic departments compete in the NCAA’s Division I. And the richest among them — the roughly 65 that play big-time football, many with annual budgets of more than $100 million — generate and spend the lion’s share of their men’s budgets (78 percent) on two sports, football and basketball. The other men’s teams divvy up what’s left.
If their departments run deficits, Division I athletic directors can either rein in spending or eliminate a sport. Many, the University of Maryland included, have done both. In the past decade, Division I schools have cut 121 men’s non-revenue sports programs. But in Divisions II and III, which don’t compete in big-time football, men’s non-revenue sports are thriving, with more than 400 teams added in the past decade. If wrestling vanishes, blame football, not Title IX.
5. Women’s sports would be more popular if players dressed provocatively.
“Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball. They could, for example, have tighter shorts,” FIFA President Sepp Blatter suggested in 2004. “Female players are pretty, if you excuse me for saying so, and they already have some different rules to men — such as playing with a lighter ball. That decision was taken to create a more female aesthetic, so why not do it in fashion?”
Other men charged with overseeing women’s sports have made the same argument. The International Boxing Association decreed that female boxers must wear skirts at the 2012 Olympic Games, to help TV viewers distinguish between male and female boxers. (The women fought the decision and prevailed.) Badminton’s governing body tried the same tack; after resistance, it called skirts optional.
But if sex appeal was what it took to build a fan base, the Lingerie Football League would be thriving. Unveiled in 2009 on the premise that less is more when it comes to women’s sports attire, the league clad its athletes in lacy bras, bikini bottoms and garters. Seeking more credibility, it rebranded in 2013 as the Legends Football League and switched from lingerie to “performance gear,” a nominal re-garbing that basically removed the lace. Still, the league has fallen flat. Advertisers covet 18-to-34-year-old men, but a Potemkin sport won’t attract them in enough numbers to sustain the business. Fans want athleticism, skill or competition — no matter who the players are. And women’s soccer shows that sexless uniforms and good ratings aren’t mutually exclusive.