Definition: Since 2004, only 6.3% of the airtime of three major television networks was devoted to women’s sports, the lowest proportion ever recorded in this study. In 2010, this number dropped to an astoundingly low 1.6%, while men garnered 96.3% of network airtime (Messner & Cooky 4). The literature review I wrote for English 225 explored the unequal portrayal of female athletes in sport media, and further instances of marginalization. The title was: “How does marginalization affect the portrayal and overall success of women in sports?” At first glance, it may seem to be a complicated and inconsequential topic. Let’s break it down a bit before making this decision. First of all, what the heck does marginalization even mean anyway? Google defines marginalization as: “treatment of a person as insignificant.” For the purposes of this blog post, marginalization is synonymous with a word much more commonplace in the English language: inequality. It will be referred throughout the rest of this post, and throughout the entirety of this blog, as such.
Next, is “the portrayal and overall success” piece. This phrase can be broken down into two main examples. Inequalities in the portrayal of women in sports will be explored through the unequal coverage female athletes receive compared to men in popular sport media. Popular television networks like ESPN and NBC Sports, along with magazines like Sports Illustrated, are all guilty of this. The overall success of women in sports is a much broader term, therefore the research terms were broader as well for this section. Overall, they can be summed up by all situations where women were treated as “the other gender” (Daddario 490), while receiving unneeded comparisons to men. Athletes are treated differently simply because of their gender, regardless of performance, which should be the only relevant measure in sports (see “meritocracy” in my solutions section). Now that the topic is a little less daunting, and definitions and explanations have been provided for each piece, I can explain the results of my research.
Sport industry: Nowhere is inequality more visible than in the sport industry. Women are looked at as insignificant and treated as expendable. As mentioned above, the inequalities can be sorted into two main categories: inequality in sport media coverage, and situations where they are treated as the “other” gender. This means that they are always being compared to male athletes, even in instances where the comparisons are not relevant.
Sport media: Let us examine the inequalities in the media through the case of Anna Kournikova, a professional tennis player during the 2000s. Now, she was an excellent tennis player, but this was not what popular media outlets like Sports Illustrated and ESPN chose to focus on in their coverage of her. Instead, they focused more on her physical characteristics: blonde, slender, and with a “hot body”, according to Sports Illustrated. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that men like to appreciate good-looking women. As men in the sport industry, we must acknowledge there is a time and a place for certain types of behavior. Sporting events are not the appropriate time to ogle women.
The “Other Gender”: These types of inequalities can present themselves in a variety of situations. I have defined them as situations where judgement is placed on female athletes who express different athletic characteristics than those considered to be the “norm”, which often leads to harmful stereotyping. This is something that I know for a fact I, as well as many other males, have engaged in. This example is very prominent in high schools and colleges. Say you are at baseball practice after school and you jog by the softball field and see the girls team practicing. There is a strong, physically intimidating girl on the mound for the softball team. You nudge your friend, he looks, and you both laugh. “Judging a book by its cover” is another way I can put this. You and your friend are making a harmful assumption about the girl, based on how she looks. “Oh, she’s definitely a lesbian,” your friend says, and you laugh in agreement. This is a personification of everything that is wrong with the current climate of the sport industry. We all are guilty of it. If there was a slender, conventionally more attractive girl on the mound, you and your friend wouldn’t think like this.
“Inherent Misogyny” in the system: Based on the above example of you and your friend in high school, I will describe the current system in place in the sport industry as “inherently misogynistic.” Essentially, it is a system catered towards males. By males, for males. This is why there are instances like Anna Kournikova’s Sports Illustrated cover: “lounging on a pillow in her street clothes, peering seductively into the camera, and clearly not prepared for any sanctioned sports activity” (Deford 1). There is not a picture of her playing in a tennis tournament, at practice, or even holding a tennis racket. This is simply because Sport Illustrated doesn’t seem to think anyone would care to look at it.
Argument: My point is, female athletes need our help and support. They cannot fight this battle of equality on their own. With the support of the casual male sport fans, the whole dynamic of the industry can be changed. Often, fans are totally unaware of the power they can hold, if they want it. If men, who are the dominant consumers of sport, began to consume female sport content at any level even resembling that of the consumption of male sports, the tide would quickly turn in favor of women. The good news is: it doesn’t necessarily matter at what level these changes take place. Because of the way the sporting industry interacts with itself, college leagues are copycats of professional leagues, elementary school leagues copy high school leagues, and vica versa, the change could take place at any level and still be considered successful.
Short-term Solution: This can be relatively simple. Men need to start watching, talking about, and engaging more with female athletics. Men are so obsessed with sports, specifically with American football, if we could convert even a fraction of this fan base to any sport that women compete in, progress could potentially be made.
American soccer: I think the best chance we have of accomplishing this is through the US Women’s National Soccer Team. Here’s an interesting statistic that may surprise you. In 2016 the US Women’s National Soccer Team earned $1.9 million more in revenue than the men’s team did (Hess 1), but players still ended up being paid about $8,000 less per game than players on the men’s team. This is the statistic I refer to when casual sports fans try to make the argument that female athletes make less money because they don’t bring in as much money. Simple economics, they say. However, according to the numbers above, this is simply not true. Female athletes earn less money, in some instances let’s say (in order to avoid sweeping generalizations), because of the “internalized misogyny” of the system.
The current sporting structure is broken, and in serious need of renovation. The renovation should begin with the US men’s and women’s national soccer teams. I am arguing for a 50-50 allocation of all resources, specifically in total revenue and broadcasting rights. Next, we sit back and wait to see the results. If the women’s team can survive (and the statistics say they will) we begin to apply this system more widely. If they cannot, we will accept that, and move on to the next sport.
Long-term solution: The long-term solution is twofold: employing a meritocracy at the lower levels of the sporting structure (elementary and middle school) and more of an emphasis on equalness at the higher levels of sport (high school, college, and professional leagues). A meritocracy is talent-focused, simply meaning the best players get to play, regardless of gender. Female athletes will not be required to play on an all-girls’ team. If they are good enough, they will play on the main team, no exceptions. Furthemore, the coaches of the former all-girls team, will be brought on over to the main teams, to ensure the coaches of the boys’ team will not be able to reject the female athletes. All coaches will get an equal vote in determining decisions about the team: talent assessment at tryouts, playing time, and resource distribution.
At the higher levels of the system, there will be a girls team offered, and female athletes will be able to choose which team they are a part of. If they make the boys team, they will be able to participate co-ed on that team. If they so choose, they can also play on the girls team.
Exceptions: In some instances, men’s and women’s sports don’t compare well. There are two main exceptions: male sports with no female equivalent (football) and leagues that are separate entities (like the NBA and WNBA) that cannot simply be broken down and restructured. My solutions are unable to be applied in these situations.
Conclusion: I began with the definitions of marginalization (inequality) in the context of the sport industry. I explained the two main areas of inequality in the sport industry: inequalities in the media, and how female athletes are looked at as the “other” gender. Next, I explained my argument, and my solutions (a short term and long term one). Overall, my research can be summed up in two words: “Do Better!” Specifically, my fellow men who are sports fans (casual or serious) we must do better. We must recognize there is a time and a place for appreciating the beauty of women, and sporting events are not one of them!! Focus on the athletes, and the sports. Watch female sports, talk about them, play fantasy (which all men love), interact with them any way you know how to. Bottom line, respect them. Male athletes are respected and even revered in all circles of society, it’s high time female athletes received some of that treatment as well.
🙂 Riley Day (Sport Management Student, class of 2024, University of Michigan)