Women Referees, Female Athletes and the Media

Women Referees, Female Athletes and the Media

Media coverage of female athletes and female sports as well as coverage of female officials is what many refer to as “gender-bland sexism.”  That is when sports commentators minimize the accomplishments of female officials and female athletes and convey a bland or neutral tone about the wins and accomplishments.  If the female official or female athlete isn’t sexualized, then the media will talk typically about the female athletes in a boring and bland way. 

The term “gender-bland sexism” is a term that Dr. Cheryl Cooky and her fellow researchers at Purdue University developed after a 30 year study of how female athletes are portrayed in the media.   One of the goals of the study was to create respectful coverage of women’s sports.  Overt sexism was alive and well when the study began in the early 1990’s.  One of the stories that ran was about a naked woman who bungee jumped on St. Patrick’s Day with her body painted green.  This story not only trivialized female athletes but also made fun of them or used them as sexualized humor.  This is clearly sexism and most of us can identify it.

When the media did deliver a story differently than one of being sexualized it delivered a story that was dry and boring.  There was little if any excitement infused in the coverage of female athletes.  This boring dry delivery helped create a distinct demarcation in how the viewer perceived women’s sports versus men’s sports.  Boring and uninspiring.  Many consider this difference sexism that operates under the radar.

What Dr. Cooky and her team argued is that by using this concept of “gender-bland sexism” women’s sports are perceived as less exciting.  If the perception is that women’s sports are less exciting and less interesting, then the media does not have to focus on covering them.  Of course, this argument plays out to advertisers in a negative light as well.  If no one is interested or watching women’s sports, then the advertisers will not spend money advertising during women’s sporting events. 

What can be done to increase and improve the coverage of women’s sports and the female officials covering these sports?   One way would be to increase the number of women in sports media.  The 2018 Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) Racial and Gender Report Card found that at major newspapers and websites in Canada and the U.S., 90% of sports editors are male and 85% are white.  In order to establish an environment where women’s sports and women’s coverage is valued by all stakeholders, players, coaches’, reporters, editors and others need to question and challenge the sexist culture that exists in sports media.  This can be achieved by hiring more women in sports media, showcasing women athletes, promoting sports podcasts and other platforms supporting women’s sports.  News organizations should be called out on their lack of diversity and not featuring women’s sports.

USC/Purdue University conducted a study called Communication & Sport.  This study of men’s and women’s sports news coverage has been done every five years starting in 1989.  In the latest study research showed that 95% of total television coverage as well as the ESPN highlights on SportsCenter focused on men’s sports in 2019. 

Haley Rosen, founder of the recently launched female sports media network called Just Women’s Sports, created HighlightHER as an example of how women are finding their social media outlets.  HighlightHER has been in existence since 2019 but Ms. Rosen wanted to wait until it has 100,000 followers before approaching advertisers.  The media outlet crossed the threshold of 100,000 followers and the publisher is now presenting HighlightHER to advertisers for sponsored and branded opportunities. 

“Female athletes and fans have been asking for more coverage of women’s sports for decades,” Rosen said.  “With social media, they’re realizing they can generate that coverage themselves.  The rise of these accounts is proving something we already knew: the audience is there.  The amount of dedicated coverage is starting to change thanks to social media handles focused on women’s sports, and Just Women’s Sports is excited to be a part of that.”

With the increase in woman officials and participation of women in sports in general, some organizations such as The United States Golf Association (USGA) recently launched a program to increase media coverage of the women’s game by offering news organizations financial support. 

The initiative, called The Driving Equity Grant Program, awards media outlets grants to offset the costs associated with increasing coverage of the women’s game.  Studies show that only 4% of sports coverage and storytelling features female athletes.  The USGA hopes to change that.  Craig Annis, the USGA’s chief brand officer says “Today, women’s sports, including golf, are stuck in a recurring cycle where media outlets don’t always receive significant return on investment when they cover events that lack household names.”

The gender imbalance exists at all levels of sports.  From youth to adult, and even to the Olympic level, approximately 80% of accredited journalists and photographers are male.  The International Sports Press Survey in 2011 concluded that 90% of sports articles were written by male journalists and 85% of the articles focused on sportsmen. 

Women make up 40% of all sports participation and women sports are given only 4% of media attention.  Innovative women such as Haley Rosen are finding ways to deliver the news that many are looking for and organizations such as the USGA want to be part of the solution making female athletes and female officials who excel at their sport recognizable names and faces in the media.

The Women’s Sports Foundation which advocates for equality for girls and women in sport has identified key reasons why girls drop out of sports.  One of the reasons is a decreased quality of experience for girls and women who play sports.  Officia’s May blog have identified female officials who left the world of officiating prematurely due to poor quality experiences they too had.  In the context of female athletes who leave sports it boils down to the overall decreased quality of their experience.  Examples include poor facilities, poor playing times, availability of trained coaches, poor or outdated equipment, poorly fitting uniforms that impacts performance and comfort.  In general, the sport just isn’t fun anymore. 

Keeping the girls, women as well as female officials engaged in the sport they love is critical.  Quite simply more than three-quarters of working adult women say that sports participation enhances their self-image. 

Female officials provide leadership and guidance to participants of a sport.  Female officials ensure that competition is safe and fair.  Female officials bring qualities of honesty, trustworthiness, integrity and respect to the game as an official.  The media should continue to evolve as an industry providing all female athletes and female officials the same opportunities that male athletes are given.