I don’t often write about sports, except when it intersects with my scientific areas of interest, but I do like sports quite a bit, and am always happy when I get to write about them. I just read an interesting and thought provoking article about women’s sports coverage and the sexualization of female athletes. In a nutshell, a researcher found that women’s sports has seen a severe decline in media coverage since 1999, when it received nearly 10% of mainstream sports coverage. Furthermore, the “sexiness” of the female athletes in media coverage doesn’t seem to help promote the sport, just the individual athletes.
Where do you even start talking about this? Nearly every aspect of it is controversial, and unfortunately, there’s a dearth of readily available and easily digestible data, so we’re kind of stuck with opinions. (And how many times does that work out for the better?) Anyway, let’s just get the controversy started, shall we?
I like women’s softball. It’s fast as hell (much faster than Major League Baseball) and the games are usually tight. I love the fact that a 90 pound girl can have a pretty good career just slapping the ball down the third base line and running like a banshee. Infield base hits are exciting. Double plays are a very big deal because the baselines are so short. And talk about offense! It seems like every year, there are a handful of hitters near .500, and it’s not too uncommon for a team to have a .300 batting average.
Now, I won’t lie to you. When I watch UCLA, I look at the girls sexually. These are all attractive girls — more attractive than the average softball player, if you ask me. I think if you ask most folks, this is more of what they think of when they imagine a softball player:
Softball definitely has the popular image of a bunch of stocky lesbians in unflattering uniforms slapping each other on the butt. And to some degree, it’s probably true. (More on that in a bit.) But then, it’s also possibly one of the most interesting and fast-paced games, and it’s similar enough to baseball that it’s an easy conversion for most viewers.
Then there’s women’s soccer. This is probably the best known image from the sport:
Of course, it’s interesting because a good looking woman took her shirt off in public. The fact is, the game in question was purportedly pretty exciting. (I despise soccer. It’s like hockey in slow motion, and I don’t like hockey.) But this is what’s most interesting.
And then there’s the ongoing controversy over women’s tennis. Are people tuning in for the sports action or the possibility of a wardrobe malfunction?
Then we have to talk about off-the court activities. Are the following two images comparable?
These are both relatively average players in their sport. Neither Jameer Nelson nor Anna Kournikova are premier athletes, but both are keen to take advantage of their premier looks. But is there a quantitative difference?
I’m not going to pretend at knowing all the answers, but let me walk you through the thought process I’m working on now. Feel free to constructively criticize it at any point. Like I said… it’s just a starting point.
- Men and women are physically and psychologically different from men. Before we start talking about equality in viewing men’s vs. women’s sports, we need to make sure we’re on good scientific footing. Is that even a valid expectation? Can we possibly expect men to look at women and not tap into their biological drives? Evolutionarily speaking, a woman’s athletic ability was not a good predictor of her fertility. (In fact, there have been plenty of examples of women decreasing their fertility by over-training for sports. Think: Women’s Gymnastics.) Men are interested in how women look. What they’re doing while they look good is somewhat irrelevant. Women, on the other hand, are highly interested in a man’s skills. Athleticism most definitely is one of the things that has predicted a man’s evolutionary success. So coming out of the gate, we may be asking too much from viewers. Or, to put it bluntly, if the women aren’t hot, and the sport itself isn’t objectively more interesting than a comparable man’s sport, why would we men watch?
- Women are not biologically hard-wired for competition in the same way that men are. Much of a man’s success at mating has to do with how many of his rivals he can best. On the other hand, while there is certainly competition within females, it is within the context of community building and creating social bonds. If you’ve watched college softball, you know that there is lots of social bonding, both in the dugout and on the field. Most teams have elaborate rituals — from individualized chants for each player to complicated synchronized group celebrations. On the other hand, men’s sports often focus on engaging in rituals that call attention to individual performance. What kind of effect might this difference have on the percentage and types of women who make it to the level of sports where television is a factor?
- While I’m on the subject, what about testosterone? Do female athletes represent the population with the most testosterone from birth, or does the participation in sports elevate the production of it? Softball is best suited to girls who are stocky and somewhat “manly.” Am I more interested in softball because it’s more like a man’s sport? Is it possible for a team of feminine looking hotties to rise to the same level as a team of more manly “thick” girls?
Critics of the “Girls are different than Guys” approach to sport often point out that there is an inherent bias in media coverage, and they’re right. When women’s sports got lots of coverage back in 1999, lots of people watched it. Not nearly as many as watched men’s sports, but a lot.
Just to give you a couple of examples, in 2009 and 2010, over 11 million people attended women’s NCAA games. In 2010 the men’s “sweet sixteen” games on CBS averaged 4.9 million viewers while women’s games averaged 1.6 million viewers and the championship game between UConn and Stanford drew 3.5 million viewers.
Now… what this article didn’t mention is that in the same season, almost 28 million people attended men’s NCAA games. That’s almost a 3-1 ratio, which is consistent with the comparison between the two sweet sixteen tournaments. And there was much more coverage of the women’s sweet sixteen than for the rest of the season. On the other hand, coverage of men’s basketball was ubiquitous on all the networks throughout the season. So I’m not sure I’m buying this objection. If all that increased “Sweet 16 Women’s” coverage didn’t help the ratio… what exactly is the argument?
But, what about the fact that ESPN has never gone out of its way to report on women’s sports? Even when there are big women’s games, the emphasis always seems to be on men’s sports. Perhaps the lack of reporting is contributing to the lack of interest. Viewership is highly correlated to promotion. Big UFC fight coming up? there will be ads for weeks on all the major networks. Big women’s soccer final? A couple of blurbs. The ads just don’t make it into the big market time slots. So less people watch. So ESPN doesn’t spend a lot of time reporting it. And it becomes a vicious downward spiral. So say the critics.
So the $64,000 question: Is coverage of women’s sports declining because we’re genuinely less interested, and the 1999 boon was an artificial spike? Or are we creating disinterest by refusing to advertise or cover them? My best guess is that women’s sports will never be as compelling or interesting as men’s for simple biological reasons. Yes. I know that’s an unpopular position, but I can’t think of a good reason to ignore all the huge differences in both female physiology and psychology. So, I’m forced to concede that the unpopular position may be the correct one. However, and this is a big caveat — I do not think that our current level of interest is representative of the “natural” level. I agree that there is an inherent media bias, and I think if there was more coverage of women’s sports, I’d watch it more. But where is the ceiling? That is, how much popularity can women’s sports reasonably expect to attain? Women’s tennis has been a steady force for decades, but it’s also the most sexualized, so is that an indicator of the bar? Make the sport itself sexually appealing enough, and more people will watch it?
There’s some evidence for this. In a quick perusal of Nielson ratings, I’ve discovered that women’s tennis holds up much better in comparison to men’s tennis than does women’s basketball to men’s. (And let’s face it. Female basketball players are not especially attractive, on average. And those uniforms? Androgynous to say the least.) In the ’02 US Open, the Sampras-Agassi final garnered a 6.2 rating, while the All-Williams women’s final hit a solid 5.2. In 1999, when women’s coverage was the highest, Serena Williams vs. Martina Hingis scored exactly the same as Agassi vs. Martin — 6.3. Has there ever been another sport where the women and men were objectively equal in popularity? I can’t think of one. But the important thing, I think, is that women and men’s tennis is objectively very similar. The Williams sisters can serve over 120mph, as fast as most men. The pace of women’s games is a tiny bit slower than men’s, on average, but the fact is, they’re both really fast, and the athletes on both sides of the gender divide are very, very good. And while the WNBA and NCAA women’s basketball have tailed off in the last decade, women’s tennis has held fairly steady.
So is that the trick? Women’s sports will only garner as many fans when the sport is equal in gameplay to men’s, and the athletes are sexy? What do you think? Should we stop worrying about sexualization and start focusing on the quality of the sport itself?