More people are watching the women’s FIFA World Cup on TV than ever before, with over one billion viewers expected to tune in worldwide over the course of the event. According to FIFA.com, “US broadcaster Fox Sports 1 attracted 3.3 million viewers to the game between the United States and Australia, more than three times higher than Team USA’s first group stage match in 2011.”
These record figures would suggest that there is a new level of parity with men when it comes to women in sports—not just in terms of women’s participation in competitive sports, thanks in large part to Title IX, but the ability to watch female athletes compete on television.
Yet, a new study by researchers Michael A. Messner and Michela Musto of USC, and Cheryl Cooky of Purdue University, suggests that the opposite is true. In data collected between the years 1989 and 2014, the researchers found that women athletes are actually covered less in media now than they were in 1989. In 2014, only 3.2% of network television coverage was given to women’s sports; SportsCenter only gave women 2% of coverage.
This decline in coverage has been disguised, according to the researchers, by the relegation of women’s sports to the now ubiquitous, if often irrelevant, scrolling ticker at the bottom of the screen. This ticker “functions as a kind of visual and textual ghetto for women’s sports, allowing the sports anchors to focus their main coverage almost entirely on men’s sports, while relegating women’s sports literally to the margins of the screen.”
Besides the general decrease in screen time, however, the USC analysis concludes that coverage of women is still too often sexist. Instead of female athletes being framed as sexual objects, they are now predominantly idealized for their ability to juggle athletics with roles as mothers or girlfriends—the socially suitable, fundamental roles for women in relation to men.
In an interview with Quartz, Messner admitted that these findings weren’t “terribly surprising,” as this latest iteration of the study is consistent with the past 25 years of research. However, he noted that the most puzzling aspect of the data was the disparity between the “huge growth of girls’ and women’s sports participation over the past 25 years” and the stagnant coverage of this growing body of athletes. Thanks to Title IX, millions more girls and women are playing sports than ever.
What is interesting about this decline is the way it seems to correlate with a kind of gender respectability politics. “In 1989,” the study notes, “TV news shows devoted only 5% of their time to women athletes. And when they did cover women, it often was commonly either in the role of comical object of the sports anchor’s joke or as sexual object.”
The study reports that the decline in “insulting and humorously sexualized stories about women athletes” is both a byproduct of the coverage decrease but has also caused the decline in coverage. Women have been covered less, it seems, because sports announcers are no longer allowed to turn them into sexual objects with impunity.
Messner attributed “the deepening silence about women’s sports in general” to the networks’ blatant inability to respect women as athletes alone. “It’s as though the producers and commentators are thinking, ‘If we can’t say something sexist, then we can’t say anything at all about women’s sports,’” he said.
It is not surprising, they add, that two of the three networks have the same male sports anchors now as they did in 1989.
Sexism in media manifests for female athletes in myriad ways—they are their most appealing when they can be idealized in the two roles men find most relatable: sex object and caregiver. While not proved by the study’s analysis, the results do suggest that the men who own and operate these networks still, in 2015, struggle to understand women outside of the stereotypes of their gender identity.
The everyday marginalization of women’s sports is perhaps most apparent during major international sporting events like the FIFA Women’s World Cup. Suddenly, Messner observed, US media “discovers” women’s sports all over again, only to have this level of coverage disappear when the international event ends. “The US media loves to get behind ‘our’ athletes—both men and women—when they are competing on a world stage, but ignores the myriad sports taking place every day within our national borders. I suspect what we have here is nationalism trumping sexism.”