I wrote this a few months ago for a sports writing class, and it’s one of the more in-depth pieces of journalism I’ve done. Everyone I talked to had really interesting insight into the state of women’s sports coverage. Doing this deep dive made me realize how far we still have to go, but speaking to so many talented writers and advocates also proved how promising the future of women’s sports media is.
Sitting atop the throne of elite athletes are women like Serena Williams, Simone Biles and Candace Parker. They have reached the peak of their respective sports and are among the most decorated athletes of all-time. Furthermore, they transcend sports and are prevalent in pop culture, with appearances on programs like Dancing with the Stars, the Ellen Show, the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and in the case of Williams, a Beyonce music video. However, below that top tier of female athlete popularity, a disparity remains. There exists an entire community of female athletes that, in the eyes of the average sports fan, may as well not exist at all. A recent study, titled, “It’s Dude Time! A Quarter Century of Excluding Women’s Sports in Televised News and Highlight Shows,” showed that only 4 percent of sports coverage focuses on women’s sports, despite the fact that 40 percent of athletes are female. Although the Olympics tend to be an outlier, women’s sports leagues in the U.S. generally receive significantly less viewership and coverage than their male counterparts. So, unless a female athlete has reached peak fame like Williams, Biles and Parker, the landscape of women’s sports isn’t so glamorous, for both the athletes and those that advocate for them.
Media Relations in the CWHL: A One-Woman Job
On any given Boston Blades game day, Merisa Boyd arrives at Lawrence Larsen Rink in Winthrop, Mass., hours before puck drop. As the media relations manager of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League’s Boston-based team, Boyd wears a variety of hats. She is in charge of writing game recaps, taking photographs, recording and transcribing quotes from the players and coaches, running the team website, communicating with the media and working with the league to promote the CWHL brand.
“I didn’t even know about a professional women’s league until about two years ago,” Boyd said. “Now, it’s something I’m passionate about and want build my career around.”
It’s no surprise that Boyd was unfamiliar with the CWHL. Although the players receive extensive coverage during the Olympics, they tend to fade into obscurity back in CWHL action — 17 CWHL players were chosen to compete in the PyeongChang Winter Games, but the media resumed its paltry coverage of female hockey players once they returned to normal league play. Because of this lack of coverage, women’s teams like the Blades have modest PR departments. While most professional men’s teams employ a department full of media relations staffers, Boyd is a team of one.
“Working in women’s hockey has really opened my eyes to the inequalities woman athletes face,” she said.
The NHL and CWHL: An Extreme Disparity
For proof of the disparity in the quantity of news coverage, a comparison can be made between the NHL’s Boston Bruins and the Blades. Bruins games are broadcast on the New England Sports Network (NESN), with around 15 of their games televised nationally on NBC each season. Although Blades games can be streamed online, the team doesn’t have a TV deal, and only three regular-season CWHL games were broadcast on television in 2017-18. Bruins games also feature a press box packed with reporters, photographers and broadcast crews — more than 100 media members per game. At any given Blades game, Boyd said there may be one photographer and up to three journalists, often from niche publications and blogs like the Ice Garden and FanSided. Regardless of the media platform, the team is appreciative of any amount of coverage.
“As pro athletes, we’re grateful for the faithful reporters that don’t worry about getting as many likes, but they still know that our sports and these athletes deserve to get covered,” said Lauren Dahm, goaltender of the Blades.
Jordon Hall, communications supervisor for the CWHL, admitted that the league aims to work with more established media outlets with a wider reach than the blogs that currently cover the teams.
“Our passionate fan base lends itself to a strong presence throughout hockey blogs, but we are continuously working with more formal media outlets to showcase the incredible athletes and stories throughout the league,” said Hall, who added that this year’s CWHL championship game coverage was an improvement from past seasons, with stories by outlets like CBC, the Toronto Star and The Athletic.
Until that formal media coverage is a constant in the CWHL, though, Hall said the league must depend on its own creativity to generate content.
“As women’s hockey and women’s professional sports grow in the sports landscape, formal media coverage will become more connected to that growth and will be important in that growth,” she said. “However, as a grass-roots operation with a not-for-profit structure, we’re limited in the creation of our own marketing campaigns to create a draw from those media outlets.”
According to the athletes, improved game broadcasts should be a top priority, in addition to the general press coverage that Hall described.
“With college games, or even our games, usually it’s one camera in the middle of the ice, panning,” said Dahm. “There’s not much replay or in-depth analysis, which you see in the NHL. That’s a bigger deal than people might think because people just assume those big plays don’t happen in women’s hockey, but they definitely do. People should know that it’s happening every weekend in the CWHL, and if the coverage was there, they’d know.”
Regardless of the medium, though, those who work in the CWHL know the importance of coverage to the league’s success.
“Probably one of the most important things we can do is build our brand and educate fans that don’t know there’s a professional women’s league,” said Jessica Martino, Boston Blades coach and general manager. “Media coverage is the way to educate them.”
The Disappointing State of Coverage
The CWHL has set out clear and ambitious goals for expanding media coverage, but the league is fighting an uphill battle. The researchers that analyzed the 4 percent of women’s sports coverage also looked at its quality, discussing the tone and word choice that is used when women’s sports are covered.
“Frequently absent from such women’s sports stories were the commentators’ voluminous vocal inflections, exclamatory descriptions of athletic successes, and heartfelt laments of failures that saturate the commentary in men’s coverage,” the study stated. “The general lack of an excited tone and agentic language in most of the reporting on women’s sports helps to mark women’s sports as less interesting and, in many instances, even boring.”
Michael Messner, one of the authors of the study, noted that there are some outliers when it comes to women’s sports coverage.
“Coverage during the recent Olympic games for women athletes was high in quantity,” said Messner, a professor of sociology and gender studies at USC. “This often happens, though, during Olympics and then the mass media returns to mostly ignoring or presenting women’s sports in boring, gender-bland ways. I think of this as a case of nationalism…temporarily trumping sexism.”
One positive note that the study mentioned was that, in recent years, “portrayal of women athletes has become increasingly respectful, and news and highlights commentators have become far less likely to joke about women or portray women as sexual objects.”
However, despite improvements in the last few years, there is still a disparity in the how female athletes are covered. Shira Springer, who covers women’s sports for the Boston Globe and NPR, said that female athletes are still held to a higher standard by the media than their male counterparts.
“My gut reaction is, too often, we focus on female athletes as role models, as inspirational, not as much as athletes,” Springer said. “That’s changing, but slowly. Oftentimes female athletes have to be something more than athletes to get attention, whereas a guy can just be a really good athlete, but a female athlete has to be a really good athlete and something else.”
espnW writer Marisa Ingemi added that women’s sports coverage too often focuses on the gender, rather than portraying the participants purely as athletes.
“When coverage of professional and college teams is there, it should be more about what’s happening on the ice or the court or the field instead of, ‘Oh my God, look! Girls are doing things!’ which it tends to be a lot of the time, which can be really frustrating,” Ingemi said.
One person who was particularly disappointed by the disparity in news coverage was Kim Donaldson, so in 2016, she founded a media site called Excelle Sports.
“We were covering all women’s sports, not just a few like basketball and tennis, but lacrosse to volleyball to swimming to squash,” Donaldson said. “We were covering college, pro and Olympic levels, and our goal was to tell the stories of athletes, coaches, teams, on and off the field.”
Over the span of nearly two years, Excelle Sports published 5,745 articles and brought in 2.6 million visitors to the site, but the success wouldn’t last. In December of 2017, the site was discontinued because of a lack of revenue.
“We could never get enough investment,” Donaldson said. “The investors just weren’t there and, frankly, the sponsors weren’t either. There are companies within the sports world and outside who say they support women’s sports, but they really don’t. They’re really not too concerned about helping women’s sports grow, and it’s very disappointing.”
The Media’s Responsibility, and a Realist’s View
Some proponents of women’s sports believe that the media has a duty to cover women’s teams, regardless of how much traffic those stories will generate.
“Women’s sports, coverage-wise, is seen as a stepping stone, but I kind of think that female reporters have an obligation to cover women’s sports and make sure they are properly covered because if we don’t, nobody will,” Springer said. “Well, maybe not an obligation, but I did feel like it was my responsibility that women were well-represented. If I’m going to push for equality and more coverage, I’m going to walk the walk.”
Not everyone agrees that more coverage of women’s sports is feasible — editors and producers, like Jason Lisk, often believe that generating traffic is media’s main role. Lisk, managing editor of the Big Lead, wrote a column denying the media’s role in a lack of interest in women’s sports.
“If only the dang media would talk about women’s basketball more, people would be interested and watch!” he wrote sarcastically. “The more likely causation flows the other way. The consumer interest is relatively low in news articles and analysis of women’s basketball, and thus there is less coverage.”
As alluded to by Lisk, the debate comes down to the question of whether media coverage generates fan interest, or if fan interest drives media coverage.
“We put things out there that people read and consume,” he said. “You’ve got to decide how much to push something that, right now, the public doesn’t show much interest in.”
Some people, like Springer, believe it’s a two-way street between the readers and the media.
“It depends on what marketplace you’re in, but it’s difficult to compete with men’s teams,” she said. “I think fan interest drives it a bit, but sometimes you should just cover a team just because. I don’t think it should be pity coverage. These women deserve coverage because of they’re interesting stories, and they’re interesting people.”
After studying the issue for over three decades, Messner argued that the media has the power to create interest and could increase the popularity of women’s sports if it chose to.
“This is a classic chicken-and-egg question,” he said. “Leaders in media say they just give audiences what we want, what we are interested in, but mass media marketing folks know that when they promote and cross-promote their products, they generate higher audience interest. They do this systematically with men’s sports, so, yes, more coverage would generate more interest in women’s sports.”
Donaldson agreed, saying that an audience for women’s sports exists, but that audience needs more convenient access to news on women’s teams.
“In my opinion, it’s 100 percent got to be the coverage that happens first,” Donaldson said. “The interest is out there. There’s a massive audience out there, even if you just start with the girls who play sports, former athletes, coaches and families. Half our audience on our site was always men, so it’s not only women who like women’s sports.”
Lisk, however, had a different take, writing that content is driven by what the majority of readers show interest in.
“The truth is that a large segment of the sports-consuming public doesn’t care about women’s sports,” he wrote in his column. “I would gladly write a women’s bracketology column like I do for the men’s tournament if I thought anyone would read it…The media is not a monolith. People can cover what they want, and what will pay the bills. If the interest is there, coverage will follow.”
Despite receiving backlash for his column on social media, Lisk was firm in his stance.
“Maybe I wasn’t sensitive or clear enough,” he said. “But I was trying to be a realist in how it is.”
“People always want to say that it’s because there’s not the interest there, but why is there not the interest there? It’s because people aren’t aware of it,” Ingemi said in response to Lisk’s column. “People like to say it won’t get the views, but my NWHL [National Women’s Hockey League] stories at espnW were getting more views [than stories on men’s sports]. It’s all about the exposure, and I just don’t think guys are paying attention because they don’t know why they should care quite yet.”
Considering the Solutions
Outside the sports world, researchers say the subpar coverage of women’s teams has larger ramifications and plays a role in gender relations and stereotypes in society.
“Wall-to-wall celebrations of men’s sports, and poor and lower coverage of women’s sports serves to reinforce shared ideological beliefs in male superiority,” Messner said.
To combat those stereotypes, Messner has suggested some ways in which women’s sports could gain some ground in the media, starting with building general awareness.
“Higher coverage of a sport creates interest among kids, not just as future audiences, but as athletes who can imagine their futures as adult athletes,” he said.
Teams like the Blades are taking it upon themselves to educate and connect with the younger fans, according to Dahm.
“We’re really accessible to the community, and that’s a strength of our game and women’s sports in general,” Dahm said. “We take that upon ourselves to have that personal interaction with fans. It’s important to market our players just to help people identify and have a strong pull and want to watch it and support it.”
In addition to increased awareness, another key to more coverage is expanding the fanbase, according to Martino, the Blades’ GM.
“A lot of our fanbase is families,” said Martino. “There’s a huge gap between our fanbase — we’re missing that middle age group. Maybe it’s on us to do more outreach and get more of that college age involved. A lot of it is education because there are a lot of people that don’t even know theres a professional women’s hockey league. We can educate people that there is a pro league, and it’s very competitive.”
Springer added that increasing visibility of female athletes can bring more attention to their sports, as well.
“It’s unfortunate that women have to win a World Cup or a gold medal to get attention, but I think that’s what drives more success,” she said. “Getting women’s sports figures into popular culture is another aspect. Even something as subtle as appearing on a popular TV show or the Ellen Show sounds silly, but it takes that kind of stuff. I think it’s the exposure and availability and the more they get out there.”
Athletes like Serena Williams and the Olympic “Fierce Five” gymnasts fit into Springer’s logic. They found success at the highest levels and then built upon that by staying in the public eye through pop culture appearances.
“With men’s sports, you know a lot about many male athletes because they’re part of our culture,” Donaldson said. “There are almost no female athletes like that because they’re not written about. Until we get enough coverage of women’s sports and they become part of our culture, they’ll never get respect.”
According to Springer, the solution with the most potential is for the sports media industry to hire more women. The Women’s Media Center released “The Status of Women in the U.S. Media” which found that only 11.4 percent of sports stories were written by women in 2017. Furthermore, the number of female sports editors at 100 of the top U.S. and Canadian newspapers was less than 10 percent.
“First, always, decision-makers matter,” Springer said. “When you have women in the room, whether that’s as reporters bringing stories to their editors, or as editors, that stuff matters.”
Springer’s statement may explain why Lisk and the Big Lead generally don’t cover women’s sports.
“Our site is all guys,” Lisk said of the Big Lead. “I’ve pushed for that, that we need more diversity, but we don’t have a lot of budget.”
Lisk admitted that he, himself, doesn’t consume much women’s sports, even as an avid sports fan.
“I would say I am a very casual [women’s sports] fan,” he said. “I have two daughters, I’ve coached their basketball teams, so, in that sense, I watch all my kids’ sports.”
Publications with a lack of diversity and male journalists with a disregard for women’s sports are the main reason for a lack of women’s sports coverage, said Donaldson.
“Getting more women into those sports organizations will make the biggest difference,” she said.
The Future is Bright
During the off-season, Merisa Boyd’s work with the Blades will not cease — she is set on developing more relationships with the media and encouraging coverage of the team. She will ramp up her efforts in the next few months, reaching out to media members via Twitter and email.
“Doing more outreach this year to get more contacts coming to the games is going be huge,” she said. “It’s only getting better throughout the years. It’ll be all over the place.”
It’s too early to tell whether Boyd’s plans will come to fruition, but considering the challenges women’s sports have faced throughout history, and continue to face today, her determination may be the key. Female athletes have come a long way since the passing of Title IX in 1972, and sports media has come a long way since the insulting and humorously sexualized stories that were common a few decades ago. The work is not done, but there is reason for hope. Despite the challenges that remain, Boyd will continue to work behind the scenes and exert all her efforts toward getting the Blades the coverage she feels they deserve.
“It can be tough because not everyone gets to see the big moments like I do, and I want so badly for more people to care about women’s hockey and women’s sports in general,” she said. “They work incredibly hard, and I’m happy that I get to be a part of it in some way and do everything I can to highlight their work.”