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The broadcasting gap: where female athletes have to prove themselves, but males . . . don’t?

Photo courtesy of ESPN.

It is no secret that women’s sports barely receive any media coverage, with a significant gap seen in the area of broadcasting. How come at a time when women’s rights are an increasingly relevant topic we still aren’t seeing any change?

The argument that seems to repeatedly come up when this issue is brought forward is that television deals are earned and not rewarded. Women just haven’t put in the time men have to prove their leagues are worth watching, so why should they be complaining they aren’t handed air time? The side that everyone seems to be ignoring, however, is that the same expectations are not put on men’s sports. Let’s take a deep dive into what is actually going on when it comes to broadcasting deals. 

Not only do women barely receive any coverage, but also the amount they do have has actually been decreasing. Studies have shown that in 1989, women’s sport saw around five per cent of the total media coverage, compared to just over three per cent in 2014. This appears to be due to the growing demand for respect when discussing women in any media form. Turns out that if these networks are no longer allowed to show women in overtly sexualized and demeaning ways, then they don’t see a point in showing them at all. There has been tremendous growth across all sports in women’s participation, but of course, no one would want to watch something so insignificant. 

“Studies have shown that in 1989, women’s sport saw around five per cent of the total media coverage, compared to just over three per cent in 2014.”

Many times, the demand for more media coverage of women is scoffed at and compared to the big four leagues in North America: NHL, NBA, MLB, and NFL. The argument that female athletes don’t bring in nearly as much revenue or demand as the athletes in these leagues is used as a reason to make the request for more equal broadcasting laughable. But why are these the leagues being used for comparison? Professional men’s baseball has been around for over 100 years, so of course it sees more revenue. What needs to be understood here is that female athletes are not looking to be instantly paid the same salaries as players like Tom Brady or LeBron James. What needs to be addressed is the investment gap.

Sports reporter and columnist for ESPNW said it well: “People always say, ‘We watch men’s sports because they’re the best at what they do and women aren’t the best.’ Well, neither are Little Leaguers. So that argument really doesn’t work.” 

But of course, ESPNW exists, so that should be good enough, right?

“What needs to be understood here is that female athletes are not looking to be instantly paid the same salaries as players like Tom Brady or LeBron James. What needs to be addressed is the investment gap.”

A better comparison would be leagues like MLS, which has been around for a similar amount of time to the WNBA, and could also be described as a comparatively ‘niche’ sport in North America. What’s notable here, is that in 1994, MLS had a TV deal with both ESPN and ABC Sports before they had commitments from any teams or athletes. Now, this wasn’t a perfect deal, as for the first three years only 10 games and the championship were televised. Before the start of their 2007 season, they entered into a new 11-year deal that saw a special MLS segment on Thursdays and Saturday afternoons that include pre and post-game shows for every match.  Comparatively, the WNBA, starting a few years later in 1997, was originally broadcast through women’s networks Lifetime and Oxygen. In 2007, the WNBA and ESPN2 created a historical eight-year television deal that saw rights fees go to a women’s professional league for the first time. In 2009, ABC was added in, which is great, but the deal states that only the first regular season game and all-star game would be shown on ABC, and at least 11 post-season games would be shown across the stations. Flash forward to the extension that came in 2013, and the total regular season games shown only increased to 30. That is less than the total amount of games each team plays individually. 

Well, surely MLS must be drawing significantly more viewers if it was given better deals at a faster pace. For a fair comparison, let’s look at the regular-season viewership ratings for both the MLS and WNBA on the ESPN2 network. Both leagues have seen fairly steady results over their times of existence. With 2018 as the most recent comparable, they both still see numbers in the mid-200,000s. Interestingly enough, the highest average viewing for a season goes to the WNBA when they peaked at 413,000 in 2008. MLS is yet to break the 400,000 mark from ESPN2 alone. The only reason MLS sees larger overall viewership numbers is due to their viewers from Fox. The WNBA only has ESPN2 though, so the opportunity to have similar overall numbers doesn’t exist. But of course, women’s sports simply don’t draw the same interest as men’s. 

Another example of unequal investment is clearly seen when looking at the XFL. Mixing WWE with American Football, the league originally had to fold after a mere single season in 2001. Even after failing in such a large and noticeable way, the league already has major broadcasting deals with both Walt Disney Co. and Fox Corp for their upcoming rebirth in 2020. The deals include scheduled broadcasting on both ABC and Fox, with back-back games on Saturday afternoons, and other games on Sundays. 

In contrast, with the CWHL folding earlier this year, the NWHL is taken less seriously than it was before, despite the steps forward it has taken with new CBAs and financial investment. As no networks came forward to create a broadcasting deal, the league made a ground-breaking three-year deal with Twitch that started this current season and also gives the players a 50 per cent revenue split. The stats for the month of October revealed 949,065 total viewers with an average of 67,790 per game. While these numbers are half of those seen by the WNBA and MLS, these are also coming from a platform separate from television, which many may not even be aware of. These viewers had to specifically seek out ways to view this league instead of stumbling upon it while flipping through channels. 

Using unique platforms like Twitch also provides a source of growth for the league through developing a community amongst fans, which has been proven to increase the amount of consumer retention leagues and teams experience. With the ability for the commentators to directly communicate with fans through the broadcast, and chatrooms incorporated into the app for fans to discuss the game and chat alongside the NWHL itself, Twitch allows for a new level of fan recognition that TV simply cannot provide. 

Says Dani Rylan, NWHL Commissioner, “These numbers are a solid start for the NWHL, proving that Twitch has been a remarkable partner in shining a bigger spotlight on our players and teams. There’s no doubt that having all of our games on Twitch has helped the game of hockey reach new fans. Now it’s on all of us to continue to build our community and connect with the great fans of the NWHL.”

This league has proven fans will seek out their content. But of course, men’s sports have proven higher consistent viewership compared to women.

Another argument used is that there are so many popular men’s sports that bring in significant revenue, and there simply isn’t time to broadcast women’s sports. Well, let’s look briefly at Sportsnet’s daily broadcast schedule. Starting around 6-7 p.m. they show major sports like NHL or NBA games, so sure, those slots may be full. But what about the rest of the day? The average mid-week broadcast includes various panels discussing news in the sports world, top play countdowns, and recaps. Not only will they have shows like Raptors in 30, but they will have a rewind show that shows the previous night’s game in its entirety. In essence, they are broadcasting the same game three different times, but there is supposedly no room for women’s sports? Even looking at the panel discussions – how much of that really needs to be televised? With the resurgence of podcast, many people get their men’s sports analysis through other ventures these same panelists are involved in. These panels are still relevant television to an extent, but even just taking out one of these per day to show a professional women’s game would provide significant growth to the promoted leagues. But of course, broadcasting women’s sport would be hindering the attention the men deserve. 

Simply put, it has been shown that any new venture in men’s sport is met with instant excitement and is handed an opportunity to succeed, even if the odds show it will be unsuccessful. But women’s leagues that have been doing all they can to creatively grow viewership without television deals are continuously told they need to prove themselves. It seems clear that the main issue here is a prevailing case of sexism. But of course, this was just written by a biased woman who clearly hasn’t done any research.

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