The media affects society’s perceptions of women’s sports through either conforming to or challenging conventional gender norms and generating interest. Sport has traditionally been considered a male-dominated area and many people hold the belief that women’s sports simply aren’t as interesting. However, is this a reflection of the skill of female athletes or of the media coverage they receive? Especially in the modern context, the media, as the primary source of information, shapes societal thought. In recent years, women’s sport has reached a new threshold, swiftly growing in popularity. This has been a combination of “ingredients” or events, such as the successful inauguration of the women’s Australian Football League (AFLW) and the “goldilocks condition” of increased media coverage. The media influences societal opinion through the quantity of women’s sports media coverage, the quality of the coverage and its portrayal of female athletes.
The quantity of women’s sports media coverage shapes society’s perceptions through defining the position of women in the sporting world. In 2010, a report authorised by the Australian Sports Commission found that women’s sport accounted for less than 10% of all sports coverage across the country. Lack of media coverage for women’s sports is not isolated to Australia and is a world-wide issue. A study by the Tucker Centre for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota found that women’s sport in the US receives only 4% of the total sports media coverage. The lack of professional women’s sports coverage globally has a direct psychological impact on society. Alina Bernstein and Yair Gaily, in their journal article Games and Sets: Women, Media and Sport, argued media’s role in “fulfilling important functions regarding women’s image in general, and a particularly crucial role in the context of women in sport.” The media is such an influential entity which has the power to affect societal opinions and its under-representation of women creates the impression that female athletes are of little importance to the sporting world. When young children look to their televisions and consistently see men playing sport, it reinforces the stereotypical ideas that women are not as strong as men and should not play sport. Increasing media coverage would show young boys and girls that women can be athletes just like men and would solidify their place on the sporting field.
The quantity of media coverage also affects societal opinion through generating interest in women’s sports. The lack of professional media coverage clearly affects the amount of interest in women’s sport. For example, it would be completely unfair to compare the amount of interest in a consistently televised men’s league to a women’s league with 10% of the coverage. How can someone be interested in something that they have no means of watching? Alina Bernstein and Yair Gaily suggest that “the media cannot change the inequality of sport itself, an issue that demands profound and immediate treatment… However, the media can contribute by sparking wider initiative toward the promotion of women’s sport.” This idea was supported through the creation of the successful AFLW season in Australia. The inaugural season of the AFLW was a resounding success, particularly due the intelligent use of “ingredients” such as it being freely televised and widely advertised. Media analyst Dr Kate Greenwood suggests they “used the media really intelligently to engage the audience… [They] worked with broadcasters to get it on prime time.” The correlation between increasing media coverage and interest was revealed through the 1.7 million people who viewed the opening round of the league and the incredible turnout of over 53 000 people at the 2019 AFLW Grand Final. These statistics challenge the popular arguments that people are not captivated by women’s sport and reveal the true extent of the media’s power to generate interest and shape societal thought.
The quality of media coverage also affects collective opinion of women’s sports. A common argument against increasing women’s sports media reporting is that people simple do not find it as interesting as men’s sport. However, society’s perceptions of how fascinating or boring women’s competitions are, is derived directly from the media. Purdue University Professor Cheryl Cooky argues “men’s sports are going to seem more exciting… they have higher production values, higher-quality coverage, and higher-quality commentary … when you watch women’s sports, and there are fewer camera angles, fewer cuts to shot, fewer instant replays… it’s going to seem to be less exciting.” Her arguments are supported by three reports from the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles from 1990, 1994 and 2000. They all uncovered significantly lower production values in the coverage of women’s competitions. They were less likely to include features such as slow-motion replays, unique camera angles, statistics and graphics which would greatly decrease its watchability. As Arthur Raney and Jennings Bryant argue in their book Handbook of Sports and Media, “whether women or men, few viewers are likely to watch games in which there are unsophisticated or missing graphics, poorly informed commentators,… few replays and muffled sound.” Poor production quality makes women’s sports appear slower and less professional, when in reality it is not a reflection of the athletes’ skill but simply the lack of investment from networks into higher quality production. Therefore, the quality of media coverage can influence its audience into thinking women’s sports are less exciting or advanced as the “ingredients” and “goldilocks conditions” to generate interest are missing.
Society’s perception of women’s sports is influenced by the media’s portrayal of women which has been shown to contain discrimination that trivialises their athletic ability. Female athletes are often highly sexualised by media outlets where they are assessed on their appearance rather than their sporting performance. An example of this is the tennis player Anna Kournikova who was admired for her attractiveness rather than tennis skills, evident in the study by an English tabloid, revealing that 67% of articles on her focused on non-tennis-related issues, primarily her sexual appeal. The pop band Binge even wrote a song about her with highly sexualised lyrics such as “Anna Kournikova with legs so long,” “with the real short hemline” and “let me be your Ball Boy now.” Alina Bernstein suggests the sexualisation of female athletes “trivialises them and in fact robs them of athletic legitimacy, thus preserving hegemonic masculinity.” It creates a laughable effect that undermines their sporting performances, encouraging a collective lack of respect for female athletes and women’s sport in general. Discrimination can also come in the form of infantilisation which is when commentators and journalists render grown female athletes childlike. Alina Bernstein and Yair Gaily argue that where “men are valorised, lionised and put on cultural pedestals, female athletes are infantilised by sport commentators, who refer to them as ‘girls’ or ‘young ladies’.” Female athletes are further infantilised through what Arthur Raney and Jennings Bryant referred to as the “hierarchy of naming”. They found that women are often called by their first name and men by their last name. Name usage by commentators and journalists conveys the status and prestige of the athletes, so calling women by their first name along with terms such as “girls” creates a subordinate and less professional effect compared to the “men”. The highly sexualised and infantilised portrayal of female athletes undermines their hard work and success, influencing society’s perception of women’s sport as less significant and professional than men’s.
Society’s perceptions of women’s sport are greatly influenced by the media. The lack of quality media coverage makes female athletes appear less important and gives the sports little opportunity to generate interest. The discrimination that exists in the media trivialises the athletes’ success and encourages a lack of respect from society. To allow women’s sports the opportunity to truly succeed, they need to be given more, higher quality media coverage that respects their positions as powerful athletes.