While the number of women participating in sports has significantly increased over the years, the media’s focus on those activities has not.
The coverage of women’s sports was the prominent topic in the “Sidelined: Women’s Sports in Mass Media” session at South by Southwest on Friday afternoon. Featured on the panel were writers Jane McManus and Jamil Smith, documentary director Amy Winston and Erica Vanstone, executive director of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association.
According to Winston, 40 percent of those currently participating in sports are women. But she cited a survey that said only 4 percent of the Sports Illustrated covers from 2000 to 2011 featured a woman. Winston added that similar issues have been researched in regard to shows such as "SportsCenter" and local media companies.
“Representation matters in sports media primarily because people are what they see or they aspire to be what they see,” Vanstone said. “How they are represented is extremely important.”
The panelists warned that not all coverage is good coverage. Smith even opined that women’s sports being covered by an outlet with a chauvinistic reputation like Barstool Sports would not be helpful.
So what steps need to be taken for women’s sports to obtain that “good coverage?" The panelists agreed that media outlets having diverse staffs would help.
While recalling her first job as a beat writer, McManus said she consistently heard from readers who wanted more coverage of the WNBA. Her male editors did not value that feedback from the community, however. McManus, now a sports columnist for the New York Daily News, said her bosses’ perspective was based in their personal interest in other sports like baseball.
“The lens is not going to change unless the newsrooms change,” Smith said.
In addition to staff diversity, avoiding clichés about women, doing more research and athletes owning their messages were solutions suggested by the panel. Citing a problem she had with a radio show, McManus noted that advertisers in sports media shouldn’t just focus on reaching men in certain demographics. Winston said audiences interested in women’s sports should realize their purchasing power with advertisers and support those activities.
“The female athletes are there; they’re doing their thing. There’s so many amazing sports that are out there to cover,” Smith said. “We need to figure out how as a media community … how to do our jobs better.”