ESPN SPORTSCENTER AND COVERAGE OF WOMEN'S ATHLETICS:
"IT'S A BOYS CLUB"
Paper submitted to the Commission on the Status of Women Division
of the AEJMC 2003 Convention
March 11, 2003
Terry Adams, Ph.D. Candidate
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
P.O. Box 3365
Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27599-3365
(919) 960-4781, phone (919) 962-0620, fax
[log in to unmask]
C.A. Tuggle, Ph.D.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
P.O. Box 3365
Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27599-3365
(919) 962-5694, phone (919) 962-0620, fax
[log in to unmask]
(We would need VHS playback if our paper were accepted for presentation)
Despite growing levels of participation by female athletes at all
competition levels and documented fan interest in women's athletics, media
coverage of women's sports remains inferior to that given male
sports. This study is a replication of Tuggle's original (1997) study to
determine whether the existence of two women's professional sports leagues
has resulted in increased coverage of female athletics. Results indicate
that indeed, there was less coverage of women on SportsCenter during the
2002 study than there was during the earlier examination.
ESPN SPORTSCENTER AND COVERAGE OF WOMEN'S ATHLETICS:
"IT'S A BOYS CLUB"
Title IX provides that "no person in the United States shall, on the basis
of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be
subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity
receiving Federal financial assistance" (Educational Amendments,
1992). Since the passage of Title IX in 1972, participation in women's
sports has grown dramatically. In 1971, only about 300,000 young women
participated in high school athletics. By 2001, there had been nearly a
ten-fold increase in that number, to more than 2,800,000 (National
Federation of State High School Athletic Associations, 2002). During the
1999-2000 academic year, more than 150,000 females participated in sports
at the college level. The numbers of male (about 153,000) and female
college athletes participating in all sports other than football are now
nearly equal (National Collegiate Athletic Association, 2002).
Forty percent of the athletes at the 2000 Summer Olympic Games were female
(Lewis, 2000), and women's professional leagues such as the WNBA
(basketball) and WUSA (soccer) are now several years old. The WNBA's first
season began with record setting amounts of television coverage (Wearden &
Creedon, 1999), and a record television audience tuned in to see the final
game of the 1999 Women's World Cup soccer match. The 90,000 people in
attendance at that soccer match also set an attendance record for a women's
sports event (Starr & Brant, 1999).
Despite the growing level of participation by female athletes at all
competition levels and documented fan interest in women's athletics,
coverage of women's sports remains inferior to that given male sports
across all media (Boutilier & SanGiovanni, 1983; Bryant, 1980; Duncan &
Messner, 1994; Eastman & Billings, 2000; Hallmark & Armstrong, 1999;
Hilliard, 1984; Himmelberg, 1992; Lattimore, 1996; Messner, 1992; Tuggle,
1997; Tuggle & Owen, 1999; Tuggle, Huffman & Rosengard, 2002). In nearly
every aspect—column inches, running time, persons quoted, placement of
articles, presence, size, length, and placement of photographs or
videotape, range of sports, and size of headlines—women's coverage lags
behind. At the local television level, only five percent of the sports
time was devoted to female sports or athletes during the time period
studied by Duncan and Messner (1994). Tuggle's study of ESPN SportsCenter
and CNN Sports Tonight (1997) showed that the two programs devoted only
five percent of their airtime to women's athletics, and that nearly all of
that went to individual, rather than to team events. However, observers at
the time suggested that the advent of two women's professional sports
leagues (the WNBA and the WUSA) would surely result in different findings
in subsequent studies. This study is a replication of Tuggle's original
study. The purpose is to determine whether the predicted influence of the
two women's sports leagues on the coverage patterns of a national cable
sports highlight show manifests itself some seven years after the original
Other Coverage of Women's Sports
In new media, Kachgal (2001) found that female athletes receive less
coverage than males on three leading sports websites (CBSSportsLine, CNNSI,
and ESPN). Alexander (1994) found that British television coverage of the
1992 Summer Olympics devoted more time to men's events, and those events
were more likely to be covered live and in their entirety. Women's events
were more often edited and aired on taped delay. With the 1996 Summer
Olympic Games, Tuggle and Owen (1999) found women's team sports received
substantially less coverage than men's team sports did. This was also true
of the 2000 Summer Games. In addition, more than twice as much airtime was
devoted to individual women's events as was devoted to women's team
events (Tuggle, Huffman, & Rosengard, 2002).
Eastman & Billings (2000) found no consistent rise in coverage based on
major events. For example, coverage spiked during the U.S. Women's Open
Golf Tournament and Wimbledon, but not for the WNBA season opener, the
French Open, or the LPGA Championship. Eastman & Billings reported that
newspapers did better than television (2000). Thirteen percent of
newspaper sports page space (USA Today and The New York Times were analyzed
for the study) went to women, whereas only five percent of broadcast time
(SportsCenter and Sports Tonight) did. Interestingly, USA Today had almost
twice the amount of coverage of women's sports as The New York Times did,
the acknowledged "paper of record."
Alexander (1994) found that although television coverage of men's events
strongly favors team sports, for women, their greatest coverage comes from
individual events. This squares with Kane's (1989) finding that women
competing in individual events such as tennis and golf received
significantly more coverage than those in other sports. Typically, tennis
and golf are deemed socially acceptable sports for women to participate in,
whereas contact team sports such as basketball are deemed socially
unacceptable. Alexander concludes that stereotypes suggesting women should
be graceful and glamorous and avoid sports involving contact and sweat are
reinforced by the media. The message is: female athletes are second-rate,
female sport is of little importance, and society accepts only certain
sports for women competitors.
It is recognized that a certain amount of selection is necessary in
allocating coverage because of time or space constraints. In the interest
of maximizing viewership or readership, media managers generally base such
decisions on the perceived level of public interest (Belliotti, 1983), and
it is assumed there is greater interest in men's competition. Numerically
and proportionately more males than females watch televised sports (Gantz &
Wenner, 1991). However, 50 percent or more of the women in various
industrialized countries report that they watch sports regularly
(Cooper-Chen, 1994). Women comprise more than 40 percent of the viewers of
games from Major League Baseball, The National Basketball Association, and
the National Football League. The number of female viewers for
professional boxing is nearly as high (Arrington, 1995).
Female viewership of sports is not confined to game telecasts. In 1995,
ESPN reported that 22 percent of its SportsCenter audience was female
(Tuggle, 1997). According to the ESPN public relations division (Teri
Couch, electronic correspondence, August 29, 2002), that figure in mid-2002
was 22.6%, so the ratio of women watching SportsCenter has remained
constant compared to what was reported in the earlier study.
Not only do women watch sports; men watch women's sports. A 1999 Harris
poll ("More men than women," 1999) showed that 46 percent of men watch some
women's sports, with basketball the favorite women's sport for male
viewers. The WNBA reports that the majority of viewers watching its games
on each of three televising networks (NBC, 56:44, ESPN 65:35, ESPN2, 57:43)
are men (Maureen Coyle, electronic correspondence, September 18, 2002). The
same is true of viewership of WUSA games. A spokesman for the women's
professional soccer league reports that approximately 33% of viewers tuning
in to its games are women, approximately 48% are men, and the rest are
younger than 18 (Neil Gallow, electronic correspondence, October 16, 2002.)
Television coverage is a frame, a window on the world through which we
learn of ourselves and others (Tuchman, 1978a). The very act of selecting
certain events to cover, and then the process by which that coverage is
edited to fit within time or space constraints, constitutes framing
(Entman, 1993; Gitlin, 1980; Tuchman, 1978b). Kahneman and Tversy's (1984)
experiments demonstrated that frames select and call attention to
particular aspects of a reality. Naturally, this means that frames direct
attention away from other aspects. Sniderman, Brody, and Tetlock (1991)
observed the power of both "presence and absence" in framing. One meaning
is conveyed by what does get covered, but another equally powerful meaning
is conveyed by what does not receive media attention. In the case of this
study, it is feasible to argue that the lack of attention by SportsCenter
in 1995 sent a message that women's sports are marginal and
inconsequential, and that continuing underrepresentation of women by the
cable network would reinforce that message.
Rowe (1999) wrote, "If culture is the 'stuff' of everyday life—the frame
through which we experience, interpret, mould, and represent everything
that surrounds us—then sport occupies…an uncommonly prominent position
within it" (p. 23). Such importance is significant when considering that
the sports industry has traditionally been male defined and male controlled
(McDaniel & Sullivan, 1998), and the bulk of sports reports reproduce the
inequality of its gender order (Rowe, 1999). Framing theory suggests that
practices for representing gender in the media—including sports-- have
become standardized, therefore reinforcing stereotypes (Gamson &
Modigliani, 1989; Pan & Kosicki, 1993).
The authors sought to answer the following research questions:
R1. Has coverage of women's athletics increased on ESPN SportsCenter,
compared to 1995?
At the time of that study, the researchers suggested that the advent of two
professional women's sports leagues was likely to lead to an increase in
coverage of women's sports on the cable channel's highlights program. The
same reasoning leads to the second research question.
R2. Will women's team events be covered more frequently in 2002 than was
the case in 1995?
R3. How will SportsCenter frame its coverage of women, in terms of time
devoted, type of presentation, and placement of stories?
One might surmise that the increased presence of women's professional
sports would lead to more awareness of women's athletics, which would lead
to more equitable media representation of that participation.
This study encompassed the lone national, nightly sports highlights
program, ESPN's SportsCenter. In contrast to the previous study, CNN's
Sports Tonight was not included because the network removed the program
from its schedule shortly before the researchers undertook this study.
Researchers recorded ESPN's primary installment of SportsCenter, (the 11
p.m. Eastern Time program) every night for a period of four weeks and two
days, from May 25th through June 23rd, 2002. The researchers expanded the
study to include the extra two days so as to include the final Saturday and
Sunday, in order to incorporate what ESPN labeled "Women in Sports
Weekend." The researchers chose the time period in question because both
the women's professional basketball league (WNBA) and the women's
professional soccer league (WUSA) were in the midst of their regular
seasons during that time.
The study resulted in the compilation of programming from 30 broadcast
dates, with a total of 807 stories appearing on the hour-long program
during the course of the study.
Once the data were collected, the lead author coded all content, using the
same categories used by Tuggle in 1995. The unit of analysis was the
story. Coding included an indication of the broadcast date, the sport
involved, whether the sports involved individual or team competition, the
story length, story placement, the level of competition, the style of
presentation, and the sex of the participants. Coding within the
presentation category indicated whether the story included video, graphics,
music, taped comments, commentary from a reporter or analyst, or some
combination of these elements. Coding within the placement category
indicated the story position with a particular broadcast block. A block is
defined as program material appearing between two commercials. Hence, a
story might be story three, block two. Coding within the participant
category indicated whether the story mentioned only men, only women, or
both. The researchers also coded the sex of the anchors delivering the
stories, as well as that of reporters, analysts, and on-camera sources.
Taped comments were timed to allow researchers to compare the amount of
time given to male and female sources. The researchers then employed
chi-square and analysis of variance tests using SPSS for Windows, and also
compared the results of this study to what researchers discovered in a
similar study seven years prior.
At first, a look at the cable network's coverage patterns gives rise to
optimism for those interested in how frequently and how well women's events
are covered, particularly regarding the two sports of most interest here,
basketball and soccer. As Table 1 shows, those sports were second and
fifth, respectively, among the ten most-often featured sports during the
course of the study.
Number of Stories by Sport Covered
# of Stories
Comparison of Coverage of Men and Women
But further analysis reveals a pattern that mirrors what has been found in
previous studies regarding the marked difference in the amount of coverage
afforded male and female athletes. During the 30 days under study, ESPN
ran 778 stories about males, only 16 about females, and another 13 that
mentioned both males and females. Chi-square analysis reveals a significant
difference between ESPN's coverage of male and female stories (mixed
stories excluded from this analysis) and what would be expected to occur by
chance (X2 = 731.29, df = 1, p < .001.) Table 2 shows the numbers and
percentages of stories in each participant category.
Number of Stories by Sex of Participants
# of Stories
During the period of the 1995 study, ESPN aired 732 stories about males and
29 about females, a ratio of about 25 to one. The ratio in 2002 was more
than 48 to one. During Women in Sports Weekend, the final two days of the
current study, SportsCenter aired 60 stories about men, but only one about
a female competitor – track star Marion Jones. Both the WNBA and the WUSA
played regular season games during that weekend. ESPN2 televised one of
the WNBA games.
Specifics of Coverage Involving Women
The breakdown of the 16 stories involving women shows that nine involved
coverage of the French Open tennis tournament, three were of women's golf,
two were basketball (WNBA) highlights, one involved college softball, and
one was about track. There was no coverage of women's soccer. Thirteen of
the 16 women's stories involved individual sports; only three were coverage
of team sports. In 1995, SportsCenter and Sports Tonight combined aired 65
stories about women's athletics, with only three of those about women's
team sports (4.6%). The ratio in the 2002 study was higher, as three of
the 16 stories (18.8%, one cable network only) related to women's team sports.
The 13 stories coded as "mixed" participation included two stories about
the Indy 500 and a mention in each about a female driver in the race
(though no comment from that female driver), two sets of "Plays of the
Week" that included one women's highlight each, two "Question of the Day"
segments in which a female athlete was one of the possible answers, two
quick tennis updates and one golf update that mentioned both male and
female players, a story about horse racing that mentioned a female jockey,
two stories about the national spelling bee, in which both boys and girls
were shown participating, and a story mentioning singer Britney Spears'
plans to star in a
movie about NASCAR racing that will feature cameos from real drivers.
Amount of Time Devoted to Stories
In addition to the huge disparity in the number of stories involving male
and female athletes, analysis of variance (ANOVA) revealed a marked and
statistically significant difference in the amount of time devoted to
stories based on the sex of the participants F(1, 793) = 3.88, p < .05.
Table 3 details those differences.
Average Report Length by Sex of Participants (in seconds)
In 1995, the average length of male and female stories was 65.06 seconds
and 38.10 seconds respectively, a ratio of 1.71 to 1. Both the stories
about male sports figures and those about female athletes were longer in
this study than they were in 1995, but the ratio in this study (1.77 to 1)
was nearly identical to the previous findings.
Further, there was very little time given to comments from women. In all,
five stories contained six "sound bites" from females, but only one of the
stories about women included sound from a source. ESPN used comments from
both Williams sisters after Serena beat her older sister Venus for the
women's French Open tennis title. The other four on-camera quotes came from
a little girl in the national spelling bee asking for pronunciation of a
word, Joumana Kidd (wife of professional basketball player Jason Kidd)
reacting to taunts and jeers from the Boston fans toward her and her son
during a playoff game, Kathy Duva, a boxing promoter speaking about the
future appeal/draw of Mike Tyson, and an unidentified female baseball fan
in the stands at Wrigley Field reacting to the announcement of the death of
Cubs pitcher Darryl Kile. The six comments from women totaled 1:28 of
airtime. During the time period covered by the 1995 study, SportsCenter
aired 15 comments from women.
Presentation and Placement
There was also a great deal of difference in the presentation and placement
of stories about women compared to those about men. All 16 stories about
women included at least some video, but no female story involved a
reporter, though 83 men's stories were "packaged." No story that showed
females exclusively was part of a sponsored segment, though two segments
that included brief mentions of women were part of "Plays of the Week," a
regularly appearing sponsored segment. The other 43 sponsored segments
during the study period included male athletes only.
No female-only stories appeared in the first two blocks of the show on any
of the 30 programs analyzed, though six were the first story in the blocks
in which they appeared and three were second in a block. In 1995, ESPN
aired 10 of its 29 women's stories during the first block of the program,
and one was the lead story. All 10 were coverage of the U.S. Open Tennis
Championships. Only one of the 16 stories in the current study about women
met the definition of "hard news," 71 stories about men did
so. Interestingly, a male anchor read 13 of the 16 stories about women.
Discussion and Conclusions
If these findings are indicative of coverage patterns on SportsCenter,
then little has changed in the seven years since Tuggle's original
study. It is clear that the predicted influence of two women's
professional leagues on SportsCenter program offerings has not yet come to
pass. Indeed, there is less coverage of women on SportsCenter than there
was during the previous study. Not only were there fewer stories, but
SportsCenter used fewer sound bites from women during the 2002 study
period. Stories about women appeared later in the show-never earlier than
the third block-and though accompanied by video, were never packaged. This
seems to support the notion that female athletes and women's sports are of
secondary importance at SportsCenter, because fewer ESPN resources (such as
a reporter) were allocated to coverage of women's events.
During the broadcast of On the Basis of Sex: An ESPN Town Meeting,
televised during Women in Sports Weekend, a female audience member asked
"with the current emphasis on encouraging female participation in
athletics, why doesn't ESPN report more women's athletics on SportsCenter?"
ESPN Senior Vice President and Managing Editor Bob Eaton answered:
"SportsCenter's job is to cover the sports that our audience is interested
in because that's how we get the most people to watch. As women's sports
have increased in importance, and interest has increased . . . we cover
more of that. . . . We can't generate the interest on our own - the
audience has to tell us what they want?. Our first job is to generate the
highest rating we can for the program, and to do that, we're going to put
on the sports that more people want to see" (ESPN Town Meeting, aired June
It is unclear whether ESPN has conducted industry research that leads
officials there to conclude that the SportsCenter audience wants men's
sports almost exclusively. However, ESPN seems to have determined there is
enough interest in WNBA basketball to warrant the purchase of television
rights to a series of games. Although the network holds rights to WNBA
games, and aired WNBA games on both ESPN and ESPN2 throughout the study
period, SportsCenter aired WNBA highlights only twice. Most notably,
during Women In Sports Weekend, ESPN televised one of the games, yet aired
no highlights from it on SportsCenter. Generally, one might surmise that
SportsCenter could have used the highlights as a way of prompting viewers
to tune into the games at other times of the day, if for no other
reason. Following framing theory, by allocating coverage during its
highlights program, ESPN could help frame the WNBA as a prominent league
and an important part of sports. Economically speaking, as the audience
begins to see the WNBA games as significant in the world of sports, it
would follow that viewers would seek out coverage of the games and spend
more time viewing ESPN.
USA Today columnist and part-time ESPN commentator Christine Brennan
believes there is a different underlying reason behind the network's
coverage decisions, and does not expect things to change anytime soon. She
says simply, "It's a boys club. They don't care" (Christine Brennan,
personal conversation, September 17, 2002).
Interestingly, during the period analyzed for this study, nearly sixty
percent of the stories were about baseball. For the month of June-the
heart of baseball season-that may not seem surprising. But nearly every
night, the 11 p.m. Eastern edition of SportsCenter was followed by Baseball
Tonight-an hour-long show dedicated to highlights solely from baseball.
Indeed, some evenings SportsCenter was sandwiched between two episodes of
Baseball Tonight. Though it is clear that ESPN was able to get "more bang
for the buck" from baseball highlights by using them so often, the time
taken during SportsCenter for baseball stories might well have been used
for coverage of women's or other marginalized sports.
The dearth of coverage of women's sports on SportsCenter reinforces the
idea of male supremacy in athletics and sends the signal that female
athletes are simply not as deserving of regular coverage as are men is
sports. Though implementation of Title IX has led to far greater
participation in sports by females, the level of women's involvement in
sports is not reflected in the amount of coverage ESPN SportsCenter devotes
to it. Despite existence of two female professional leagues, women are
still in effect absent from the SportsCenter agenda.
Suggestions for Further Study
The study period was selected specifically to coincide with the seasons of
the two professional women's sports leagues. However, this time period
also coincided with both NBA and NHL finals as well as the Major League
Baseball season. Examining additional times of the year (for example,
during the college basketball season, or during lulls between the seasons
of the four major male professional sports) might reveal coverage patterns
different from those found here.
It may also be useful to undertake a similar study of the content of
ESPN's entire broadcast day, rather than just its highlights program. One
thing revealed by the current study is that ESPN the network might have a
larger commitment to women's athletics (airing WNBA games, producing and
promoting a Women In Sports Weekend) than SportsCenter the program does.
Because economic considerations and maximized audience are of acknowledged
importance to ESPN, perhaps an examination of the sponsors and advertisers
of SportsCenter-relative to the rest of ESPN's schedule or relative to
sponsors and advertisers in print, radio, and local television coverage of
female athletes-would shed some light on the business opportunities
afforded by women's sports.
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