An Investigation into ESPN's Unequal Coverage of Women's Athletics

By Jiajing (Alina) Song

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"Athletes Beginning a Track Competition." By tableatny, via Flickr

On April 30, 2012, SportsCenter, ESPN's daily news program, in conjunction with ESPNW, the network's website devoted to women's athletics, celebrated the 40th anniversary of Title IX by naming the top 40 female athletes of the past 40 years. This event and the surrounding news received impressive attention on social media. The high praise this event received indicates growing interest in female athletes both from the audience and from the media. In fact, since the passage of Title IX of Educational Amendments in 1972, opportunities for women's athletics have been increasing significantly. The numbers of intercollegiate and professional female athletes have grown from almost zero to that comparable to male athletes. In addition, in the 2012 Olympics, women competed for the first time in traditional "masculine" sports such as boxing, and US women won more medals overall than their male counterparts. Despite the rapid growth of women's sports, however, news media disproportionately under-represents female sports. Specifically, women are 40% of all sports participants, but receive only 4% of all sports media coverage (Tucker Center Research for Girls & Women in Sport, Tucker Center Research). Because of ESPN's specially designed event to celebrate women's athletics, I wonder if there is difference between the performance of ESPN and other channels. I seek to find whether there exists quantitative and qualitative unequal coverage of women's athletics both in its video-based and print-based content.

Video-based content

During the last two decades, televised media coverage of women sporting events has demonstrated little progress. Investigations into the quantitative inequity in women and men's athletics have consistently illustrated that ESPN gave little time to report news in the realm of women athletes. Eastman, a professor in the Department of Telecommunications in Indiana University, presented that in 1998, ESPN's SportsCenter devoted 363 hours to cover women's athletics out of 8274 hours of total coverage of sports (Eastman 28). In 1997, a UNC professor Tuggle found that ESPN devoted only 4% of its daily news reporting program, SportsCenter, to female sports. Of the 761 stories investigated on ESPN's SportsCenter, only 29 of them reported on female athletes or women sports (Tuggle 19). More importantly, Tuggle's 2002 follow-up study demonstrated no increase in total stories devoted to female sports. Of the 778 stories investigated, only 16 were about women and another 13 mentioned both men and women (Tuggle 243). The most recent data analysis also displayed little improvement. Particularly, of the total of 99 videos resident in the Sports Science area of ESPN's website in 2016, 87 videos were conducted for male sports (Shifflett 120). Hence, though it is true that the amount of time given to women's athletics has increased from 5% to 12%, this slow increase does little to change men's dominance in media coverage of sports.

Besides ESPN's significant unbalanced time allocation of male and female sports, women's voices are also underrepresented pertaining to the commentaries of female athletes and women's sports. Researchers have proven that women play a tiny role in remarking live games and their own stories. Specifically, in 2010, Cooky, a professor at Purdue University, along with several other researchers, analyzed the numbers of the anchor and ancillary announcers working for ESPN news program SportsCenter. Results showed that in 2009, 11% of the announcers were female and 89% of the announcers were male. Thus, there exists a lack of women voices in commenting the live games. Moreover, they found that in SportsCenter's "Her Story" segment, which aimed at reporting women athletes' life outside games, female athletes were rarely named or mentioned, yet comments from prominent male figures unassociated with them were highlighted (Cooky, Messner, and Hextrum 17). One notable example was showing an athlete Sanya Richards' training process by emphasizing her husband's comments. This show covered little about Sanya's own description of her training life. Thus, there exists a lack of women voices in commenting their own stories too. Evidently, this underrepresentation of women's own voices in commenting the games and their own stories signals men as the authority in sports, which further marginalizes women in the sports industry.

The unequal coverage of ESPN's SportsCenter mentioned above doesn't turn out to be a special case. The aforementioned problem of extremely skewed time length discrepancy between genders is a common problem and can be generalized to other mainstream media in the US. Studies have confirmed similar behaviors between two most popular television channels in the US. To be specific, Eastman's 1998 study illustrated similarities in the proportion of time given to women's athletics between ESPN's SportsCenter and CNN's Sports Tonight. SportsCenter devoted 5% of the time to women's sports, and Sports Tonight devoted 6% of the time to women's sports (Eastman 200). Plus, Tuggle's 1997 study found that ESPN allocated 4% of total airtime of sports to women's athletics, which is similar to CNN's 6% allocation to females (Tuggle 19). Accordingly, no statistical differences were found between ESPN and CNN in these two studies. Therefore, the performances of these two top 10 basic cable networks in the US (Katz, A.J., Fox News, MSNBC Are Top 5 Cable Networks, TVNewser) are representative the overall unequal time distribution between male and female sports in the US.

Despite the fact that some researchers have concluded that several popular individual women's sports gained relatively equal television coverage, these cases are not representative of the overall coverage situation of women's athletics. Hopkins, a student at East Tennessee State University analyzed the morning episode ESPN's television show SportsCenter during the Wimbledon Tennis Tournament in 2007 and found no statistical significant difference in the total highlight time per episode, in seconds, between male (47.77) and female (49.55) participants of the 2007 Wimbledon Tennis Tournament (Hopkins 32). In addition, Cooky, along with several other researchers, found that in July, ESPN reported approximately the same number of stories for WNBA (22) and for NBA (24) (Cooky, Messner, and Hextrum 11). However, these female sports which have acquired equal coverage are limited to popular individual sports. This outcome corresponds to Tuggle and Owen's study in 1999 that the amount of television coverage devoted much more coverage to women's individual sports than team sports (Tuggle and Owen 179). Thus, this seemingly equal coverage of several popular female sports in Hopkins and Cooky's study doesn't provide strong evidence to overturn the overall extremely unequal situation. Additionally, it raises the new question of why the media chooses to cover more of individual female sports.

Print-based content

Unequal coverage of women's athletics seems to be no better regarding print-based media. Critical analysis of magazines has shown that female athletes are continually underrepresented in print-based media (Bishop 189; Cranner, Brann, and Bowman 146). Data showed that the number of feature articles focusing on men was consistently high at 80%, whereas the number of women fluctuated from 2.4% to a peak of a mere 9.6% (Bishop 189). In addition to this underrepresentation problem, when a female athlete was featured, the focus was most often placed on traditional feminine roles and behaviors she exhibited (Bishop, 2003; Pruitt 2) and sexually-charged images (Cranner, Brann, and Bowman 149) instead of the nature of their competitions, reinforcing stereotypical ideas about gender.

Though research of ESPN The Magazine illustrated that female athletes were given more attention on magazine than on television, the coverage of female athletes still lagged far behind. In Pruitt's sampling of ESPN The Magazine, 1195 images were examined in total. The results showed that 1037 (86.78%) were images of men athletes, and only 151 (12.64%) were of women (Pruitt 46). Clearly, these percentages suggest vast differences in the representation of women athletes in regular issues of the ESPN The Magazine.

Furthermore, women sports are treated unequally in that the depiction of women atheletes' bodies on print-based media sources usually emphasizes feminine characteristics instead of athleticism. One of the strongest evidence of editors' unethical exploitation of female bodies emerges in The Body Issue, ESPN The Magazine's annual promotion. Since its 2009 inaugural edition, it has gained immediate success since its inaugural edition, becoming one of the best-selling issues both on newsstands (Rovell) and in terms of advertising dollars (Clifford). However, by contrast to ESPN's own claim of equal representation and equivalent circumstances (ESPN Media Kit), Hull, an assistant professor at USC, found that females were photographed doing incredible physical feats such as ironing, cooking, draping their bodies seductively over objects, and lying in bathtubs. Obviously, these physical feats demonstrate the traditional beauty of women bodies, which are barely relevant to women athletes' competing spirits.

More importantly, female figures in The Body Issue are depicted in stereotypically feminine ways, including subordinate to men, submissive, and deferential. According to a renowned American sociologist Goffman, subordination is manifested through multiple subtle ways of positioning the body, such as the position of "bashful knee bend" (Goffman 237). Pruitt's study showed that 29.13% of women exhibited this trait compared to merely 6.98% of men (Pruitt 38). In addition, Goffman stated that any lowered body positioning is a marker of submission or deference. Pruitt demonstrated that over a quarter of women (25.24%) were photographed in a lower body position (combining sitting, lying, and kneeling into a single variable), compared to a mere 6.98% of men. These gender differences displayed statistical difference. Moreover, these feminine positions are often reframed to the center of the image (Pruitt 35). As Lancioni argued that "Each reframing produces a different emphasis; consequently, images from the same photograph would have a different meaning" (Lancioni 111), the reframing of women bodies to the center of the images further enhances inequity and exerts harm to females. Therefore, by emphasizing these body positions, editors succeed in transferring readers' attention from women's competitions to their feminine beauty.

Moreover, instead of fighting against editors' emphasis of women bodies and feminine characteristics, many women candidates of The Body Issue chose to embrace the hegemonic form of femininity (Pruitt 48) and celebrate it as a way to raise awareness for themselves and their sport. Examples of female athletes earning fame based on their looks instead of their play are numerous. Perhaps the most famous example of an athlete being famous for her looks is tennis player Anna Kournikova (Ewing & Grady). Despite never winning a professional tournament in her singles career, Kournikova made a reported $10 million from endorsements alone in 2002, more than most players make in an entire career (Isidore). Another female athlete Cristie Kerr did not pose in ESPN The Magazine herself but applauded the decision of her fellow golfers who did, saying, "I think we definitely need the exposure; we need good positive PR. I think that's good for the LPGA" (Wei). Sports marketer Richard Armato said, "If you want to be successful as a woman who is an athlete, sex appeal has to be part of the equation." (Ewing & Grady) Consequently, women athletes' unwillingness to fight against this unequal coverage themselves further aggravates this problem and makes it harder to be solved.


The analysis above provides clear proofs of ESPN's unequal coverage of women's athletics. For video-based content, ESPN devotes significantly less time to women athletes both during the game and after the game; for print-based content, ESPN sexualizes women images and emphasizes stereotyped feminine characteristics. Based on this study, we can certainly draw some conclusions about the unequal coverage. On the other hand, other questions emerge that need further research.

The disparity between the coverage of men and women raises the question of reasons behind it. Some editors argue that since they estimate audience's interest in women's athletics to be low, they consider it appropriate to invest less time and resources into the coverage of women sports (Laucella et al. 781.) In 1995, ESPN reported that 22% of its SportsCenter audience were interested in women sports. According to the ESPN public relations division (Teri Couch, electronic correspondence, August 29, 2002), the number in mid-2002 was 22.6%. These figures support these editors claim that women's interest in sports is significantly less than men's. However, uncertainty arises from whether this claim proves that we should continue covering less of women's athletics. Discussion about this uncertainty brings about the dilemma of the chicken-and-egg problem. Which comes first, people's lack of interest in women sports or the media's unequal coverage? Does people's lack of interest in women sports cause the disproportionate coverage, or does the media's little coverage of women's athletics cause people's lack of interest? Additionally, some researchers state that men's dominance in supervisory and reporting positions in sports organizations stimulates the underrepresentation of women sports. Does that mean that sports organizations should deliberately promote females to higher positions even though they are less skillful? Are female editors interested in women sports themselves?

Significant shortage of the coverage of women's athletics also elicits discussion about its influence. Researchers have found that media plays an important role in shaping people's conception of the world, especially teenagers who have little knowledge of the reality. Tuchman argued that "media coverage is a frame, a window on the world through which we learn of ourselves and others." (Tuchman 9) By watching these television programs and magazines, the audiences acquire knowledge of the underrepresentation of women athletes. This unequal coverage of women's athletics indicates men's dominance in traditional "masculine" sports industry and thus further solidifies gender stereotype in current society. Although we can draw certain conclusions about the effects of the inequity, some questions remain unanswered and require further research. What will teenagers think when they rarely find coverage of women's athletics when they turn on the TV or open a magazine? Won't they consider women athletes as unpopular or even inferior to men athletes? Will they still consider it as a career even though they are interested? Will their unwillingness to become women athletes further enhance gender stereotypes in current society? These questions are open to discussion.