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Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti. (Randy Quan For The Globe and Mail)
Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti. (Randy Quan For The Globe and Mail)

ELIZABETH RENZETTI

Unforced error: Where are the female athletes on TV? Add to ...

They aren’t used to Canadian interlopers on Wimbledon’s strawberry-and-champagne courts, which makes Eugenie Bouchard’s success even sweeter. There cannot be many people in this country who weren’t rooting for the tough 20-year-old from Montreal this weekend (and continue to root for her despite her loss in the final).

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Thousands of online supporters belong to the “Genie Army.” William Shatner pronounced her, quaintly, “the cutest thing on Earth.” Her ardent fans waved banners courtside at Wimbledon while she focused on fiercely cutting down her opponents. Sponsors lined up, drooling.

Even the casual sexism of press questions following her semifinal defeat of Simona Halep failed to faze Ms. Bouchard, “whose maturity,” noted one male reporter, “is preternatural and almost a bit terrifying.” She good-naturedly volleyed questions about Justin Bieber and hit an ace with this response about her future: “I don’t want to be the next someone else. I want to be the first of me … I’ll try to make my own history.”

She is, deservedly, Canada’s new sweetheart. I hope you watched her on TV while you had the chance. This has happened before, when the country fell in love with gutsy female athletes and gathered around TVs in living rooms and bars to cheer on the success of our Olympic soccer team in 2012 and our hockey team at Sochi.

And then, when these high-profile events are over, when the last strawberry is sold at Wimbledon and the last plane leaves Russia, then phhhffft. No more women athletes on TV. Outside of the Olympics and a couple of other premium events, you’d have more luck finding a chocolate bar in Gwyneth Paltrow’s purse than a women’s sports match on prime-time TV in North America.

During the rest of the year, you cannot turn the channel without fear of being hit by an NHL puck or a college basketball rebound, all powered by testosterone (not that there’s anything wrong with that). But just try to find a women’s soccer game or a Canadian Women’s Hockey League match. Sometimes you can find a Women’s National Basketball Association game, if you reach into the back of the cupboard with a very long broom.

Right now, if you go searching for women’s sports on the website of the broadcaster Sportsnet you’ll have difficulty finding any – but you will see a photo shoot called The Beauty Of Sport, featuring various female athletes in strenuous positions by swimming pools. (There are a few male athletes, too, but someone gave them clothes.)

A 2010 study by American academics showed that while women made up 40 per cent of participants in sport, they received just 4 per cent of media coverage. More shocking, according to Cheryl Cooky, one of the lead researchers, “the coverage of women’s sport has actually declined” over the past 20 years.

Last year, the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport made a documentary called Media Coverage and Female Athletes. In it, Tucker Center director Mary Jo Kane talks about the maddening chicken-and-egg nature of ignoring women’s sports. Reporters and editors tell her they don’t cover it because there’s no interest and no audience. “But there’s an enormous, untapped market of people who are desperately interested,” Prof. Kane says, and they would tune in if they had something to watch.

For a while, it felt like there was a refreshing wind blowing from the locker room. In February, the country held its breath watching the Canadian women’s hockey team win gold. A beautiful video taken in living rooms and ice rinks showed a diverse group of people – old and young, men and women, boys and girls, even people like me who normally loathe hockey – gathered around their TVs, screaming encouragement at the women’s team, as if their shouts would reach all the way to Sochi. But after the women won, it was back to the status quo of Hockey Men in Canada. I mean Night. Hockey Night in Canada.

Even at Wimbledon, bastion of English fairness, the signs are evident that women’s tennis isn’t quite as important as men’s. They may earn the same prize money (Wimbledon finally made winnings equal in 2007, the last of the Grand Slams to do so), but the men’s final is held a day later than the women’s, which indicates that it’s seen as the crowning glory.

Will Genie Bouchard’s success spur interest in women’s sports? I’d say it’s not up to her – she’s already done her job. It’s up to the rest of us, and our fickle hearts.

Follow on Twitter: @lizrenzetti

 

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