A few years ago, Cheryl Cooky, an associate professor at Purdue University, delivered a TEDx talk outlining TV news coverage of women’s sports in the United States.
It may not surprise you to hear that things are dismal.
“Most people think of sports as a form of entertainment – an escape from reality,” Cooky began. But when we’re watching sports coverage, she said, “what we’re escaping from is a world where women are equal to men.”
If you’ve been watching Rogers Sportsnet this week, you’ve probably noticed a tiny tear in the cozy fabric of that escape, because the channel has been airing inspirational stories about women in sports as part of its programming pegged to International Women’s Day, which will be celebrated on Sunday.
On the day itself, Sportsnet will air a special edition of its Hometown Hockey broadcast, produced by a female crew and featuring an all-women team of broadcasters. Christine Simpson will report, Cassie Campbell-Pascall will serve as in-game analyst and Leah Hextall will make her debut as a play-by-play announcer. TSN, meanwhile, will celebrate the day by airing 24 hours of women’s sports on TSN2.
The landscape could do with some rupturing. In her lecture, Cooky points to a 25-year study suggesting that TV coverage of women’s sports actually dropped from 1989 – when it was hardly centre stage – to 2014.
Even when a competition was on that equally involved men and women – the annual NCAA basketball tournament in March, 2014 – local Los Angeles stations spent about 90 minutes over the two-week period covering men’s sports; women’s sports got 3½ minutes. ESPN’s SportsCenter was almost as bad, airing 2 ½ hours of men’s coverage and a whopping 9½ minutes of women’s coverage.
Cooky and her co-authors wrote an academic paper based on their research titled “It’s Dude Time!” which refers to a comment a (male) anchor on SportsCenter made during one broadcast while introducing the (male) NHL analyst.
If you’d like to watch Cooky’s full 17-minute talk, you can check it out on YouTube, where it’s titled The Female Athlete: Missing in Action. While you’re there, be sure to dive into the acid bath of the comments below the video, where you’ll be treated to insightful explanations for the lack of coverage of women’s sports, such as one wag’s observation (echoing many others): “Bottom line, generally women suck at sports, even professionals.”
Funny, that. (I mean, it’s not funny. But if you don’t laugh, you might punch something.) Because, sure, you could respond with a slew of names (Bianca, Serena, Hayley, etc.) that demonstrate the idiocy of the remark. But some people won’t be so easily swayed, as we were reminded this week of what happens when women dare challenge men on the same field of play.
Alyssa Wruble, a 17-year-old living outside Allentown, Pa., and the only girl playing on her high school’s hockey team, shared a story of what happened during a recent championship game. Fans of an opposing team, it seems, jeered Wruble, calling her a “dude” and suggesting that she had a penis. Someone put up a crudely drawn poster implying that she was male and taunting her to “gender reveal.”
Wruble responded the only way she could at the time: By scoring two goals. Then, a few days later, she talked to the local Fox affiliate about the harassment and the story blew up. The channel gave the story three minutes of airtime. So I suppose there’s a silver lining in all of this, because at least now we know what sort of story it takes to attract TV news coverage of women in sport.
Against that kind of toxic backdrop, I don’t know how Brenda Andress stays positive. Andress is the founder and president of SheIS Sport, a two-year-old advocacy organization that tries to mobilize fans and to boost attendance of women’s sports events.
“If you go and watch a women’s hockey game, it’s bloody phenomenal. If you go watch a WNBA game, it’s bloody phenomenal,” Andress said in a phone interview this week. “Who does not go see Serena Williams and say, ‘Are you kidding me?’ Or go to an LPGA event, when Brooke [Henderson] is playing phenomenally and say: ‘Are you kidding me?’”
I asked her about research that suggests that women earn only about 4 per cent of TV sports coverage. “We all gather when something negative happens, but it doesn’t have to be negative,” she said. “It’s very positive. You could change [the coverage] from 4 per cent to 8 per cent!”
What does she make of this week’s special programming? “The fact that we have to broadcast that there’s going to be an all-women’s broadcast team for a hockey game on International Women’s Day tells us we’re not aligned to where we need to be. We shouldn’t have to announce that,” she said. Still, “the positive side is: It’s there, it’s an opportunity, and it showcases to our young women that there’s growth from where it was.”
Some years ago, she notes, the highlight shows were all-male affairs (even if women have been working in senior roles behind the scenes for decades). Now, Carly Agro and Evanka Osmak bring us nightly highlights on Sportsnet; Jen Hedger, Natasha Staniszewski, Kayla Grey and other women are primary players on TSN’s coverage.
And this week’s programming has been a refreshing change of pace, at least on Sportsnet. Each night, Sportsnet Central has included a feature story about women in sports, such as a profile of Teresa Resch, the Toronto Raptor vice-president of basketball operations, which included an interview with president Masai Ujiri talking about why he sharply increased the number of women in the team’s front office.
On Wednesday, Agro shared a photo of the soccer team she played on as a girl and revealed that, growing up, she used to idolize the soccer player Craig Forrest. ”I dressed like him. I even tried his in-game shot-stopping tricks.” But nowadays, girls “get to watch other girls play their games,” she said. Agro then introduced an interview that her colleague Caroline Cameron conducted with the U.S. hockey player Kendall Coyne Schofield and the Canadian player Rebecca Johnston, in which the women spoke of being role models for young girls.
It’s all very inspiring, and very necessary, I suppose. But it’s also a little bit depressing. Because it was hard to not notice that was the only segment in the broadcast featuring female athletes. That same night, over on TSN’s SportsCentre, the female athlete content consisted of a brief check-in on the rising Montreal-born tennis player Leylah Annie Fernandez, who was in the midst of upsetting Sloane Stephens at the Monterrey Open. That segment lasted 35 seconds.
So, yes, Sunday’s Sportsnet show will be historic. In an online essay published this week, Hextall acknowledged skeptics, who she said will see the “broadcast as a gimmick, but every woman involved has earned the right to be here.” Well, that’s right, so why are they on a sequestered? Put them in the mix on a regular basis. It’s long past time to get rid of Dude Time.