Women, Sport, and the Media Commercial Complex

The media shape our lives in many ways, including our attitudes toward social issues and events. One way this is illustrated is through the mediated platform through which television and other media exist. When we watch a soccer match on television, we are not simply observing an objective portrayal of events. Instead, the commentators' language, camera angles, replays, and so on all shape how we see the event, our attitudes toward it, and the value we attach to it. 

The media also shape how we perceive women, women's sports, and their accomplishments. Janet Fink offered a thorough review of these concepts in her recent study published in Sport Management Review.* She specifically focuses on the sport media commercial complex, including advertisements, endorsement campaigns, and other parts of the media. 

She broke down her review into several parts, first focusing on the amount of coverage women and women's sports receive. Despite substantial gains in participation rates over the years, Fink's review shows that women's sport continues to be under-represented in the media, receiving a fraction of what men and men's sports receive. This is hardly a surprise, as one need only turn on the television or read the newspaper to see that women are rarely covered in these media outlets. 

While the lack of coverage is generally known, what Fink's report also highlights are the many differences in the way women and men are presented in the media. This refers to more qualitative differences and offers important insights. One way this occurs is through gender marking, where sport events will cast men's events as the standard and women's events as the "other." For example, even though ESPN refers to the women's basketball championships as the Women's Final Four, CBS makes no such qualifier when referencing the men's championship: The Final Four. This practice serves to trivialize women's events and it occurs throughout sport. 

Other common practices Fink uncovered include:

  • Infantilizing: the practice of referring to adult women as "girls" or "young ladies" though adult males are seldom referred to as "boys".
  • Differential framing: the media will frequently minimize women's athletic accomplishments while emphasizing those of men. As one of many examples, golf commentators are three times more likely to speak of strength among men relative to women. (This is golf, after all, so such mentions are especially curious).
  • Focus on appearance: the media will frequently focus on women's appearance, emphasizing their femininity and heterosexuality...again, activities rarely observed in men's sports. This is true in media coverage of sports, advertisements, and promotions.
  • Production techniques: when compared to their counterparts, women's events are less likely to be videoed in a way that emphasizes the action on the court or field, and are more likely to be shot in a way that emphasizes the athletes' breasts or buttocks. 

Finally, Fink offers a number of reasons for why these differences might occur. These include the desire to promote men and dominant forms of masculinity; sexism; heterosexism and sexual prejudice; and marketing and promotion strategies. Interestingly, evidence to support the idea that sex sells is actually lacking, thereby debunking the marketing and promotions rationale. Thus, one is only left with the other reasons to explain the poor and infrequent coverage of women and women's sports. 

Whatever the reasons or reasons, the end result is a devaluing of women, their accomplishments as athletes, and women's sports in general. As the media have operated in this way for so long, consumers take it for granted, as natural or the way things are. This makes contesting such representations so important. Without continually contesting such representation, without demanding more women and women's sports on television and new media, and without holding the media accountable, the same patterns will occur. 

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*Fink, J. S. (2015). Female athletes, women's sport. and the sport media commercial complex: Have we really "come a long way, baby"? Sport Management Review, 18, 331-342.