On July 7, 26.7 million Americans tuned in to watch the World Cup final between the US and Japan. Not only did the game score higher ratings than the most recent NBA finals and World Series, but it was also the most watched soccer game in American history.
The ratings success of the World Cup demonstrated that women’s sports can be commercially successful.
Some of the reasons for this success include the way the tournament was framed by the media and the way the US Soccer Federation (USSF) presented its women’s team. Perhaps other athletic leagues and media outlets can take a page from the USSF, as there’s still a huge discrepancy between how men’s and women’s teams are regularly portrayed.
‘Playing like a girl’
Women’s sports are rarely televised or reported on by mainstream media. For example, in 2014, Los Angles TV network affiliates devoted only 3.2% of their airtime to women’s sports. ESPN proclaims itself to be the “World Wide Leader” in covering sports, but a recent study found that it devoted only 2% of airtime on its flagship show SportsCenter to women’s sports.
When women’s sports do receive coverage, they’re often subtly framed as inferior to men’s sports, which has the effect of eroding their value and credibility.
An analysis of prominent sports magazines revealed that female athletes were often framed as mentally weak: writers described female athletes as “nervous,” “fragile,” and “lacking in hunger.” Articles about successful female athletes often included references to the men in their lives, fathers and coaches who were given credit for the athlete’s accomplishments.
Meanwhile, another study showed newspaper coverage of female athletes tended to minimize their athleticism and focus on their personal lives.
Breaking from traditional coverage
But the coverage of the 2015 Women’s World Cup broke from convention in several important ways.
First, Fox devoted significant airtime to the event: the network chose to air all 52 games in the month-long tournament and devote over 200 hours of coverage.
Second, the USSF and its fans have chosen to treat the women’s and men’s national teams as equals. This is reflected in the labels given to each team. The United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) and the United Stated Women’s National Team (USWNT) may seem like rather plain monikers, but they reveal a lot about how we should perceive the sport and its participants.
There is no USNT, with the implication that the “national team” is, by default, the men’s team; instead, there are the USWNT and WSMNT. As a result, the men’s and women’s soccer on the national level are framed as equals.
This is also reflected in the marketing of both teams. In the wake of the USWNT’s victory, US Soccer released a shirt commemorating all three of the US’ World Cup Victories in 1994, 1999 and 2015. Nowhere on the shirt does it indicate the sex of the participants or attempt to devalue their accomplishments.
And while FIFA will pay participants of the Women’s World Cup a total of US$15 million (or about 2.5% of the $576 million men’s players received in 2014), US Soccer’s financial contribution to each team is far more equal. In fact, according to US Soccer’s tax records, the three highest-paid players on its books from April 2012 to March 2013 were all women: Alex Morgan, Becky Sauerbrunn and Christie Rampone.
The masculinization of sports
Still, in most sports, we default to the masculine.
Take, for example, the NCAA Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. Both take place primarily during the month of March. However, google the phrase “March Madness” or “NCAA Tournament” and you receive results for only the men’s tournament. To get results for the Women’s Division I NCAA Tournament, one must include some term denoting either gender or sex.
Accordingly, 95 NCAA teams use the term “lady” to refer to the women’s athletic teams. Recently, the University of Tennessee decided to stop referring to its female athletes (with the exception of its women’s basketball team) as “Lady Vols.”
Soccer’s international governing body, FIFA, continues to differentiate between the World Cup and Women’s World Cup. Professional sports leagues are often no better: there’s the NBA and the WNBA, the PGA and the LPGA. In both cases, there’s the implication that professional basketball and golf are, by default, masculine activities.
Designating female participation in professional sports by including their sex in the league title indicates to the consumer that what they’re watching is not “professional basketball”; rather, it’s “women’s professional basketball.” This rhetorical tendency works to frame women’s sports as different and inherently inferior: of the minor league variety.
These labels may not seem like much, but according to researchers like UC-Berkeley’s George Lakoff, they are fundamental to the way we perceive the world.
The terms we use to describe an object or an activity, like sports, create a frame through which it is viewed, and that frame is laden with values.
For example, Lakoff noted the stark difference in polls in 2010 asking about ending Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in the US military. Results differed dramatically depending on whether the terms “homosexuals” or “gay men and lesbians” were used in the questions. He believed this happened because the word “homosexual” conjures up negative connotations and values, while the terms “gay” and “lesbian” have more positive connotations in the minds of many Americans.
The success of the USWNT in drawing high ratings demonstrates a willingness of Americans to consume female sports when they are fairly portrayed and not devalued in relation to their male counterparts.
Maybe because of the framing and treatment of the USWNT and USMNT, American viewers are less likely to devalue the accomplishments of star players like Carli Lloyd and Abby Wambach. And perhaps more people tuned into the World Cup on Sunday because they weren’t being bombarded with the notion that they were watching an inferior product.
Instead, they were tuning to watch the beautiful game being played at its highest level.
Assistant Professor of Communication Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln)