Beyond bikinis: how the media covers female athletes

This piece written in the fall of 2013, is my Honours Project for the University of King’s College.

I pitched the piece in September and it was completed six weeks later. 

The question I wanted to answer:  Why does 51 per cent of the population receive only five per cent of sports coverage?

OLY COC London 2012

Photo by the Canadian Press

By Paula Sandrerson

On a warm August afternoon in 2012, 10.7 million Canadians fell in love. They fell in love with Christine Sinclair and her teammates on the Canadian Olympic soccer team as they faced the Americans in the semifinal game.

That’s four million more than the 2002 men’s gold medal hockey game against the U.S.

Outside of the Olympics female athletes don’t receive an enormous amount of coverage  from the Canadian media. They receive little, or none at all.

“In the past five years it’s just been disgusting,” says Laura Robinson of London, Ont., a freelance journalist, champion cyclist and author of Black Tights: Women, Sports and Sexuality. “If you don’t include the Olympics it’s appalling, and deplorable.”

Newspaper sports coverage expert and kinesiology professor Jane Crossman, of Thunder Bay’s Lakehead University, is one of the few Canadian scholars tracking how female athletes are covered in the media. Crossman says local papers provide better coverage of female athletes than national media outlets because they are more likely to report on amateur athletes.

Overall, Canada covers more stories on female athletes than in most countries. “I think the situation is better or more equitable in Canada than it is elsewhere, “says Crossman.

At CBC Halifax, Colleen Jones sits in a radio broadcast booth. She’s been a journalist at CBC since 1986, has covered multiple Olympics and is a six-time Canadian curling champion. She knows what female athletes need to win the attention of the media and the general public.

“People want to watch the best, people want to see a battle,” she says. “Great against great, everything on the line, who wins who loses. You need some drama.”

The 2012 Olympic battle between the Canadian and American women’s soccer team had all of those elements.

The battle between the United States and Canada may have officially stopped in 1814 but on that day it raged on in the hearts of sports fans, almost 200 years later.

Everything was on the line. Canada had a chance to make history by winning the first medal in a traditional summer team sport since 1936.

“What happened with the women’s soccer team at the Olympics was fascinating to me,” says soccer fan, Globe and Mail media critic and author of The World is a Ball: The Joy, Madness and Meaning of Soccer, John Doyle. “Because the London Olympics were essentially a damp squid, a non-event, until the women’s soccer game against the USA.”

During the game the referee made a call many believed tipped the game in the Americans’ favour.

“That was the moment that the great vast Canadian public became emotionally engaged with the Olympics,” says Doyle in Toronto. “It caused a debate and drew a spotlight to the women’s soccer team that transcended the game, and the team.”

Getting that amount of media attention is an anomaly.

The Canadian media’s daily attention is focused on professional, male sports leagues like the NFL, NHL, NBA and MLB.

“We are 51 per cent of the population. When a whole segment of the population disappears, that’s dangerous. When you don’t matter it is easy to kill you, it’s easy to rape you and it’s easy to harm you. Those messages go out every day, that women don’t matter.” – Laura Robinson, champion cyclist and author ofBlack Tights: Women, Sports and Sexuality

“It all depends on what draws the biggest crowds,” says Willy Palov, a sportswriter with the Chronicle Herald. “It is too bad, but it is not a new problem in modern society.”

Hockey Night in Canada and Sunday NFL’s viewer ratings destroy Saturday afternoon women’s sports. In 2011, eight out of the top ten most watched broadcasts in Canada were male sports. Zero showcased women athletes.

High ratings result in competitive advertising spots, and these ads bring media outlets the cash they desperately need.

“It is extremely difficult for a national paper or even a big city daily, like theToronto Star, to give sports coverage (to) everything that it should,” says Doyle. “The newspaper business these days is in a traumatic period of transition.”

Like the journalism industry, females athletes desperately need money. They need to pay their coaches, buy the best equipment and have enough money to live so they can focus on their sport, and not worry about their shift at the local fast food outlet.

Sports journalists, experts and athletes have come to the same conclusion. When it comes to women’s sports, sex sells.

“If women’s rugby was funded so they could have all the training and preparation and travel they needed, I doubt that the first choice for the athletes would be to make a less than fully-dressed calendar.” – Karin Lofstrom, executive director of the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport.

“It is still how we sell cars and how we fund a good deal of women’s sport,” says Wendy Bedingfield a retired professor at Acadia University. “I wish that wasn’t what raised a lot of money for them, but it is, and I don’t criticize them at all for trying to fund their competitive lives.”

The Canadian Women’s Rugby team has done just that. For the fourth time in recent years they released a 2013 nude calendar.

“If women’s rugby was funded so they could have all the training and preparation and travel they needed, I doubt that the first choice for the athletes would be to make a less than fully-dressed calendar,” says Karin Lofstrom, executive director of the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport.

Mount St. Vincent University’s athletic director, June Lumsden, believes sexism is not exclusive to women. “There are sexist shots of men too,” she says. “A six-pack, whether it is male or female, (will) sell.”

When Merrithew was  playing football, the Moncton Times and Transcript reported she made a tackle during a game. On second reference, they referred to her as ‘he’. With her mom, Merrithew wrote to the paper. “We were like: excuse me, there is a little bit of a problem here,” she says laughing.

The paper apologized and acknowledged football is not just for guys.

Putting female athletes in the public eye must be an active choice by the media. Hyatt sees potential for media interest in Canadian women’s hockey like the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.  At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, women’s hockey had extremely high ratings, second only to men’s hockey.

“Every year that there is an Olympics, you see the Canadian team do so well,” says Hyatt. “The women on those teams become household names for those two weeks.”

If people paid attention to female athletes in between the Olympics there could be a market for women’s sport. But people don’t do this.

Journalists have to take the first step to get female athletes into the Canadian consciousness.

“It’s not going to happen unless it is a conscious decision,” says Lumsden. “You have to be proactive. No doubt about it: you can’t just sit back.”

The difference is women are only valued for their looks while men can be both athletic and handsome. Skimpy clothes and lots of make-up, make their way into the media’s viewfinder.

Meaghan MacDougall and her partner Hillary Monnet represented Nova Scotia at the World Beach Volleyball championships held in Halifax in September 2012. MacDougall is a student at Mount St. Vincent University. Sitting outside of the gym, she reminisces about the tournament. Being the local team, the media scrummed the duo after their first game, which was nerve-wracking for MacDougall.

She was wearing her beach volleyball uniform: white sunglasses, a logo-covered fuchsia sports bra and black bikini bottoms. The media and the general public have criticized beach volleyball uniforms like the one MacDougall wore that day.

Looking outside at the pouring rain, MacDougall explains that the only time they don’t play is when there is lightning.  She says the rain weighs down clothing – bikinis function in all weather.

MacDougall says the reputation attached to the appearance of beach volleyball frustrates her. “It’s not all about looks,” MacDougall says. “It actually offends me because it is a real sport. I train every day of the summer and I’m working my butt off for it and some guys are like, oh, we’re just going to watch these girls.”

She rolls her eyes.

Beach volleyball is not the only women’s sport tagged with sex appeal. Synchronized swimming, gymnastics and figure skating all have makeup and decorative outfits as part of their official uniforms. Robinson says make-up in sports is awful because it shifts the viewer’s attention from the athlete’s abilities to their looks.

“I think it’s appalling, especially on the younger ones,” says Robinson. “Why are we putting all this crap on their faces?”

Playing football on her high school boy’s team, Shelby Merrithew didn’t wear makeup under her helmet. However, she says the media affected her self-image in other ways.  “I’ve never been a stick skinny girl,” she says. “I remember when I was ten I saw a picture (of a female athlete) and thought ‘is that real?’”

She says trying to have what the media says is an ideal athletic body is hard. “You’re trying to bulk up,” she says. “But you’re also trying to fit into your uniform.”

The rugby team claims their calendar is a way of showing a positive body image that is not slim. But instead of attracting fans, rugby may be pushing their real market away.

Craig Hyatt is a sports fans expert and sports management professor at Brock University in St. Catherine’s, Ont. He says,athletes who strip down are not attracting the type of fans needed to grow women’s sports.

Hyatt explains that heterosexual men will only watch the sport because it’s titillating. “They have no interest in watching you do anything with your clothes on,” he says.

Fans, who are tuning in to see aesthetics rather than athletics, are not true fans of the sport. Nor do they ever become true fans of the sport. If that sexy sport star leaves, the “fans” leave with them.

Hyatt believes the fans you really want are the fans looking for fully-dressed role models. He has noticed the American college athletic programs have success when they direct their marketing to single moms with daughters. “They will market a college basketball team as a great thing to take your daughters to, and the daughters will then easily find role models in the women who are playing, and idolize them and want to come back again and again and again,” he says.

Unfortunately, in Canada similar programs do not exist. Overall, Canadian female athletes receive less money and attention than American female athletes. So they have turned to other means of making money, such as nude calendars.

Lofstrom says nude calendars of female athletes send the wrong message to young girls.  “That makes the little girl think, ‘If I want to play women’s sports down the road would I be willing to do [that]?’”

Getting female athletes in the media, and getting them to be taken seriously, is difficult.

It’s a Catch-22. Programs without money cannot create marketing campaigns to increase their fan base, and without the fan base they are not able to increase their income. It becomes this vicious spiral that is so difficult to avoid.

To get female athletes  into the media, society’s attitude towards female sports needs to change first, says Hyatt.

“We have a culture in North America where dads will sit down, grab the TV remote control, and turn to watch his favourite sport … who you do not interrupt on Sunday afternoon this time of year because they are watching three football games back to back to back.”

This Sunday ritual has a significant influence on the family. Hyatt says this is how the idea that women’s sports don’t matter gets passed across gender lines.

“Here is this traditional man who pooh-poohs women’s sports, if he talks about them at all. It sends a very powerful message not only to his sons but to his daughters that women sports are second rate,” says Hyatt.

This socialization cycle is hard to break.

“You are actually training daughters into thinking that the only sports that matter are big league men’s sports,” says Hyatt. “So it’s so difficult for women who are running these women’s sports leagues to get the mothers and the daughters out. It’s like they are fighting against that socialization that takes place in the living room.”

To Robinson, this socialization process has profound consequences.

“We are 51 per cent of the population. When a whole segment of the population disappears, that’s dangerous,” she says.  “When you don’t matter it is easy to kill you, it’s easy to rape you and it’s easy to harm you. Those messages go out every day, that women don’t matter.”

Since the ‘60s and ‘70s the language used by sports media has changed significantly, says Bedingfield.

“Athletes who would win an Olympic medal would be described as beautiful and blond and blue eyed and all those things. That’s all changed through a lot of effort,” says Bedingfield. “It’s not the quality of it right now- it’s the quantity of it right now.”

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