On Women's Sports

Rod Dreher writes:

I’m not a sports fan, but it seems pretty clear to me that almost nobody wants to watch professional women’s sports. The question is why. I suppose the feminists would say that the market actually is there, if only the people who run TV sports would notice. Really? You think that people who really only want to make money, and don’t care how they do it, are turning their nose up at an opportunity to exploit an untapped market? Highly doubtful. The more interesting question is why, in a sports-crazy nation, people — even many women — only really care about male sports. Thoughts?

As a general rule, the answer is that people want to watch the most skilled competitors available, and the best athletes in most popular America sports are men — few if any women could compete on teams in the NFL or the NBA, for example (imagine a woman trying to tackle Barry Sanders or guard Shaq) and if you look at the most popular highlights in men’s basketball, you’ll see that what people like most are spectacular dunks, the aspect of the game that women are least able to mimic. (Interestingly, John Wooden once said that he preferred female basketball due to its greater emphasis on fundamentals, but it’s still hard to imagine him choosing to coach in the WNBA.)

Then there are the sports where women’s competition is more popular: ice skating and gymnastics, for example, two Olympic events where female competitors can perform routines that men can’t manage. Were men and women competing head to head, its easy to imagine lots of competitions in these sports where the women would absolutely dominate.

Ski-jumping is a case where men are the ones who compete in the Olympics even though the world record is compete for among women. It seems like straight up sexism is at work in that sport. There isn’t any reason why men and women can’t compete against one another, and if it must be single sex, it should be the women who get to compete.

I also wonder whether women’s tennis is going to wind up more popular. Men are certainly better at the game. Certainly the top 50 men in the world would be able to beat the best woman, especially in the longer best of five set match to which men are accustom. And on clay, I prefer to watch men’s matches, though I very much enjoy the women’s game too. On grass, however, men’s serves are getting so much more powerful — due to equipment changes, the greater height of competitors, and more emphasis on weight training — that it’s getting less and less fun to watch them play at Wimbledon. I’d much rather watch a women’s match with longer rallies and a greater emphasis on placement and strategy that unfolds over several shots than a succession of on-serve sets where most games have three or four aces or service winners.

Discussion on this subject is prompted by academics at USC who analyzed sports on television, and concluded that coverage since 1989 “has declined to a level of outrageously small numbers.”

Christina Hoff Summers makes the obvious rebuttals here, and also notes:

The latest USC report is silent about the near-total absence of sports in women’s media. The limited coverage consists mainly of human-interest stories about women athletes. By the logic of the USC authors, shows such as “The View” and “Oprah” should be offering sports highlights and scrolling tickers with scores. Magazines such as Vogue, Allure, Cosmopolitan, and Better Homes and Gardens should be bursting with stories about draft picks, photographs of awesome plays, and up-to-date information about fantasy teams and brackets.

I think this actually misses something important. Sports journalism has changed a lot since 1989, and contrary to what the USC study implies, anyone who wants to follow women’s sports is actually a lot better off now due to niche media that both offers coverage of practically any team one would want to follow, and helps explain why mass market programs like Sports Center and network news sports shows cover teams or athletes with niche audiences less — if you’re interested in the WNBA, you can buy a package through your cable company to get all the games, follow the season on ESPN.com, join a fantasy league, etc.

As a high school athlete, and a recreational athlete still, I’m totally behind the move to give girls an equal opportunity to benefit from college athletics, and if I have daughters one day, I’ll encourage them to play sports by installing a basketball hoop on the driveway and buying them surfboards. Upon going to college, I’ll want them to have an equal opportunity at getting an athletic scholarship. But there isn’t any reason why network news and ESPN should give equal time, or anything approaching it, to women’s sports — they should follow market demand (and when they depart from it, they should televise less golf, a sport with a tiny audience of very rich consumers).