Sedona Prince started it this year with an uncomfortable truth. The Oregon basketball player, famous for a TikTok video earlier this year that pointed out the discrepancy between the workout palace provided at the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and the meager triangle of dumbbells for the women, has made it safe to point out the obvious.
This time, WNBA Liberty player by way of Oregon, Sabrina Ionescu, took a stroll through major sports media outlets looking for NCAA women’s basketball coverage and presents her findings: the equivalent of a workout palace for the men’s coverage and for the women? You already know the answer.
“I wish I could open my social media and see highlights about Women’s sports,” Ionescu tweeted. “ESPN, Sportscenter, Bleacher Report etc. post about NBA, NFL and Men’s NCAA right now. There are so many Top 25 teams battling in the Women’s NCAA right now, with NO coverage. Do better.”
So why is this? The women’s NCAA tournament has been gaining in popularity and ratings have gone up. The WNBA has seen gains. But these trends don’t mean that women’s sports will get the kind of coverage they’ve earned by the numbers, or that coverage on outlets like ESPN will rise to the top of the home screen.
A new Marist Poll in conjunction with the Center for Sports Communication (of which, Dear Reader, I am the Director) finds that sports fans want more women’s coverage in traditional media and on broadcast networks. Overall, 56 percent of sports fans want more coverage of women’s sports and athletes.
This opinion strengthened among younger demographics, where 68 percent under 30 want more coverage, and those are the kind that sports networks and leagues hope to attract to their coverage. The trend was stronger among women and people of color as well.
Those demographics, however, aren’t usually the ones making coverage decisions at the network level.
When talking about what sports get covered, there is an element to filling the demand of sports consumers. But women’s sports have been a place where that demand isn’t always met. There are a lot of reasons for that, but one big one is that the men who run sports networks are producing coverage for other men. And even as women are a growing part of the sports audience,
But like Ionescu and Prince, who turned her sardonic eye to the camera as though to say, “why the hell didn’t you all fix this already??,” younger athletes and fans notice the inequity.
That same Marist poll found that 61 percent of sports fans want to see more women within sports league hierarchies, such as coaches and managers.
Not all sports fans watch women’s sports, but not all sports fans watch the NFL either. At least when it comes to the WNBA, more women’s sports fans watch that league at 26 percent than sports fans watch NASCAR (16 percent). In an earlier Marist poll, baseball and the NBA draws 37 percent of sports fans, while the NFL leads all American sports with 56 percent of sports fans tuning in.
Another important trend here is growth. Women’s sports are gaining in fans and popularity, while sports like baseball (and apologies here to all the sports editors I’ve ever had who loved their childhood teams as much as they loved pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving) but baseball has a shrinking, graying audience.
As sports economist and Southern Utah University professor David Berri said when he visited my class two weeks ago, men really like watching other men play sports.
It makes sense that women’s sports are finally taking their place in the pantheon of visible American sports. The WNBA was started in 1997, and fandom is usually generational. It took decades for other professional fans to connect with their legacy audiences as well.
As for the decision-makers, they are still lagging behind.
The US National Women’s Soccer team has a huge fan base, and never forget that Nike ran out of jerseys during the 2019 World Cup. This wasn’t due to overwhelming demand. The demand was easily anticipated. It was poor planning from a league and apparel partner who may have been more focused on the men’s product.
A number of women’s sports outlets are jumping in to fill the void. Under Ionescu’s post, a promising venture called Just Women’s Sports invited fans to check out their coverage. Other comments praised in-house coverage at some colleges or other new sites.
None have the institutional leverage of a rights holder, but it’s a start. The data shows that there is an audience and that, like the players who want to know why women get the crumbs, sports fans can plainly see the inequity.