Sunday, September 2, 2012

Women in professional sports- fantasy or reality?

The night before our first Feminist Legal Theory class this past week, I was doing some bedtime channel surfing and stumbled upon a re-run of Tosh.0, a series hosted by comedian Daniel Tosh that features online video clips. One segment of the show, “Web Redemption,” featured a 17 year-old boy (young man?) who had previously been featured in a clip that depicted him losing an “MMA” (mixed martial arts) fight to a 29 year-old woman. As the segment’s title implies, the young man was given the opportunity to “redeem” himself for losing this fight (for the record, not only did he lose the fight, but the video shows that he was “choked out” by the young woman, rendering him unconscious). Tosh commented that they asked the pair to do the rematch to find out “who really is the more powerful sex” and in the same breath said, “it’s men.” The young man prevailed in the rematch (watch video here- viewer discretion is definitely advised). Although the segment was surely intended to be comedic, it got me wondering, why can’t a woman prevail in a professional fight against a man without that man needing to “redeem” himself later? Especially in a sport where opponents are pitted against one another based on their weight class, why is it surprising for a woman to come out on top?

Living with my sports-fanatic boyfriend, I watch a lot of baseball, basketball, football, and Sports Center (which really just wraps up all the games I’ve been watching all week into one show). Don’t get me wrong, I love my Giants baseball, but I realized that with the exception of the women’s volleyball, gymnastics, swimming, track, and diving events I managed to squeeze in during the Olympics this summer, ALL of the sports I watch are men’s sports. Even with Title IX working for women’s sports in educational institutions, it is hard to ignore the fact that women’s professional sports are rarely aired on television. It seems like this phenomenon is often blamed on the fact that viewers are less interested in watching women’s sports than men’s, and therefore, men’s sports are “where the money is” in sports broadcasting.

I came across an ESPN article that featured Nancy Lieberman, a former professional basketball player, who now coaches the NBA Development League’s Texas Legends. She pointed out that by browsing through some professional male athlete’s Twitter pages, you can find praise for college and professional female athletes. But does this mean that male athletes or the sports-watching population at large follow women’s teams as closely as their favorite male teams or that they would support the inclusion of women in previously male dominated sports?

The article, an introduction to a series that took an in depth look at professional baseball, football, basketball, hockey, golf and tennis to determine whether a talented female athlete could play with the guys and be accepted as their peer, points out that in the 40 years since Title IX’s passage, women’s participation in sports has risen dramatically, and their skill level has improved. The article reported that while some individuals who were interviewed said that a woman could be accepted as a professional if “she helped her team win,” others clung to the classic “biological differences” rationale after concluding that the idea is “unrealistic.”

Dr. Earl Smith, the director of American Ethnic studies at Wake Forest, commented that the physical challenges women face in breaking into men’s professional sports are “dwarfed by sociological ones.” Female athletes are often criticized for not being feminine enough, and their role as cheerleaders, as opposed to competitors, is often reinforced during commercial breaks and time outs. Smith said, “There are women who can kick a football or a soccer ball, but then you have to ask yourself as a parent, would you put your daughter through that just to play a game?”

I will likely follow up on this subject, as there is so much more to it than one blog post can express, but I’d like to finish this one with a shout-out to a few of the stand out female medalists of the 2012 Olympics: Missy Franklin (swimming), the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics team, the U.S. Women’s Soccer team, and Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh-Jennings (beach volleyball). Maybe if sports fans were as excited about professional women's sports as they were about the women's Olympic events this past summer, we would see more female sporting events on television.


Patricija said...

A post by Marlo Thomas in the Huffington Post in July really stood out to me. This year marked the first time the U.S. Olympic team included more women than men. It was also the first time there was a female representative from every country, and the first time every sport includes female athletes. So momentous were these three firsts that Time proclaimed this to be "The Year of the Woman"(

But you raise some important points. There is just not enough societal support for women sports. Less money is thrown at women sports and is defended by saying "they just don't attract an audience." When asked what the average person can do to help, Marlene Bjornsrud (CEO of Bay Area Women’s Sports Initiatives) always starts by saying lets get "butts in seats."

Lastly, we need to target women's access to sports when they are young. The studies show that participating in sports helps women in their future career success ( For a variety of reasons, women's participation in sports decreases once they get into Junior High School and High School, not to mention the lack of access to sports for girls in low income communities. As a society we need to continue to engage women in sports throughout their lifetime for their own personal empowerment, physical well-being, and future career success.

KB said...
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KB said...

One reason we may not see very many women's professional sports on television is that professional leagues usually do not exist for women. While there have been attempts at forming women’s leagues in a variety of sports, many have failed. ( One interesting follow-up to this blog post might be an analysis of why some women's professional sports leagues have failed, while others have survived. For example, despite the popularity of women's soccer after the 1999 World Cup (we all remember Brandi Chastain's sports bra incident), the Women's United Soccer Association lasted only a few seasons before the organizers suspended it (see their Wikipedia article here: In contrast, the WNBA seems to have survived and some games even make it onto one of the ESPN stations. You can also view the WNBA games online and through local channels.

It seems that those women’s leagues that do exist are not popular enough to gain mainstream media slots; yet because they do not have those slots they may not be able to reach a broad enough audience to sufficiently increase their popularity to gain those slots or even survive. Maybe having online and on-demand viewing is one way the WNBA is able to survive? Could a new women’s soccer league be more successful with a broader range of viewing options?

Finally, the two professional women’s leagues that seem to be the most popular and successful are women’s golf and tennis. As a golfer, I can barely watch golf on television without becoming bored, so why is it that women’s golf can make it beyond the Golf Channel to ESPN and NBC from time to time? Women’s professional tennis also receives relatively significant television time on major networks. I hope that the popularity of these sports and thus their ability to be aired on major networks does not derive from the fact that they can be played in short skirts.