SBJ/June 18 - 24, 2001/Opinion
No one saw it, but it happened anyway
Published June 18, 2001
Back in the mid-1990s, a sports forum was held by the Charlotte Sports Commission to help young professionals aspiring to break into the sports industry. Marketing executives from various show companies were sharing their wisdom with regard to successful sports marketing and the media relationship.
A Nike VP was reflecting on the most recent French Open in which Mary Pierce (Nike athlete) was playing Iva Majoli (Reebok athlete). Pierce took a brief water break. Majoli, during the break, showed her "spunk" and personality by hitting balls with a ball boy. A newspaper reporter reflected on the event by suggesting to the Nike VP that this was a defining moment for Majoli and Reebok. From this event, her image would be established.
Yet, with two quick questions, the Nike VP clarified the oldest rule in sport media. 1) How many spectators were there? Answer, only about 3,000. It was an early round in the tournament and it was before the growth women's tennis has experienced since the late 1990s. 2) Was it televised? No, the break was not covered.
Then, the VP replied, "It did not happen. If no one saw it, it didn't happen."
One of the oldest and most vital rules in this media-driven sport landscape — "If no one saw it, it didn't happen." — played itself out last month in Scottsdale, Ariz. A historic event occurred for those of us fortunate to be in the right place at the right time when executives from throughout professional women's sports served on a panel at the Women's Sports Foundation Summit. The biggest names in the emerging women's sport industry were gathered to give a status report on women's sport: Val Ackerman, WNBA; Lauren Gregg, WUSA; Bart McGuire, WTA; Ty Votaw, LPGA; John Carroll, WPSL; and Ilana Kloss, WTT.
The gathering of this panel and resulting discussion were historic. Never before was it even possible to have gathered a group like this to discuss the strategy to secure a solid stake in the sport industry for their respective entities. Historic. Unprecedented. A defining moment.
How many television cameras would you expect to see during a historic sport gathering such as this? To the disappointment of this women's sport fan and others, this event "did not happen." Summit officials indicated that a representative from the local newspaper was covering the event. Yet, there was no explanation why the local television crews had failed to come.
Television and print media continue today to trivialize women in sport by consistently passing on the "real" news to show the skin whenever bared. If not skin, then the choice will always be the pretty girl before the accomplished one. Yes, I'm talking about the Anna Kournikova phenomenon.
Just ask Christine Brennan about this problem. She shared with summit attendees her frustration when the editors at USA Today gave Gabrielle Reece — an unproven pro golf hopeful — front page coverage, when just one week previous Annika Sorenstam, a legitimate LPGA pro, made history by coming back from 10 strokes down and shooting a 59 to win. Sorenstam did not get front page. Reece, the unproven (though attractive) wanna-be, warranted the coveted coverage.
In this day, media is crucial to the success of every sport property. Is this a barrier too big for women's sport to overcome? No. Women's sport has more to offer than pretty babes in appropriate sports. We are way beyond the 1970s and 1980s in that regard. Leagues of girls will tell you that they are fans of professional female athletes and teams. These same girls know the difference between coverage based on merit and coverage based on looks. Even our boys, young enough to know only a sport landscape inclusive of women, appreciate, recognize and admire successful women athletes.
Which means the only significant barrier left to overcome is the antiquated view exposed by the media decision-makers who opt for appearance over substance.
Still, the most important lesson to be gained from sport is that we are all on one team. Women's sport needs the media. No question. And with growing fan frustration and defection, with skyrocketing salaries and lagging ticket sales in some of the more "mainstream" sports, the media needs women's sports. We're all one in the shared passion for sport.
Increasingly, the voices of women's sport fans will make their way to sponsors to inform them that "yes, we will buy your product when you support women's sport." According to the commissioners gathered in Scottsdale, women are loyalists and women's sport has become a "cause." We've fought long and hard and one day — very, very soon — they will come. By they, I mean the media, who will deserve credit for showing the public the side of the sports world many fans miss.
Women's sport has arrived. Even if that day in Scottsdale wasn't televised — it did happen and it will continue to happen.
Nancy Lough is assistant professor of sport administration at the University of New Mexico.