Forum: Strong opinions on what’s next for women’s sports
I touched a nerve. A recent column about growing public and corporate support of women’s sports after the U.S. women’s national soccer team’s World Cup championship received strong response among sources I know and respect. Their message: It wasn’t firm enough. Sports media — including SBJ — is part of the problem.
I loved the feedback and found it reasoned, refreshing and worth sharing. Most of it was from sources who work in women’s sports and weren’t comfortable going on the record. One source, a 45-year-old man who works in women’s golf, wrote of his frustration generating fan interest in the women’s game. “Once you get people to attend a women’s event or a game they become converts and evangelists,” he wrote. “But it’s so hard to get people to try it. The experience of going to a women’s professional sporting event is so much better for a family. It’s the opposite of all of the things we complain about at other events: It’s more affordable, more convenient and the players are far more engaging. As far as the hurdles for getting men to ‘try’ women’s sports, I think machismo plays a much bigger role than anyone wants to admit.”
Another source, a brand marketer, said I needed to look in the mirror. “The problem is you, the sports media, doesn’t cover women’s sports. I can’t justify to my bosses that we should spend around women’s sports when media treats it as an afterthought. It’s just not amplified enough.”
Leonard Armato, who has a long history in operating women’s sports, was willing to go on the record. He politely, yet directly, said my theory that interest in women’s sports could change after the summer of 2019 was flawed. “Be real. We won’t see changes. The reason we won’t see changes is because women’s sports is not being distributed, promoted and covered regularly and systematically by the media, nor are women’s sports glamorized by corporate America,” he said. “That’s the problem.”
Armato, a friend of more than 20 years who is always frank with me, outlined his three culprits: Large sports networks and traditional sports media for the dearth of coverage, and Madison Avenue for the way it markets women. “Corporate America markets girls and women way different than the way they market boys and men. Who is Puma’s primary spokesperson? Rihanna. Under Armour signed Gisele and Misty Copeland. They’re not signing female athletes in sports that girls participate on a mass level like soccer, basketball and volleyball.”
When I asked Armato for his solution, he didn’t hesitate. Distributors of live sports programming and sports media should commit to increase sports programming related to women’s sports by 5% each year for the next five years — that would result in roughly a 25% increase by 2024. Networks should give their sales organizations mandatory sales targets to ensure corporate support and activation, so companies not only spend, but also activate around women’s sports.
When I listed the failed publications that focused on women’s sports, Armato didn’t blanch. “I know news editors are trying to base decisions on consumer interest and popularity, and I know men’s sports bring in the money,” he acknowledged. “But if you really want to make society change, you’re going to have to look at the greater good over the long term, like they did with Title IX.” I countered that a mandate on coverage of women’s sports will never happen, and Armato said, “If private companies are not going to voluntarily do it in a meaningful way, the government should mandate it. But I don’t see it happening any time soon. There’s not enough support.”
A fourth source who works in women’s pro sports didn’t blame the media, but called out today’s sports fan. “Whenever someone complains about equal pay or equal coverage, I respond with one simple question: When was the last time you paid for a ticket to a women’s event or watched a women’s event on TV? This entire movement toward equal treatment would be so much more achievable if people supported women’s sports with their own dollars and time.” That’s a tough ask — people’s time, specifically, is the most important asset they have. Can sports fans be conditioned to change? Can the media drive that change?
I remain hopeful the seeds of change are being planted. Others feel strongly they will never take root. “We’re not conditioned to value women’s sports unless it occurs when they’re representing the United States of America in the Olympic Games or in the World Cup,” Armato said, sounding discouraged. We’ll see over time if he’s wrong.
First Look podcast, with Abe joining the discussion at the 28:05 mark:
Abraham Madkour can be reached at email@example.com.