Sunday, 21 June 2015

Dear Networks: You Suck

The first-ever NWHL Junior Draft happened yesterday, and I'm sure you saw the exhilaration on Alex Carpenter's face when she was selected first-overall in this historic moment. You didn't? That seems odd. Well, I'm sure you tuned in as Hannah Brandt went second-overall to the Connecticut Whale, right? No? That's ok, I guess, because you caught the draft results on SportsCenter last night after being busy during the day, right? I mean, what sports network would pass up an opportunity to film the event as it happens and review the results of the historic draft later on all their sports highlights shows?

Turns out all of them did. Every. Single. One.

Not Seen, Not Heard

Let's be honest with ourselves here: this isn't a problem with women's hockey despite me using the NWHL as the example. No, this is a problem with networks insisting on showing Alex Rodriguez's 3000th hit in a five-minute musical montage as opposed to giving the Women's World Cup games from the day five minutes of airtime combined.

Rodriguez's 3000th hit is a milestone for sure, but it's one that 27 men have hit before. It's not really worth the five minutes of talking head time to analyze where it ranks in the pantheon of baseball history because it's been done before - 27 times. Combine that with Rodriguez's tainted legacy of performance-enhancing drug use, and it might be the most tarnished of the 28 times a MLB player has hit a baseball 3000 times safely in a career.

Yet when there's an actual moment of history such as the NWHL Draft, not one major sports network was willing to send a reporter to cover the event, let alone sending a camera crew with the idea of doing a voice-over later. And no, Canadian sports networks aren't off the hook here either if you think this is an assault on American sports television. TSN's SportsCentre had more coverage devoted to Rodriguez than they did to Germany and China becoming the first two teams to advance in the Women's World Cup which is BEING PLAYED IN CANADA.

In a rather fantastic article written by Maya Dusenbery in Pacific Standard, Miss Dusenbery presented a story that featured this report showing that the last 25 years of sports history has shown that sports networks are devoting less time to women's sports despite the massive upswing in sports reporting and technology. In the report, Cheryl Cooky, Michael A. Messner, and Michela Musto write regarding networks ESPN, KABC, KNBC and KCBS that,
"... the three local affiliate news shows together devoted about 5% of their main broadcast coverage to women's sports in 1989 and 1993. In 1999, their coverage of women's sports jumped to 8.7%. The coverage of women dipped slightly in 2004 to 6.3% and then plummeted to its nadir of 1.6% in 2009. The slight increase to 3.2% in our 2014 findings indicates that the news shows' coverage of women's sports remains substantially lower than its coverage in 10, 15, 20, and 25 years ago. SportsCenter's coverage, over the 4 time periods it was included in our sample which spans 15 years (1999–2014), has remained remarkably flat, never rising above 2.5%, and in 2014, women’s sports on the main broadcast coverage hovers at a paltry 2.0% of the total broadcast coverage."
Are you kidding me?!? If you're a visual person, here's some help.
Maybe stats and graphs aren't your thing, so let me put it to you this way. In the last 25 years, the three local affiliates in Los Angeles, at their best in 1999, appropriated five minutes and 13 seconds of an hour sports news broadcast to women's sports. If you factor in commercials making the broadcast approximately 45 minutes long, the numbers in 1999 meant that three minutes and 55 seconds were devoted to women's sports.

Less than four-freaking-minutes, people. Four minutes. That was the highest total time seen in the last 25 years, and those are from the local Los Angeles affiliates! If we look at the nationally-broadcasted ESPN totals and base it on the 45 minutes of airtime used, ESPN at its highest in 1999 devoted a mere 59 seconds to women's sports. LESS THAN A FULL MINUTE at its highest rate! What in the singular expletive is going on at the network level when it comes to women's sports coverage?!?

With women's sports viewership continuing to grow, especially for marquee events, you would have to think that it would be increasingly impossible for networks to deny following women's leagues on this planet. Yet they do and seemingly have no issue in sweeping the issue under the rug.

Further clouding the issue is the fact that the "vast majority — more than 80 percent — of what little women's sports coverage exists is devoted to basketball". While I'm not faulting NCAA or the WNBA for getting their coverage as they should, it means that of 2% of time that ESPN currently devotes to women's sports on its broadcasts - that's 54 seconds, readers - 11 seconds are devoted to all other women's sports COMBINED. Let's illustrate this.

Jim: "Welcome to SportsCentre, I'm Jim Host."
Steve: "And I'm Steve Anchor. In women's hockey news, Minnesota defeated North Dakota 3-1. Moving on to basketball..."
Jim: "Really? That's it?"
Steve: "In the NBA tonight..."
Jim: "There were no other NCAA women's games last night? I know Boston College played."
Steve: "As I was saying, in the NBA..."
Jim: "Seriously?"
Producer: "Drop it, Jim. Move on."

And that's women's sports in a nutshell on network TV. Except there's probably less protest from the co-anchor. And as reported by Miss Dusenbery, "three-fourths of the coverage last year was devoted to the "big three" men's sports — basketball, football, and baseball. These sports increasingly dominate the broadcasts — to the exclusion of both women's sports and other men's sports — even during their off-seasons". Hockey, soccer, and any other sport played by both sexes regardless of the news is pushed out by Major League Baseball, the National Football League, and the National Basketball Association, otherwise known as the three leagues with national TV contracts across multiple networks. Suddenly, it's starting to be easy to see why these three sports dominate the sports news shows. We call that "tail wagging the dog".

Is This Really "News"?

Worse yet, Miss Dusenbery notes that "[t]he researchers highlighted some of the oh-so-compelling segments that ran on shows that featured not one single mention of women's athletics, including one about a swarm of bees at a Red Sox versus Yankees game and another about basketball player Kendall Marshall's quest to find a good burrito in Milwaukee." Because those are certainly compelling pieces of human interest reporting. Not one has highlighted Dani Rylan's foray into building a new women's hockey or how she got started in hockey. Not one had delved into the Spanish women's soccer team's coup to oust their coaches in Toronto's airport following their elimination at the 2015 Women's World Cup. Not one has spoken of American midfielder Ali Kreiger's return from a near career-ending concussion in April. Yet we get bees-vs-baseball players and the search for Milwaukee's best burrito. Because that's important(?).

If it wasn't for a few key bloggers following women's hockey, I'm not sure we'd even have a niche in the non-mainstream media. Kudos go out to Watch This who have a number of great writers, including editor Kate and writer Nicole Haase amongst the excellent team on the blog, but there are still massive coverage gaps on the women's hockey side that aren't even touched. Does anyone write about CIS hockey? I'm not faulting Watch This for these gaps, but it says a lot about the Canadian blogging and media scene when there is nothing being written about the amazing ladies playing the game at the university level on a regular basis.

If you're looking for more excellent coverage, please don't stop there. Meg Linehan is another excellent writer covering a ton of women's sporting events in the New England area, Kate Cimini covers all things NHWL for Today's Slapshot, and Nicole writes for the incredible Badgers-centric Bucky's 5th Quarter. If you were expecting a mainstream media site, keep looking.

Sex Sells

The message in sports broadcasting admittedly has changed from women being used as punchlines and sexual objects, but we haven't fully escaped that view entirely. Brandi Chastain's shirt-removing incident opened up a major can of worms in this regard when her excitement after her World Cup goal bubbled over in 1999, but instead of showing her with shirt on, Sports Illustrated pictured her in her iconic pose sans shirt. If you think that having Brandi in her sports bra was just an iconic photo of a moment of exhilaration as opposed to a way for Sports Illustrated to boost sales of that copy of the magazine, I have some incredible waterfront real estate to sell you in Florida.

Chastain was asked to posed nude in Gear magazine after the World Cup, and she expressed regret after seeing the magazine published for how she was depicted in the photos. Writers of the above-linked article Gretchen Miller, Jonathan Scheyer, and Emily Sherrard wrote, "She consented to take the pictures, but she did not get the rights to the photographs, which allowed Gear to use other suggestive pictures of Chastain. Her corporate sponsors became very concerned about her marketability being damaged by such explicit photographs. Although these pictures were taken because of Chastain's reaction after her goal symbolic of her athletic talents, it was her sexual appeal that made it so intriguing for Gear magazine."

Remember that Chastain's iconic photo and the US winning the Women's World Cup happened in 1999 - the very height of women being highlighted on sports newscasts. The writers even credit the team for trying to break the stereotypes surrounding women's sports, writing, "This team tried to defy all stereotypes that women are not as competitive or athletic as me. They sought to banish the notion that men can only be interested in women’s sports if the women they are watching are attractive. Even though some of the qualities about this team were toughness, competitiveness, and great team chemistry, they still were not able to break the barriers of this gendered view of women in sports." And yet, after all was said and done, Brandi Chastain's moment of greatness and unbridled, exuberant celebration in victory was sexualized forever by mainstream media outlets, including the sports networks. Don't kid yourself that it wasn't.

Should women have to trade their athletic ability for sexual attractiveness in order to get people to watch? To me, this not only marginalizes the vast hours of training they've put into becoming the best at their sports, but it's demeaning in that they're seen as sexual objects first and athletes second. If we can be impressed by Dara Torres coming out of retirement to train and swim for the American Olympic team after becoming a mother, why do we sexualize Hilary Knight after she posed for ESPN's The Magazine's The Body issue? Why is Knight - who is the best American hockey player since Cammi Granato - not held to the same standards that Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos where they are viewed for their accomplishments first and everything else second? Why is Ryan Kesler not sexualized for his body in the same magazine yet Knight is? When Eugenie Bouchard was asked to twirl by an on-court presenter at the Australian Open, she immediately went from athlete to sexualized in seconds. How many times has Roger Federer been asked to twirl?

Thanks, male-centric sports coverage. We're all just in it to see Bouchard's figure instead of her control and grace on the court. I feel degraded by this, and I'm a guy.

Further to this, enrollment in sports by women at the collegiate and high school levels has gone up every year, and NCAA women's teams have outpaced the men in recent years in terms of growth. Yet the media is telling our daughters and nieces that you have to be pretty before being an athlete thanks to sports networks catering to men before women.

Penny Marshall made a point of this in A League of Their Own with the following scene.
It's a very poignant scene where the male establishment of baseball, represented by Jon Lovitz's scout character, is thwarted by Geena Davis' and Lori Petty's characters regarding talent vs. looks. That scene, set in 1943, makes a very bold statement about women in sports, yet it's one of the least celebrated scenes in the movie. And to add a little salt to the wound, the Library of Congress selected A League of Their Own for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 2012 for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant", but we still hold the same stereotypical male standards for women in sport some seventy years after the time in which the movie was set. Maybe we need to watch movies a little closer for their moral messages?

It's So Boring

The main complaint that I hear from men regarding women's sports is that watching them is akin to watching paint dry. There are two thoughts on this, and both relate to the medium. First, the broadcasters normally seem less-than-excited to be at the game and calling the action, and, secondly, those recapping the excitement on sports news shows are equally less-than-pumped for the highlight packages. Both of which are squarely on the broadcaster's shoulders.

A lot of this comes from a basic lack of understanding the nuances of women's sports. First and foremost, it's NOT men's sports. Let that sink in for a moment. Women and men are different in a number of ways, so trying to make their sporting endeavors the same is empirically stupid.

Women's hockey is not, will not be, and will never become men's hockey, and I, as a male, am very happy about that. Women's hockey is built on the ideas of speed and skill versus the sometimes-seen brutality that wins games in men's hockey. You can't hide a weak-skating third-line player in women's hockey because skating is so vital to the sport. Granted, you can't do that in men's hockey very well anymore either, but we still have teams who employ the likes of John Scott and Dan Carcillo. They might be somewhat important to the physical game, but they find themselves as spectators in the press box more often than they're on the ice.

If you found games between the Buffalo Sabres and Edmonton Oilers exciting this season, you're one of a very few that did. Ditto for those NBA fans who watched the brutal Los Angeles Lakers meet up with the hopeless New York Knicks. Add in the fans that were gaga for Tennessee against Jacksonville - division rivals! - in the NFL and the always-entertaining matchup between the Brewers and Phillies in baseball this year. In other words, there are always bad games that very few watch on the schedule, and women's sports are no different.

Canada and the US in hockey is always a big deal, but the emerging nations such as Japan and the Czech Republic need to play against better teams to learn the game. How many times as a kid were you told that you only get better by playing better teams? The same holds true for women's sport because some of these programs are literally a few years old in terms of their history. If they had the history of the Yankees and Canadiens and were still at their current talent levels, I'd say that it was a systemic problem. But it's not. It's a matter of "hi, we're new and we want to get better". So give them a chance and show a little respect.

That last line goes for the networks as well. Yes, we get that a USA-Belarus women's hockey game won't be placed into the Hockey Hall of Fame for the play on the ice, but Belarus scoring one goal on the juggernaut American team is literally a historic moment for that country's program. We in North America take that for granted because of the successes our teams have shown, but it wasn't so long ago that the American squad was getting their rears punted around the arena by an experienced Canadian squad.

Massive investments into the American program after the 1990 IIHF Women's World Championships saw the American squad improve year after year against the highly-talented Canadians, and the culmination of that improvement was realized in 1998 with an Olympic gold medal in Nagano, Japan. It took a ton of money and almost a decade, but the Americans finally defeated their rivals. And now we're unwilling to give other countries time to improve? Are we really that ignorant?

NBC took a shot at airing the women's Olympic gold medal final between Canada and the US from Sochi on its main feed on NBC, and the numbers had to have shocked them. According to, the "Olympic women’s hockey gold medal game drew 4.9 million viewers on NBC, according to Nielsen fast-nationals, up 96% from the same match-up on MSNBC in 2010(2.5M). Viewership was the highest for women’s hockey final since 2002, when coverage aired in NBC's primetime window." Up NINETY-SIX PERCENT from an obscure cable channel. They doubled the viewership by simply allowing people to see the game. Does this not resonate with anyone at any network?

When you add in the number of people who streamed the game through NBC in the US, it was noted that the game "was watched by 1.2 million unique users and generated 34.9 million minutes of consumption" online. Only Super Bowl XLVI had more online viewers. Read that last line again - only the most marketed event on the planet had more viewers! But women's sports are "boring", right?

Furthermore, when you see these numbers combined with TSN's phenomenal numbers for women's curling in February and ESPN's triple-digit growth in ratings for the WNBA playoffs, women's sports are seeing massive increases in their viewership numbers. Yet networks still barely give them the time of day outside of major competitions. The CWHL gets no mention on TSN or ESPN. The National Women's Soccer League is hardly a thought to the networks. However, when the women are competing for world championships, Olympic gold medals, or a World Cup, viewership is setting new marks each and every time women's sports are broadcast. Seems kind of backwards, no?

I would bet that the average Canadian hockey fan knows more about Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia than they do about Beauceville, Quebec, yet both towns have hockey players who have scored "Golden Goals" for Canada at the Olympics. I'll wait while you Google which athlete hails from Beauceville because she's generally viewed as one of the best women's hockey players on the planet by both Canadians and Americans. Makes you feel a little empty inside that you had no clue where she was from, right?

So What's The Problem?

To be honest, I can't explain why women's sports are kept off TV other than money. The contracts the networks sign with the three major men's sports - NBA, NFL, and MLB - seem to have a direct correlation with how much coverage they get on the sports news programs, especially in the USA. Canada, meanwhile, gives an inordinate amount of coverage to hockey and the Toronto Blue Jays, and Sportsnet has those two contracts in its back pocket.

While I get that these contracts are for massive amounts of money and the networks are looking to capitalize on selling commercial time to make that money back, would it be so hard for Hockey Night in Canada to pledge ten minutes a week to women's hockey, especially since they employ one of Canada's most decorated women's hockey players in Cassie Campbell-Pascall?

Sportsnet covers the CWHL as well, yet not one score is posted until the playoffs when their coverage begins. Is that really the kind of network deal the CHWL wants? I'm 99.999% sure that it needs more from the one place that the vast majority of Canada will see its product. Part of that blame lies with the CWHL, but Sportsnet, as its partner, should be doing more.

We, as fans, should demand more. Our subscriptions to our TV packages line these networks' pockets with money, yet we get no say in what is broadcast. I get that a private company doesn't have to listen to the people paying its bills, but the numbers are clearly showing that Canadians and Americans want more women's sports on TV. We tune in with huge numbers, but the networks don't give us any sort of glimpse into how or why these national heroes got to where they are.

I'm not saying you need to abandon your Super-Mega Sports Package on TV. But I am saying that you need to make sure that your sports coverage gives some additional time to the women who are heroes to the many girls across this continent. Without them, why would any girl want to play sports for a living like we want all of our boys to do?

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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