Sticking It to Women’s Sports
At the spectators start to file out, I look over my notes to make sure I haven’t missed anything. After NHL games, fans can catch hours of highlights, stats, commentary, and interviews on any network. But no television reporters will be recapping tonight’s great plays, interviewing the coaches, or chatting with players in the locker rooms postgame. In fact, no one outside of Durham region will ever know there was a game, because the only journalists who regularly attend the National Women’s Hockey League games in Ajax are one who writes articles for the league’s website and a lone photographer/reporter from the Ajax/Pickering New Advertiser, a local paper with a circulation of 40,00 or so that is published three times a week. There wasn’t a television sports journalist for miles to capture the winning team’s ponytails bouncing around while the women celebrated their first win of the season.
The lack of coverage of the Mississauga Ice Bears-Telus Lightning match is typical of the attention—or inattention—women’s pro sports receive in Canada: most people aren’t even aware that we have a National Women’s Hockey League. While Canada has more accomplished female athletes than ever before, the ratio of women’s sports stories to women’s on national sports networks is at least 10 to one. A survey on TV sports listings for the week of August 18 to 24, 2001, illustrates the problem. This particular week featured the final two rounds of the Ladies Professional Golf Association’s Bank of Montreal Canadian Women’s Open, the final rounds of the Women’s Tennis Association’s Rogers AT&T Cup Tournament, the Women’s Tennis Association’s Pilot Pen, the Women’s National Basketball Association’s Conference semifinals, and many women’s events at the Canada Summer Games, including volleyball and softball. Nevertheless, only 27 or the 124 sports broadcasts were devoted solely to women’s events.
This chronic undercoverage of women’s events not only short-changed viewers and creates morale problems for female athletes, but their low profile contributes to the lack of funding and sponsorship for women’s teams and limits girls’ exposure to positive role models. It also fails to reflect the burgeoning participation of women in traditional “male” sports. Since 1996, the number of women hockey in Canada has quadrupled, women’s soccer has grown 35 percent, and participation in women’s basketball has increased more than 50 percent. The popularity of and participation in tennis and gold have also increased significantly. True, coverage is slightly better than it was a decade ago, and is slowly on the rise. But men continued to be the home-team favourites when it comes to sports journalism. “There is a failure on the part of broadcasters. They haven’t given much equity, value, or importance to women’s sports,” says Melanie Cishecki, executive director of Mediawatch, a Toronto-based feminist group that monitors sexism in the media.
So why are women’s sports still warming the bench when it comes to sports on television?
Steve Simmons, a general sports columnist at The Toronto Sun for 15 years, suggests that the reason why is simply because the interest and demand just don’t exist. “I don’t believe there’s a demand from the public for women’s sports,” he says flatly. This argument irritates Nancy Lee, head of sports at CBC, the one network that has made women’s sports coverage a priority, who snaps, “I don’t see how the demand can be there until journalists go out and show women’s sports and give them exposure.” This chicken-and-egg issue surfaces whenever the issue of the quantity and quality of women’s sports coverage is in play: Should sports broadcasters cover women’s sports so as to create a public demand, or should broadcasters wait for the public demand before increasing airtime?
Lori Belanger, for almost four years the lone female sports reporter on Global’s Sportsline, is afraid that viewers are already getting all the women’s sports they want. In her view, the “sad reality is that women in sports will say there is a demand, but there really isn’t. Women have to be better consumers. They have to demand it.”
But this argument infuriates Natascha Wesch, a scrum-half on the Canadian women’s rugby team since 1991, and currently a kinesiology professor at the University of Western Ontario. “The population can only demand what they already know. The media need to make people aware,” she says. Fran Rider, the executive director of the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association, agrees. “We’ve really struggled to get journalists to take us seriously.” She says the OWHA has tried many times to get sports networks out to cover league games. Rider says their reply is always the same: “They’re not interested.”
Presented with this view, many journalists suggest there aren’t any stories in women’s sports important enough to be reported on. As Global’s Belanger says, “Women’s sports has not come that far.” Still, if she stumbles upon a good story about a female athlete, she’ll report it. “I’ll go out of my way to. It’s the right thing to do.” “Complete bullshit” is how Laura Robinson, a sports writer and a former Canadian competitive cyclist, responds to the notion that there’s not much to report on in women’s sports. “Sports broadcasters don’t know women athletes well enough to say that,” she says indignantly. Wesch also thinks the problem is that journalists aren’t looking for women’s stories. “In news, journalists go find stories that people need to know about in the world. How is it any different in women’s sports?” she asks. “They’re not doing their research. Go see women who are athletes,” she suggests. “There are tons of stories there.” Has she ever seen journalists from the major sports networks—TSN, The Score, Sportsnet—at her games during the 10 years she’s been on the national team? She lets out a boisterous laugh and says, “God, no.”
Instead, Wesch says, “You have a women who has done something truly amazing and it may be in a tiny segment and the lead sports story will be some man who broke his ankle. Who cares?” Similarly, Belanger says she sometimes doubts the impact the women’s sports stories she files have on viewers because of where the stories end up in the broadcast. She mentions a story she did on Charmaine Hooper, one of the world’s top soccer players. While the item did appear on the 11:30 p.m. sportscast, it was shown in the final segment of the show.
This is not an anomaly. According to “Gender Televised Sports,” a six-week study commissioned by the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles in 1999, a mere three percent of 251 local news shows led with women’s sports story. There were no lead stories about women’s sports on ESPN’s SportsCenter.
Belanger does the lineup for Global’s Sportsline on Sundays. When asked what it would take to have a women’s sports story high in the program, she says, “It must be pretty damn important. If Lorie Kane wins a major tournament, she’s lead. But if Tiger won a Masters in the same weekend, Tiger would lead and she’d be second.”
Both Robinson and Wesch cite dozens of women’s sports stories that haven’t been covered, stories of successes and sacrifices, of major accidents and injuries, not to mention the tales of deadly eating disorders, coaches sexually abusing athletes, and the ostracization of lesbian athletes. Wesch herself would make a good item: in August 1999 she was seriously injured after tackling a player in the wrong position. Told she had a slight chance of playing again, she had major shoulder surgery later that year, and after months of rehab, was able to practise with her team again in May 2000. She says she wasn’t surprised that the news of her injury and recovery didn’t make headlines; a mishap in men’s sports is a great story for a hungry reporter, but on e on the Canadian women’s rugby team—a team currently ranked fourth in the world—”is just an injury.”
But major injuries aren’t the only big stories journalists are missing. Nancy Lee agrees her fellow reporters don’t dig enough for stories that aren’t as obvious as covering a Raptors game. “Journalists don’t know where to go when there’s no women’s gold or women’s tennis going on.” And even when there is a major women’s golf event, journalists are noticeably absent. Last August, the Angus Glen Golf Club in Markham, Ontario, played host to the LPGA Canadian Women’s Open. One hundred and forty-four of the world’s best players participated, including Canadian favourites Lorie Kane and Dawn Coe-Jones, as well as such international stars as Annika Sorenstam and Karrie Webb. Thousands of fans travelled from all over the country to eat overpriced hot dogs and watch the players compete for a US $1.2 million purse over the course of three rainy, windy days. But where were the hundreds of reporters that any mediocre men’s tournament brings out? CTV was there because it had negotiated the rights to the event, but its total coverage was six hours televised on Saturday and Sunday, compared to the nine hours of coverage it devoted to the PGA Canadian Open a few weeks later. Toronto Star sports columnist Dave Perkins, who was at the course, recalls how he walked right into the LPGA tournament, while it took him two hours to get onto the course in Montreal last September where the PGA event was held. A defining moment came on the Thursday after the first round was finished. Annika Sorenstam, the top-ranked female golfer in the world, and in the top 10 after the day’s play, stretched beside a tree near the clubhouse. Lorie Kane, fifth on the money list in the LPGA, stood in the parking lot shaking hands and chatting with some of the volunteers at the course. Not one journalist approached either.
Chris Zelkovitch, The Toronto Star’s sports media columnist, thinks the frumpy nature of women’s golf attire might be part of the problem. “Sex appeal is part of tennis, and that’s one reason why it has taken off more than the LPGA—their outfits are often risqué. But the LPGA plays it down. There are lots of attractive women who play, but you’d never know.” As Stewart Johnston, programming director for TSN, notes, “Scantily clad women are the oldest trick in the book to get male viewers.” Witness the saturation coverage of Anna Kournikova, the beautiful young player who has yet to win a tournament but who gets vastly more exposure than better tennis players. Brenda Irving, a senior reporter on CBC Newsworld’s Sports Journal, succinctly characterizes all the attention Kournikova receives as “nuts.” She recalls chatting golfer Dawn Coe-Jones during the tournament in August. During their conversation she says she asked Coe-Jones, “What’s the deal with the popularity of tennis? Why not golf?” Coe-Jones said it had a lot to do with the tennis players being younger, “and of course the outfits they’re wearing.” Dana Ellis, a former gymnast who is now top-ranked Canadian pole-vaulter, says the sex appeal of athletes shouldn’t be why people watch. “It makes a joke of women’s sports. These girls [like Kournikova] who are promoted for their looks are talented, and that’s never mentioned.” Laura Robinson is angry that there is so much “T&A” in women’s sports coverage. “Why give your story to a guy who only cares about your boobs?” she asks.
When female athletes are not being depicted as sex objects, they’re often portrayed as too masculine, or —gasp—as lesbian. “Journalists always find an angle that makes us look a bunch of butches, like we’re not athletes,” Wesch says angrily. She suggests one reason is the boy’s –club nature of sports coverage: more than 90 percent of sports journalists, announcers, and programmers are male. There are only a handful of female TV sports reporters in Toronto. As Lori Belanger says, “I’m usually the only women who goes to Raptors games. I’m the only girl in my whole department.”
Would women’s sports be more thoroughly covered if there were more female journalists on the beat? Stewart Johnston thinks not. “If a women’s sports story warranted being reported on, a man or woman would report the news. Reporters like reporting as long as there’s meaning to a story.” Seemingly equating women’s sports with high school athletics, he adds, “If they’re sent to cover a high school soccer team they won’t be thrilled.” He may have a point: reporting on the big four men’s sports—hockey, baseball, football, and basketball— is definitely considered more prestigious. Laura Weisskopf, who writes a women’s sports column ever Monday for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in Texas, confirms that some of her counterparts see women’s sports as a second-string assignment. “I know some women journalists who won’t cover women’s sports because they feel it’s a stopping block in their careers.”
But bringing women’s sports to the forefront has not hampered all women in the industry. Nancy Lee, in her role as head of CBC Sports, has given women’s sports precedence on the CBC, and it shows in the programming. For example, CBC devotes a lot of its sports airtime to women’s volleyball, badminton, skiing, and water sports, all of which, its studies show, Canadians want to see. The reason so many more women’s sports appear on CBC than on other networks is the extensive decision-making process she and her colleagues use when choosing what sports make it to air. They consider where the sporting event is being held, the number of Canadians involved, but also if athletes are male or female. “Gender is one of the 15 or so things look at; no other media groups have that on their checklist,” Lee says.
But these days Lee is hopeful. She finally has a new ally in the fight to make women’s sports a priority on Canadian television. With Women’s Sports Television finally on the air, CBC won’t be the only network showcasing female athletes and women’s sports.
Launched in September 2001 as one of the dozens of new digital networks, WTSN, owned by NetStar Communications Inc., a division of CTV, is a sister station to TSN. Building the first all-women’s sports network in the world is a challenge, but it’s one that Sue Prestedge says she couldn’t turn down. Prestedge has covered sports, including three Olympics, women’s alpine skiing, equestrian events, and synchronized swimming, for more than 25 years for both local and national networks, including CBC Sports, where she spent much of that time. Before her new job, she spent five years as director of the broadcast journalism program at Mohawk College in Hamilton. But now, as the new senior vice president of the network, Prestedge is finally in a position to change the way women’s sports are covered. “We want to do stories that aren’t getting done, those that other journalists on sports shows aren’t covering,” she says.
Down the hall from Prestedge’s tidy office, Anna Stambolic’s door is covered with drawings by her eight-year-old son of male and female stick figures playing hockey, basketball, and other sports under the headings TSN and WTSN. Stambolic, in charge of programming and production, promises WTSN will carry lots of profiles, documentaries, lifestyle, and instructional programming, like “Direct Kicks for Chicks,” a series about soccer strategies, techniques, and the women who play the sport. Stambolic believes this kind of programming is too often overlooked on other networks. “Profiles and biographies are key journalistic aspects, but they’ve been ignored. We offer the platform to showcase these shows,” she says. “We need to create heroes and role models to get people to watch.”
By contrast, TSN’s commitment to covering women’s events is according to the Star’s Chris Zelkovich, “token.” He attributes what little it does carry to the need to fill airtime. This certainly seems to be the case on its news show SportsCentre, which broadcasts original shows several times each day. Many of the shows that aired this past October followed the same format: baseball scores and stories, NHL scores and stories, football information, basketball, PGA, then back to baseball and hockey. As Laura Robinson comments, “How many bloody times do you have to watch a mediocre basketball or football game, and then endless stories on it?” Asked why SportsCentre relies so heavily on the big four, Johnston offers the standard explanation—”That’s what audiences want”—adding that TSN was originally built on the big four. But a check of the original pitch to the CRTC back in 1984 suggests otherwise. “Due to the diversity of our program offerings, and to the growing interest of both sexes in sports and fitness, we would expect to reach a broader spectrum including both men and women of all age groups.” Originally TSN proposed programming like a half-hour show called SportsWoman, which aired for only a brief time, and coverage of sports like women’s volleyball. Years later, TSN tried again to give women’s sports significance by airing the series “Women in Sports.” It was dropped after one year.
Now, some people in the industry are worried that with the launch of WTSN, TSN will have an excuse to drop all women’s sports. “My question for WTSN is, are you creating a pink ghetto? Does it mean that CTV and TSN can dump all of their women’s sports?” the Star’s Zelkovich asks. Johnston denies this will happen. “No-one’s breathing a sigh of relief saying, ’Great, now we don’t have to do stories on women’s sports.’”
Meanwhile, welcome back to Hockey Night in Ajax. Tonight the Lightning will take on the Brampton Thunder, a team, like the rest in the league, featuring athletes who, a few months later, will capture a gold medal for Canada at the 2002 winter Olympics. It’s a smaller crowd tonight, but just as enthusiastic as the fans who cheered on the Lightning when they met the Ice Bears. Just before game time a reporter from theAjax/Pickering News Advertiser walks into the arena carrying a small camera. The women selling the $5 ticket grins. She’s happy to see that at least someone from the media is here tonight. “Believe me, TSN isn’t in there,” she says sarcastically.
Tonight there’s a player on the ice, Melissa Harris, number 19, who grew up in the small town of Timmins, Ontario. Her grandfather sits proudly on the edge of his seat in the front row and waves to her in between periods. Before the game he told his granddaughter’s story to the ticket seller—how she, controversially, learned the game by playing on the local Timmins all-boys team. Too bad there wasn’t a sports journalist in the house to hear it.
by Lisa Goldman
Allison Elkin was the Spring 2015 co-chief copy editor of the RRJ.