Sunday, May 24, 2009

Women's pro sports: Can gender really be taken 'out of the equation'?

The seven teams in the newly launched Women's Professional Soccer league are about two months into their inaugural season, playing in front of crowds that average about 5,400 and in front of viewers tuning into the Fox Soccer Channel. The league's initial success is just part of the reason for high hopes that this league will thrive, according to Commissioner Tonya Antonucci, who spoke to the annual convention of the Association for Women in Sports Media in Philadelphia on Saturday.
Antonucci suggested that the league's strategy -- controlling costs, marketing to a broader array of fans, and having more realistic goals than the WUSA did before it folded -- will help the league survive.
She also suggested that the way the league was built -- by attracting the best players in the world (including the three-time FIFA player of the year, Marta), is a contrast with men's MLS, and that fans will recognize that. In other words, Antonucci doesn't see the WPS competing with the MLS for fans. (The MLS, which has been around longer, draws an average 14K per game.)
"We almost take gender out of the equation in what our brand stands for," she told the group. She said the league has no plans to use "sex appeal" as a selling point for athletes, either. "You embrace who these women want to be," she said.
Antonucci also suggested that because men's soccer in the U.S. competes against another type of "football" -- the NFL, women's soccer has the chance to grow as a spectator sport at a much faster pace than the MLS has. The WPS is operating on the assumption that participants will turn into spectators. Because soccer is so popular as a sport for girls (and boys), there will be ready-made fan base as these players grow older.
If only it were true.
If only it were true that gender can ever be taken "out of the equation" in regard to sports. And if only it were true that girls who play soccer will turn into women who are willing to spend the time (and money) to consume it in large numbers. And that men ("soccer dads") will turn into enduring spectators of a women's professional league.
But research tells us differently. Popular spectator sports in western culture have always been all about gender performance. In other words, gender can't be removed from any sports equation. That's one reason (among several) that soccer will struggle in the U.S. to ever have a sustained, high-numbers following -- it's a gender-neutral sport, and, thus, is less appealing to fans (logically, this quality gives it more appeal as a participatory sport.)
Thus, it is doubtful that the WPS will thrive after its initial splash (and that hasn't been much) -- it will do well to survive more than a few years. I don't say that to be negative as much as to recognize the realities for women's team sports in the U.S.
The naive hopefulness of Antonucci and other backers of the WPS shouldn't be discouraged, however. We need her and women's sports advocates to keep pushing the envelope. But we have to recognize that women's sports as an institution will not thrive until our ideas about sport and gender undergo a fundamental shift -- only then can gender really be out of the equation.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Bloggers and ethical decision-making

A recent post on Eye on Sports Media outlines the response of a local paper (the Athens Banner Herald) and that of a blogger who learned about the DUI arrest of a local personality who provides play-by-play and analysis for UGA sports teams.
The blogger reported the incident; the paper didn't. Eye on Sports Media comes down on the side of the blogger, arguing that the incident was newsworthy and that covering it gives media the chance to point out the recklessness of drunken driving. Non-coverage by the paper "also shows a little bit of media hypocrisy. The media is always more than willing to write sensational news when an athlete or other celebrity is arrested for DUI or some other transgression. They are also all over any news of steroid use by athletes. So what if alcohol abuse and drunk driving is more destructive than steroid use?"
I think EOSM has a point. The man is well-known to local sports fans, and the same standards should apply to him as do with other local sports personalities. I don't know the rationale used by the paper to reject the story.
Dissatisfaction with mainstream media is one reason many fans start their own blogs. As they do, they have to make tough calls about what should and should not be covered -- the kinds of calls mainstream journalists have been making for decades. They can get guidance from a number of sources, including APSE, SPJ and a blogger's code of ethics. As they continue to gain influence, it's critical that bloggers understand the responsibility that comes with the ability to reach a mass audience.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Want to learn more about the WNBA? Naturally, you'd want to know how many moms are on the team...right?

A SportsCenter "Sunday Conversation" today with WNBA legend Lisa Leslie, tailor-made for Mother's Day, focused on LA Sparks players in the role of moms. There are, according, to Leslie, five mothers on the team, who constantly share "mommy information." Leslie emphasized that her role as a new mother is a primary reason for her retirement from sports.
While the news peg for the story -- Mother's Day -- may have driven the focus, the problem with these kinds of features is that they ultimately weaken the image of female athletes in the sports context because these stories are often done to the exclusion of regular coverage of women's sports. We see far too many stories with this kind of angle -- female athlete outside sports. (Oftentimes, it's in a mode that presents athletes in sexualized images.) Although many female athletes are eager to be cast outside their athletic achievements, the more often they're shown off the court, the less credible they're deemed on it -- any day of the year.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Whitlock on the need to examine ESPN

Sports columnist Jason Whitlock, often accused of taking snipes at ESPN for no other reason than that he doesn't work there, argues in a recent column that the network is a "dictatorship" with more power than the leagues it covers. Whitlock adds that bloggers -- "an army of citizen journalists building followings and eroding our credibility" -- are the only place to get critical coverage of the network.
It's true that ESPN has a great deal of influence, but it's not because the number people who watch it exceeds the number watching SpongeBob reruns on any given night of the week. It's because sports journalists have taken their cues from it. ESPN is the pacesetter for other outlets.
The mainstream media doesn't ignore ESPN, as Whitlock argues. It follows the network very carefully. Bloggers may dish the gossip on the personalities there, but ESPN is far from ignored by the many, many sports journalists who ultimately want the network on their own resumes.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The good and bad of non-access to athletes

Blogger-turned-ESPN writer Bill Simmons points out the diminishing role of sports journalists in his latest column, suggesting that in the age of Facebook, the blogosphere and Twitter, athletes no longer need the media. "This isn't a good thing or a bad thing," he adds.
It's both.
It's good for athletes -- who can wield much more control over the ways they are presented to fans -- and, in many ways, it's good for fans, who have more options for getting news on their favorite athletes and teams.
Now, the "bad": It calls into question the relevance of traditional sports journalists, whose traditional "gatekeeping" role has been eroded. And although that is a "bad thing" in some ways, it also provides the media establishment a chance to retool the ways journalists cover sports, moving away from personality- and game-driven coverage and to a public-service approach that critically looks at the institutions and practices in sports at every level -- asking and answering tough questions about the links between sports and tax dollars, education and social values, for instance.
That's the kind of coverage an athlete's blog can never take from journalists.
And that would be a very good thing.