Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Women's pro sports 10 years after the World Cup: Is the sky really falling?

I read with interest a series of stories published on ESPN.com late last week about the state of women's professional sports in the U.S. The thesis driving the package: Women's spectators sports are teetering on the brink of an uncertain and perhaps calamitous future.
This storyline isn't new, as Mechelle Voepel points out in her analysis of the WNBA. But unmet predictions of the demise of the WNBA and other women's leagues may offer little comfort when leagues are struggling to survive.
Stories on each of the major women's sports/leagues -- including the WTA, LPGA, WPS, and WNBA -- speculated on individual problems such as poor public relations and marketing (LPGA) and lack of individual superstars (LPGA and WTA). But these problems for women's sports are symptoms, not the cause, for the struggles of women's professional sports to move beyond survival mode. Treating the symptoms does, indeed, keep women's sports in a tenuous position as leagues and teams constantly search for a formula that will have mass appeal.
Women's pro leagues and teams in the U.S. continue to operate in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" climate where they are blamed for cultural/gender norms that dictate their second-rate status.
Perhaps illustrative of this is a recent column in the Washington Post, where Mike Wise takes the WNBA Washington Mystics to task for not using a "Kiss Cam" during games. He acknowledges the WNBA's marketing tightrope: appealing to homophobic ("family-friendly") fans while simultaneously welcoming its loyal lesbian fan base. He writes: "It's understandable that a financially shaky league is outright terrified it could alienate a chunk of its fan base if two same-sex people shared a chaste kiss on a video scoreboard." Yet he goes on to write about the team's decision: "Goodbye, progress."
Damned if they do, damned if they don't. Women's sports will survive -- thanks to a loyal, although small, fan base that can connect more easily now than ever. But the bar is one set by masculine values for sports. Until that changes, the struggle will continue beyond our lifetimes.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Andrews episode: Setback for women in sports media? Not really

I received an email from a college student working as a sports writer for the Cape Cod Times this summer directing me to her blog post about the Erin Andrews incident. It was interesting to read the take of a young woman -- new to the profession -- about the episode and reaction to it.
Nicole writes that her reaction has been "complicated" -- and I would concur that she isn't alone. The incident is complex on many levels because it involves a high-profile woman, who has been marketed at least in part on sex appeal, covering sports. More importantly, the incident and the reaction to it clearly point to the difficulty we still have, culturally, with how to position and accept women in the sporting environment. Scholar Margaret Duncan has written extensively about the ways female athletes have been trivialized and sexualized, and I suggest her typology of female athletes can be used to understand the way female sideline reporters are also "put in their place." Unfortunately, the Andrews incident was an ugly, taken-to-the-extreme, extension of the way women in the sports arena have been treated for a long time. Look at the trivialized way Andrews and others have been presented over the years --are we really so surprised at what has happened?
In her blog post, Nicole writes about her own experience with harassment and discrimination and goes on to express her anger at "the way female sports journalists are perceived."
She adds about the Andrews incident: "It’s like a 30-year setback."
Unfortunately, Nicole, it's not really a setback. We weren't as far ahead as you might have hoped and believed.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Blaming women for their harassment: The same old story in 140 characters

Christine Brennan's tweet today, implying that Erin Andrews is somehow to blame for the violation of her privacy via a voyeuristic video, certainly lends support to the recent Big Lead blog about Twitter as a tripwire for journalists. Brennan's tweet implied that these things don't happen to women who are "smart" and "don't play to the frat house." She released a statement today attempting to do a take-back. But her original message -- as ugly as it was -- is actually just a variation on a common theme about female sports journalists: That they are sexually charged, locker-room "lookers" who aren't qualified to cover sports. Emphasizing their sexuality is a way to belittle them in the sports context. This myth has been used to justify discrimination and harassment since the first woman entered the profession, and it continues.
Brennan's tweet is evidence of what we've found: Interviews with women who work in sports journalism has found that many of them buy into this kind of rationalization when they see discrimination against their female colleagues. It's regrettable because it serves a power structure that marginalizes women in sports and sports media.
The problem when women in sports are marginalized and belittled is not the women. It's a definition and positioning of sports in our culture that claims them for men.
And that's much, much bigger -- and more difficult to address -- than anything that can fit in a tweet.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Social media and sports: What will stick?

While research shows that sports journalists are finding ways to use Twitter for reporting, we can also see its limits. The Big Lead, in an item about Ric Bucher's decision to back away from Twitter (at least for now), predicts that more reporters will back away from Twitter because of the scrutiny their posts can draw -- "and then, twitter will die."
Twitter is still in its early evolutionary stage as a reporting tool. But sports blogs -- as Robert Weintraub points out in the latest CJR -- have settled into the sports-media landscape not so much as an alternative to but instead as a growing part of mainstream coverage. I believe that this reality explains much of the reason our survey found that many bloggers see themselves as allies, for the most part, with journalists. I'm not sure I agree with a Deadspin post that "If the line between blogs and the MSM appears to be getting blurrier, it's because there never really was a line in the first place" -- but there is little doubt about how fast the line is disappearing.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Bloggers: Filling a gap in sports coverage?

The ongoing skirmishes between sports journalists and bloggers -- the most recent reflected in Mark Cuban's suggestion (in his blog, of all places) that some bloggers be publicly shunned by media organizations -- involve two groups that often work at odds but who generally describe themselves in similar ways.
That's according to a new survey just released by the Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State. The survey involved more than 200 bloggers who provide daily coverage of a variety of sports.
Not surprisingly, most bloggers in the survey were men, and most covered men's sports. Most say what they do is sports journalism -- although most don't use original reporting in their blogs, nor have they applied for credentials to a sports event.
They also hold themselves to different ethical standards than professional journalists; for instance, a very high percentage said journalists should verify information -- but the number dropped when bloggers were asked about their use of information.
It's not surprising that most bloggers we surveyed have never worked in a newsroom, nor do they have journalism degrees. I think what explains most of the gap between bloggers and journalists, in terms of attitudes and values, lies in the original reporting they do. I think that if sports organizations (and journalists) are truly concerned about the erosion of sports coverage via blogs, they should advocate for more blogger access to opportunities to do original reporting. That means more access to press boxes, media conference calls, and maybe even to locker rooms. The challenge is in how to make that happen, of course.