Originally written by Jane Schonberger for On The Issues Magazine.
Growing up in the ’70s, I loved watching the Olympics. As an athlete myself, I sat mesmerized through performances from exciting athletes like Nadia Comaneci and Bruce Jenner. I became engrossed in learning about their back-stories and personal journeys to the Games.
Watching the Olympics is still a highlight for me. But when I stopped playing tennis and swimming competitively and started thinking critically, I realized there are a lot of issues with the Olympic media when it comes to the appearances and presentation of women athletes, and many untapped and emerging opportunities, as well.
What’s Wrong with the Olympics?
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Four key problem areas about the spectacle of the Olympics and the presentation of women athletes pop out from the peer-reviewed research.
First, male athletes receive more media attention than female athletes. More overall coverage is devoted to male athletes both on television and in print publications, such as Sports Illustrated. When media opportunities are limited for women, it’s difficult for them to get exposure and advance professionally.
Secondly, the type of attention women receive differs from that given to men. During the 2004 Olympics, male athletes were more likely to be portrayed as “courageous, strong, and independent” compared to female athletes who were likely to be described based upon their “physical attractiveness and sexuality.” There’s no doubt that stereotypes perpetuate themselves within our culture, and the more stereotyping occurs, the harder it is to overcome.
A third point is that media attention toward women athletes and the quality of it are not getting better with time. One would think that as more women advance in the workplace and become empowered members of society, these trends would get better. But we’re not seeing much improvement. Even as recently as the Beijing Olympics in 2008, researchers found that NBC gave more on-air time to male competitions compared to the 2004 Athens games and 2000 Sydney Games despite near parity in participation. The men on telecasts also received more comments about “strength, intelligence and consonance, compared to their female counterparts.” For those interested in numbers , only 23 percent of Olympians at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles were women, a figure that jumps to 42 percent for Beijing 2008 and 45 percent for London 2012. In fact, with the addition of women’s boxing, the London Games will be the first to feature both sexes competing in every sport on the Olympic program.
The fourth, and perhaps most crucial, point is that money follows the exposure and attention. Forbes published an article in 2010 on the highest paid female athletes. Not surprisingly, tennis players, led by Maria Sharapova, ruled as the top-earning female athletes. Women’s tennis is, arguably, the most commercially popular and successful among all women’s sports, likely because it is an individual sport that draws a greater percentage of male followers than other women’s sports.
But the dollars don’t just come on the court — they come afterward from lucrative endorsement deals and appearance fees. As a female athlete, if you can’t provide a large stage for a brand, you need a targeted platform like the Olympics to elevate your visibility. Since the built-in audience is practically guaranteed, when the Olympics come around every two years, brands come out of the woodwork to associate themselves with female athletes.
For example, going into 2012, the P&G hair care brand, Pantene, sponsored — for the first time in the brand’s history — 11 elite female athletes from around the globe as its newest beauty ambassadors.
While Olympics attention is a good thing and any extra attention that female athletes get from the media and brands is a bonus, I wonder if two weeks every two years will be enough to help females advance. What about the 206 weeks between Games? Perhaps it’s time to start thinking about how to change the paradigm.
Putting Women Athletes on Top
While the facts are not-so-inspiring, I also see opportunities. This is where it gets fun, and why I’m so passionately dedicated to increasing visibility for women in sports.
NBC producer Molly Sims said during the recent International Olympics Committee Women & Sport Conference in Los Angeles that during the Olympics, tune-in rates between the male and female audiences in the U.S. are strikingly similar. In fact she noted that 52 percent of NBC’s viewership during the Games is female — more than any other sports programming. This increased female audience provides a special and unique platform for female athletes.
There are two reasons why the Olympics provide such a great opportunity. First, patriotism. Experts say “at the Olympics, national flags trump all other forms of identity”– even, most notably, gender. So when rooting for Team USA, viewers essentially don’t care whether the athlete is male or female. They just want America to win. A second leading reason why the Olympics are popular with the mainstream is because they offer more variety than traditional sports telecasts. Some researchers have seen that women prefer watching more gender-neutral, non-contact or “feminine” types of sports, such as gymnastics, swimming and beach volleyball, and enjoy the emotional back-story that Olympics coverage provides.
There’s also an incredible long-tail opportunity for female athletes on the Internet. The 2008 Games was largely considered the first “online Olympics.” That year, NBCOlymipcs.com offered more than 3,500 hours of online coverage from Beijing, including 2,200 hours of live video coverage. More than 50 million unique users watched 75 million video streams, and nearly 18 percent of audiences consumed content on both television and the Internet. Researchers Tang Tang and Roger Cooper argue that “the Internet should be able to remove gender inequalities caused by imbalanced sports telecasts and allow men and women to access the content they want, when, where, and how they want it.”
With the Internet rising as a leading platform to consume sports, female athletes need to amp up their social media footprint and become active. Dan Levy of Wasserman Media Group discussed the importance of athletes having an active Twitter account. Levy says, “Every single perspective sponsor, it’s the first or second thing they look at. It’s the difference between getting a deal and not getting a deal.” I’d add that female athletes, by putting in the extra effort and creating an engaged audience, also elevate not only their personal brands, but their sport and female athletes as a whole.
Trending to the Future
And it’s not just the athletes who can get involved on the Internet, it’s the fans and other media platforms, too. ESPN launched espnW in 2010, and it has since grown to a successful business for the company. The espnW brand seems to have found a home by focusing its content primarily on female fans.
Similarly, WomenTalkSports.com (a blog network I created in 2009 with Ann Gaffigan and Megan Hueter) has developed into a vibrant online community among female athletes, fans of women’s sports, journalists and bloggers. If you truly want to help raise the visibility of female athletes, you should support these sites by visiting them, commenting and sharing the articles. The larger the community that female athletes and fans have, the more visible we are to the community at large.
A leading argument attempting to explain why female athletes receive less attention than males is women’s physical performance — we can’t jump as high, swim as fast or lift as much weight. As time goes on, however, women are closing the gap. After all, in comparison to our male counterparts, women are just getting started.
Here’s a great example in running. In September 2011, a team of researchers looked at the winning sprint times for the 100-meter race across genders, looking back over the past 100 years. It shows that women are progressing in a remarkable fashion. In addition, the study indicates that if the current trends on running times continue, projections will intersect at the 2156 Olympics, when — for the first time ever — the winning women’s 100-meter sprint time of 8.079 seconds will be lower than that of the men’s winning time of 8.09 seconds. Researchers say this could occur as early as the 2064 Games or as late as the 2788 Games. I may not be around then, but hell, it still makes me happy — you can bet the world will tune in for that.
Strong is now considered beautiful. With the advancement of women in society and the changing ideals of body image and sexuality, a strong, successful woman is “the new sexy” and “the new beautiful” — an image worth pursuing even for those who are not athletic. Strong women challenge conventional notions about beauty and convey a contemporary look and attitude. From a brand perspective, now is one of the best times to support female athletes. As our culture continues to change and adapt, female athletes need to harness and embody changing ideals — I believe it will elevate their status and bring increased sponsorship dollars.
Yes, the 2012 London Olympics and the months preceding it are an exciting, celebratory time for women in sport. Women and girls around the world will be tuning in and watching athletic performances across many disciplines that both amaze and inspire. Viewers will get to see sports that are rarely on public display. Challenges will be overcome. Records will be broken. Heroes will emerge.
But, while tuning in, it’s important to think critically about what you’re watching or reading and ask yourself — what’s missing, and what could be better next time? Then, think about what needs to happen by 2016 and how you might be able to help.
Jane Schonberger is a producer and media consultant who is currently the CEO of Pretty Tough Media, Inc, a lifestyle brand for tween/teen female athletes that creates specialty content and products, including a series of sports-themed YA novels published by Penguin USA. Schonberger is also the Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Women Talk Sports LLC, the largest blog network devoted to female athletes and fans, and is the Sports Editor for BlogHer.com.