Women athletes receive media attention during the Olympics, as in USA versus Finland, then fade from view. Photo by Chris O’Meara/The Associated Press.

Visit the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s website or pick up the paper on most days and—as with most other newspaper sports sections—you’ll be hard-pressed to find news of women’s sports. It’s not that women aren’t playing. They are, and in huge numbers. Simply put, staffers aren’t assigned to cover women’s sports.

At the Star Tribune, for instance, most writers are assigned to beats for men’s teams at the college and pro levels. A reporter who covered women’s sports regularly left the paper in 2007 and was not replaced. Another reports on home games for the WNBA Lynx during the summer but then mainly focuses on men’s college hockey with an occasional story on women’s college teams.

This sports beat arrangement leaves a lot of territory uncovered, including women in Olympic sports such as track and field and figure skating, and those who play tennis and golf. Women competing on a spectrum of teams for the University of Minnesota and area colleges can also be overlooked.

Rachel Blount, who has been at the Star Tribune since 1990, is the only sports reporter and columnist without an assigned beat. The only woman at the paper who covers sports, Blount said she feels obligated to try to close the gap. “I’ve got to cover this niche,” said Blount, who describes her newspaper’s coverage of women’ sports as “the worst” she’s seen in her 20 years there. “Things are falling through the cracks.”

Women’s sports coverage is shrinking—not growing—even as more women and girls are competing in sports. A recent study of ESPN found that between 1999 and 2009 the time given to coverage of women’s sports on that network’s “SportsCenter” dropped from almost nothing to a bit less than almost nothing—from slightly more than 2 percent to less than 1.5 percent. What’s happened to the coverage of women’s sports during the past few years at newspapers, where there have been dramatic reductions and a reshuffling of staff as well as competitive pressures from bloggers, has not been systematically studied. But I feel safe in contending that women’s coverage hasn’t generally increased. Of course, exceptions are likely to occur in places where a pro or college women’s team has built an unusually large fan base, such as the University of Connecticut basketball team, the University of Utah gymnastics team, or the WNBA’s Seattle Storm.

In the vast majority, however, it’s languishing—the victim of decisions about resources that are justified by the belief that women’s sports are peripheral to readers’ interests. “When sports editors are in a constant reshuffling of staff, it’s often women’s sports beats that take a hit,” said Jerry Micco, who is the assistant managing editor for sports at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and former president of the Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE). “Beats are set up to cover the core interests of readers, and once you get that settled, you see who you have left and what you can cover … It’s not pretty out there for newspapers when it comes to people and resources.”

Following the Eyeballs

In most respects, the priorities for sports editors are nothing new. Coverage of female athletes has always been paltry, except for the occasional media sweetheart with hometown ties—such as Lynx player Lindsay Whalen or Olympian Lindsey Vonn in Minneapolis. It was once expected that coverage would increase as Title IX turned more girls and women into athletes and sports fans, but that has not happened. Instead, women’s coverage remains “a luxury item,” said Amy Moritz, president of the Association for Women in Sports Media and a reporter at The Buffalo News. “When there’s the staff, space and resources to cover women’s sports, papers will do it. When those start to erode, women’s sports coverage is one of the first to get cut.”

Women’s sports leagues have always struggled to gain media attention. For instance, the WNBA in 2007 launched a short-lived campaign encouraging fans to write sports editors demanding more coverage; the campaign was largely ridiculed. The new Women’s Professional Soccer league also gets relatively little coverage. Editors traditionally cite lack of interest by fans as a reason for their decisions, a rationale that has exasperated women’s sports advocates. When asked to produce empirical evidence of this so-called “reader interest,” most editors couldn’t do it.

Today, things work a bit differently—though the result is much the same. Editors can produce the evidence, flawed as it might be. They can track where the eyeballs are going on the Web—and it’s mostly to stories about men’s professional sports or college football or basketball. Blount says that is one reason she can push stories about female athletes with her editors only “up to a point. … I’ve been told point-blank, ‘No one is going to read that,’” she said. “The Web feeds into overkill.”

The result? More writers are being assigned to men’s professional teams—and those become the beats and coverage readers can count on. Blount remembers the days when the Vikings, for instance, had a single full-time writer. Now it’s two, at a minimum. The editors say that they can’t ignore the numbers.

The fact that fans are clicking on men’s sports stories could be, at least in part, because the sports pages on most newspapers’ websites offer little else. But it’s hard to resist the logic that if certain stories draw traffic, posting more of those stories is a smart allocation of resources.

The problem, though, and sports editors concede this, is that in sidelining women’s sports—by not carving it out as they do other beats—some terrific stories are lost. Michael Anastasi, the managing editor for sports and features at The Salt Lake Tribune and an APSE vice president, said it’s incumbent on sports editors to set up beats in ways that these stories will be found. He has created two such beats to help staffers catch them: one he calls a “university beat,” the other is an Olympic sports beat. He also points to the University of Utah’s women’s basketball team, which is a solid performer but doesn’t have a large fan base. “Does that mean there aren’t great stories there?” he asks. “No.”

Bloggers Surface

Even with the Tribune’s two beats, it’s hard to find many female-focused sports stories on its website. The vacuum left by the Tribune and other local news organizations has given rise to a relatively small but vigilant army of bloggers who write about everything from women’s professional basketball and soccer to barrel racing and competitive surfing. The most active blogging network is Women Talk Sports, a collective of about 150 women and men who blog, post video, and tweet with women athletes in mind. Some of these sports bloggers, such as Cheryl Coward, were once print journalists. Others, such as basketball player Kelly Mazzante, are athletes who are using new media to reach out to their fan base.

Cofounder Megan Hueter started Women Talk Sports with two other bloggers in February 2009. The site has gotten the attention of executives at ESPN. Traffic has been steadily climbing, and during events like the Olympics it has attracted a million page views in one month. Despite that, the traffic is paltry compared to SBNation or Deadspin. Research shows that the Web is dominated by blogs that are solely about men’s sports, perhaps because most of the bloggers aren’t women’s sports fans.

As resources tighten and newsroom beats continue to be clustered around big-time men’s sports, initiatives like Hueter’s and, in newsrooms, those of reporters like Blount, may be what keeps women’s sports visible—for now. A new initiative might, in time, force editors and other media producers to rethink their priorities. This year ESPN announced plans to launch its “W” brand with a website, a project the network touts as being about and aimed at sports-focused women.

As soon as word emerged about ESPN’s plans, buzz surfaced in the blogosphere, driven primarily by skeptical female bloggers and women’s sports advocates. Perhaps this isn’t surprising given this network’s paltry track record on coverage of female athletes. And ESPN might find that its “W” brand will flounder, as well.

There is no doubt that women’s sports do have a loyal and sometimes robust following, and the fan base is growing, albeit slowly. And we know that female participation in sports has increased enormously since passage of Title IX in 1972.

The job of transforming a dedicated sliver of these much larger universes of sports fans and athletes into a profit-making enterprise in an ad-driven environment—and at a national level—is one that even ESPN might not succeed in making work. It’s possible that this attempt might turn out to buttress the tired excuse of sports editors—that women’s sports coverage doesn’t draw enough eyeballs to justify the investment of diminishing resources.

If this is the case, it returns us to asking two key questions: Why do women’s sports lag men’s so much when it comes to fan interest? And despite this gender chasm, does the news media have an obligation to cover them? In newsrooms this comes down to asking whether there should be a women’s sports beat if only because it is the right thing to do. My answer is yes.

Marie Hardin is associate director for research at Penn State University’s John Curley Center for Sports Journalism. Her research focuses on issues of diversity and ethics in sports coverage.

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