Women’s sports coverage lacking

The Post’s coverage of sports is unbalanced. Men and their teams get more ink and Web space than do women and their teams. Readers point this out to me all the time, calling attention to coverage of the women’s golf and tennis tours, or the Mystics vs. the Wizards. The questions are: does it matter, and why?

Let’s look closer at The Post’s coverage of the recent college lacrosse tournaments in the NCAA’s Division 1, which included local teams in both the men’s and women’s early rounds and in the championship games.

By all measures — number, length, or position of stories; number, size, and position of photos, and whether color or black and white; and stories written by staff writers as opposed to wire services — the men’s tournament got significantly more and higher-profile coverage than the women’s games.

This held true online, although photo treatment there is more equal because stories don’t compete for space on a single printed page.

Both championship games were close contests decided by late goals. Virginia’s men won the national championship over Maryland, 9-7. Northwestern’s women beat Maryland, 8-7.

The men’s final on May 30 was previewed on the Sports section front with a story in that morning’s paper, and the Virginia victory led the section on May 31 with a huge color photo and another color photo inside.

In contrast, the women’s final was not previewed in the paper the day of the game and the story on Northwestern’s victory was written by the Associated Press and accompanied by a black-and-white photo on Page D6.

Now lacrosse is not a huge spectator sport, but its fans are dedicated and they frequently call me. The nation’s best teams are often from this region. An impressive 35,000 people attended the men’s final in Baltimore.

Matt Vita, The Post’s sports editor, is aware that coverage is unbalanced and says forthrightly that no matter the sport, coverage will rarely be equal gender-wise. He does have a strategy, though, for paying attention to female athletes.

One is his staff. Although still male-dominated, two of the five sports columnists are women, two of the four daytime editors are women, many women are covering men’s sports and vice versa, and about a third of the full-time reporters are women. High school sports coverage is directed by a woman, and the section strives to get as close to 50-50 for boys’ and girls’ coverage as it can. See this week’s Spring All Met Guide for an example.

For college and pro sports, that’s not possible, Vita says, because of a lack of resources and reader interest. The Sports section, like all sections of the print edition, is smaller than it used to be, and it has fewer reporters. Choices must be made. The men’s lacrosse finals, for example, were in Baltimore, an easy car trip for reporters. But the women’s finals were in Stony Brook, N.Y., on Long Island, at least a plane or train trip and hotel expenses away.

But Vita tries to regularly do longer feature stories on female athletes, such as the May 26 profile of swimmer Diana Nyad or the June 4 profile of Mystics guard Alana Beard.

As Vita points out, there isn’t a single indicator — whether reader surveys, Web traffic, or game attendance nationally or locally — that shows women’s teams draw fans like men’s.

The Post’s proprietary internal studies show that women as well as men are more interested in men’s pro teams and men’s sports generally than they are in women’s teams or women’s sports, and by large margins. Among women and men, interest in the Redskins and football ranks first — way out front — followed by the Capitals, Nationals, Ravens, Wizards and Orioles. The Mystics, D.C.’s women’s pro basketball team, is next, with D.C. United close behind.

The same is roughly true for reader interest in college sports, with men’s football and basketball being primary.

NCAA figures show that in virtually all college sports, average attendance at men’s games far outstrips that for women’s. Only in college soccer does attendance at women’s games consistently approach men’s. And I think that has to do with the vast infrastructure of boys’ and girls’ soccer in this country, and yes, the soccer moms and dads who support it.

That infrastructure is growing in other women’s sports, too, ranging from gymnastics and softball to basketball and volleyball. But progress is slow.

In the past month, only three women made it to the front page of the Sports section in feature photos: Nyad, Beard and tennis star Li Na, who won the French Open on June 4.

It’s always a cart-and-horse argument about whether more coverage leads to more interest in women’s sports or vice versa. But in the meantime, I think The Post can do better in its treatment of women’s sports, if only to feature more women on the front page of the Sports section and to cover more extensively the problems, and successes, of female athletes and teams as they strive to gain and keep a corner of the vast sports entertainment market. They’re fierce competitors, too.

This column was originally published in The Washington Post on June 10, 2011.

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