Magazine article Nieman Reports

A Shrinking Sports Beat: Women's Teams, Athletes: As Newsroom Staffs Shrink and Eyeballs Measure Interest, Women's Sports Coverage Is Losing Ground It Once Seemed to Be Gaining

Magazine article Nieman Reports

A Shrinking Sports Beat: Women's Teams, Athletes: As Newsroom Staffs Shrink and Eyeballs Measure Interest, Women's Sports Coverage Is Losing Ground It Once Seemed to Be Gaining

Article excerpt

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.

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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. …

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