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Women’s Sports and Sexualization

I don’t often write about sports, except when it intersects with my scientific areas of interest, but I do like sports quite a bit, and am always happy when I get to write about them.  I just read an interesting and thought provoking article about women’s sports coverage and the sexualization of female athletes.  In a nutshell, a researcher found that women’s sports has seen a severe decline in media coverage since 1999, when it received nearly 10% of mainstream sports coverage.  Furthermore, the “sexiness” of the female athletes in media coverage doesn’t seem to help promote the sport, just the individual athletes.

Where do you even start talking about this?  Nearly every aspect of it is controversial, and unfortunately, there’s a dearth of readily available and easily digestible data, so we’re kind of stuck with opinions.  (And how many times does that work out for the better?)  Anyway, let’s just get the controversy started, shall we?

I like women’s softball.  It’s fast as hell (much faster than Major League Baseball) and the games are usually tight.  I love the fact that a 90 pound girl can have a pretty good career just slapping the ball down the third base line and running like a banshee.  Infield base hits are exciting.  Double plays are a very big deal because the baselines are so short.  And talk about offense!  It seems like every year, there are a handful of hitters near .500, and it’s not too uncommon for a team to have a .300 batting average.

Now, I won’t lie to you.  When I watch UCLA, I look at the girls sexually.  These are all attractive girls — more attractive than the average softball player, if you ask me.  I think if you ask most folks, this is more of what they think of when they imagine a softball player:

Softball definitely has the popular image of a bunch of stocky lesbians in unflattering uniforms slapping each other on the butt.  And to some degree, it’s probably true.  (More on that in a bit.)  But then, it’s also possibly one of the most interesting and fast-paced games, and it’s similar enough to baseball that it’s an easy conversion for most viewers.

Then there’s women’s soccer.  This is probably the best known image from the sport:

Of course, it’s interesting because a good looking woman took her shirt off in public.  The fact is, the game in question was purportedly pretty exciting.  (I despise soccer.  It’s like hockey in slow motion, and I don’t like hockey.)  But this is what’s most interesting.

And then there’s the ongoing controversy over women’s tennis.  Are people tuning in for the sports action or the possibility of a wardrobe malfunction?




Then we have to talk about off-the court activities.  Are the following two images comparable?

Six Pack Abs by Jameer Nelson


These are both relatively average players in their sport.  Neither Jameer Nelson nor Anna Kournikova are premier athletes, but both are keen to take advantage of their premier looks.  But is there a quantitative difference?

I’m not going to pretend at knowing all the answers, but let me walk you through the thought process I’m working on now.  Feel free to constructively criticize it at any point.  Like I said… it’s just a starting point.

  • Men and women are physically and psychologically different from men.  Before we start talking about equality in viewing men’s vs. women’s sports, we need to make sure we’re on good scientific footing.  Is that even a valid expectation?  Can we possibly expect men to look at women and not tap into their biological drives?  Evolutionarily speaking, a woman’s athletic ability was not a good predictor of her fertility.  (In fact, there have been plenty of examples of women decreasing their fertility by over-training for sports.  Think:  Women’s Gymnastics.)   Men are interested in how women look.  What they’re doing while they look good is somewhat irrelevant.  Women, on the other hand, are highly interested in a man’s skills.  Athleticism most definitely is one of the things that has predicted a man’s evolutionary success.  So coming out of the gate, we may be asking too much from viewers.  Or, to put it bluntly, if the women aren’t hot, and the sport itself isn’t objectively more interesting than a comparable man’s sport, why would we men watch?
  • Women are not biologically hard-wired for competition in the same way that men are.  Much of a man’s success at mating has to do with how many of his rivals he can best.  On the other hand, while there is certainly competition within females, it is within the context of community building and creating social bonds.  If you’ve watched college softball, you know that there is lots of social bonding, both in the dugout and on the field.  Most teams have elaborate rituals — from individualized chants for each player to complicated synchronized group celebrations.  On the other hand, men’s sports often focus on engaging in rituals that call attention to individual performance.  What kind of effect might this difference have on the percentage and types of women who make it to the level of sports where television is a factor?
  • While I’m on the subject, what about testosterone?  Do female athletes represent the population with the most testosterone from birth, or does the participation in sports elevate the production of it?  Softball is best suited to girls who are stocky and somewhat “manly.”  Am I more interested in softball because it’s more like a man’s sport?  Is it possible for a team of feminine looking hotties to rise to the same level as a team of more manly “thick” girls?

Critics of the “Girls are different than Guys” approach to sport often point out that there is an inherent bias in media coverage, and they’re right.  When women’s sports got lots of coverage back in 1999, lots of people watched it.  Not nearly as many as watched men’s sports, but a lot.

Just to give you a couple of examples, in 2009 and 2010, over 11 million people attended women’s NCAA games. In 2010 the men’s “sweet sixteen” games on CBS averaged 4.9 million viewers while women’s games averaged 1.6 million viewers and the championship game between UConn and Stanford drew 3.5 million viewers.

Now… what this article didn’t mention is that in the same season, almost 28 million people attended men’s NCAA games.  That’s almost a 3-1 ratio, which is consistent with the comparison between the two sweet sixteen tournaments.  And there was much more coverage of the women’s sweet sixteen than for the rest of the season.  On the other hand, coverage of men’s basketball was ubiquitous on all the networks throughout the season.  So I’m not sure I’m buying this objection.  If all that increased “Sweet 16 Women’s” coverage didn’t help the ratio… what exactly is the argument?

But, what about the fact that ESPN has never gone out of its way to report on women’s sports?  Even when there are big women’s games, the emphasis always seems to be on men’s sports.  Perhaps the lack of reporting is contributing to the lack of interest.  Viewership is highly correlated to promotion.  Big UFC fight coming up?  there will be ads for weeks on all the major networks.  Big women’s soccer final?  A couple of blurbs.  The ads just don’t make it into the big market time slots.  So less people watch.  So ESPN doesn’t spend a lot of time reporting it.  And it becomes a vicious downward spiral.  So say the critics.

So the $64,000 question:  Is coverage of women’s sports declining because we’re genuinely less interested, and the 1999 boon was an artificial spike?  Or are we creating disinterest by refusing to advertise or cover them?  My best guess is that women’s sports will never be as compelling or interesting as men’s for simple biological reasons.  Yes.  I know that’s an unpopular position, but I can’t think of a good reason to ignore all the huge differences in both female physiology and psychology.  So, I’m forced to concede that the unpopular position may be the correct one.  However, and this is a big caveat — I do not think that our current level of interest is representative of the “natural” level.  I agree that there is an inherent media bias, and I think if there was more coverage of women’s sports, I’d watch it more.  But where is the ceiling?  That is, how much popularity can women’s sports reasonably expect to attain?  Women’s tennis has been a steady force for decades, but it’s also the most sexualized, so is that an indicator of the bar?  Make the sport itself sexually appealing enough, and more people will watch it?

There’s some evidence for this.  In a quick perusal of Nielson ratings, I’ve discovered that women’s tennis holds up much better in comparison to men’s tennis than does women’s basketball to men’s.  (And let’s face it.  Female basketball players are not especially attractive, on average. And those uniforms?  Androgynous to say the least.)  In the ’02 US Open, the Sampras-Agassi final garnered a 6.2 rating, while the All-Williams women’s final hit a solid 5.2.  In 1999, when women’s coverage was the highest, Serena Williams vs. Martina Hingis scored exactly the same as Agassi vs. Martin — 6.3.  Has there ever been another sport where the women and men were objectively equal in popularity?  I can’t think of one.  But the important thing, I think, is that women and men’s tennis is objectively very similar.  The Williams sisters can serve over 120mph, as fast as most men.  The pace of women’s games is a tiny bit slower than men’s, on average, but the fact is, they’re both really fast, and the athletes on both sides of the gender divide are very, very good.  And while the WNBA and NCAA women’s basketball have tailed off in the last decade, women’s tennis has held fairly steady.

So is that the trick?  Women’s sports will only garner as many fans when the sport is equal in gameplay to men’s, and the athletes are sexy?  What do you think?  Should we stop worrying about sexualization and start focusing on the quality of the sport itself?



11 thoughts on “Women’s Sports and Sexualization

  1. More importantly perhaps… why don’t women watch sport as much as men? Can’t they just gyrlpower womens sport up the viewship rankings?

    Posted by Athol Kay: Married Man Sex Life | July 8, 2010, 7:00 pm
  2. That’s right there in the biology department, I think. The proof, I think, is in who women watch sports with. They never do it alone. And I think that speaks volumes. Out of all the women who watched the Superbowl last year, how many were with their boyfriends? How many women go to baseball games alone, or with just their girlfriends? The only sports that have overwhelmingly female audiences seem to be… dare I say it… girly sports… like gymnastics. It’s a community gyrlpower kind of thing. But when it’s about a sport that lots of folks find compelling, the only people who will go out of their way to watch a game even when it’s not a social event are guys.

    Posted by hambydammit | July 8, 2010, 7:22 pm
  3. I used to play soccer and do gymnastics and girls are actually very competitive with each other. Ecpeciallly gymnastics where they don’t want anybody better than them.

    But I think you’re right about the “girly” vs “manly” sports.

    I personally think that women mostly go into the sexualized sports [cheerleading, tennis etc..] because, well, they want to use their sexuality to their advantage. As you can guess, I object to that, but girls usually sign up for cheerleading if they want to get the quaterback or go to tennis to impress some guy.

    In other words, girls with extreme interest in sports are usually either butch or sluts.

    Posted by cptpineapple | July 8, 2010, 9:08 pm
  4. I wandered over here seeing the title of this post at Hooking Up Smart in your comment.

    I have to say it has always been interesting to me as a competitive female athlete that women’s sports never seem to measure up to men’s in terms of viewership/interest. You even see if with the soccer clubs where I play. The competitive men’s teams will have tons of fans whereas the women’s games are lucky to maybe have a few parents who still come out cause they’re daughters are still playing into their 20s. Maybe you’ll get a boyfriend or a husband but rarely. Whereas the men’s games you get the girlfriends, wives, kids, parents, grandparents, other club members…it’s ridiculous.

    As to women not watching sports alone…I’m going to disagree slightly there. I watch some sports on my own – soccer and the Olympics mainly. I’m not huge on watching other people play sports because it makes me antsy and I want to play. My mom is also a huge football and basketball fan because she grew up in small town Ohio. She got into soccer because I grew up playing and went competitive. Her mom (my 92 year old grandma) watches basketball, football, baseball, etc. constantly. My dad? No interest in sports whatsoever.

    Granted I have many athletic female friends who would skew this data because they do watch sports just for the sake of watching sports and not just because it’s with a boyfriend or whatever.

    I do agree that the majority of women watch because of a boyfriend/husband, but there are some who don’t.

    What drives me nuts are the girls who pretend to be into a sport at the height of the season/tournament (e.g. world cup) and try to impress guys when they know nothing about the game itself.

    I don’t think female sports will ever be as popular because people don’t really want to watch sweaty women in that context.

    Posted by reformed_tomboy | July 8, 2010, 9:21 pm
  5. Hey, I think we can do a scientific experiment. Lets put a controlled group of men in 2 rooms. The first group gets to watch past tennis games of Anna K., while the other group of men are forced to watch past tennis games of Billie Jean king. We can then monitor brain activity, heart rate, and eye movement, all to determine if men are watching because of the excitement of the game and/or if they are trying to cartch the next downblouse and upskirt shot!

    or in the case of the Billie jean King group, ….to see if they turn the channel.



    Posted by PG | July 9, 2010, 1:13 am
  6. Softball is a lot of fun to watch, especially at the collegiate championship level. Most of the teams are from the south or west, meaning more attractive women, on average.

    Women’s sports gets less play because most of the time, it’s less extreme. Female hockey players aren’t allowed to check and female basketball players almost never dunk. However, a true sports watcher will tell you that women are fun to watch because it’s more like classic basketball, lots of passing and setting up plays. Less flash and dash…which is why the average viewer has less interest.

    But I think you’re right, women’s sports will never be free of the need to be sexually appealing, because, quite frankly, that’s what the men are when they compete.

    Posted by becomingdulcinea | July 9, 2010, 10:26 am
  7. If you look at World Cup soccer and the Olympics, women are always interested in how men look like Michael Phelps, Ian Thorpe, Cristiano Ronaldo, Rafael Nadal, or David Beckham, for example, as well as their talent. Men are always hampered with high expectations from women.

    Posted by Guest | April 7, 2011, 3:11 pm
  8. Guest, thanks for the comment. It’s interesting that this article has been getting a lot of hits, since I was considering a follow-up after this year’s Women’s Final Four.

    I think you’re right that good looking male athletes do get a lot of attention from women, but it’s also true that looks are not the final measure of a male athlete’s status. Consider this guy:

    Nobody questions his status as one of the greatest the game has ever seen. And he’s butt ugly.

    Not exactly causing a disturbance in the nethers of female viewers here, either.

    Of course, to a certain degree, extreme physical fitness in men is going to be attractive. So almost by definition, athletes are going to be pretty good looking. And that’s kind of my question, or point, or whatever it is… It seems like the physical qualities necessary for success in women’s sports are NOT especially attractive to men, but men still want to look at hotties. Women ARE attracted to the qualities that make men good athletes. So there’s a disparity. Or so it seems to me.

    Posted by hambydammit | April 7, 2011, 6:41 pm
  9. first of all women can be just as competitive as men in anything. this isnt a gender issue its a personality issue

    secondly, a woman isnt only good for her reproductive system, so, if she wants to play a sport that “isnt good for her reproductive system”, then shes allowed to do whatever she wants.

    thirdly a womans body isnt only there to be stared at by men, so if she wants to play sports and have muscles and look “lesbian-like” she has the right to do so without being criticized by chauvensitic men who think women dont belong in sports unless they are skinny blonde and in skirts.

    Posted by Jessica | November 12, 2011, 11:16 am
  10. fourth of all dont generalize and say that women are attracted to the qualities that make men good athelets cuz everyone is different and everyone finds different things attractive. there are alot more important things that women find attractive on a man that looks and atheltic abilities

    fifth of all, women dont like sports just because of the goodlooking men. dont say that as an excuse to justify that men staring at women is not wrong. if a woman is watching sports its because she likes the sport, not because the men are hot. if a man is watching a womans sport its because he wants to see the women in skirts or sexy outfits. go watch porn if thats what u want. women dont play sports to look good for men

    Posted by Jessica | November 12, 2011, 11:21 am
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