Nicole LaVoi wants us to see what she sees. So earlier this year, LaVoi started pulling out her smartphone at packed women's sports events. She posted pictures of the electric crowds on Facebook and Twitter, adding wry messages.
"Too bad no one's interested in women's sports!"
LaVoi, associate director of the University of Minnesota's Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, has long questioned the stubborn assumption that nobody watches female athletes or, if they do, prefer that they be out of uniform and out of most other clothing, too.
Tucker's director, Mary Jo Kane, also has been shaking her head.
"For a number of years, I've heard that sex sells women's sports," said Kane, 62. "But I know the literature, four decades of sports media scholarship. And we had no data on this topic."
Now they do, and the two women hope to start a global grass-roots campaign around it. They're calling their effort the #Heresproof project.
"It's just two or three isolated studies," Kane said. "It needs to be replicated. But it's clear what interests sports fans."
When it comes to female athletes, most fans value what they value in male athletes, Kane said unequivocally: Athletic competence.
There's lots of reasons to cheer on Kane and LaVoi, and share their findings. First, more than 40 percent of sports participants today are female (read: our daughters, sisters and friends), and it would be shameful for them to get the message that their effort, drive and skill are somehow less worthy of our attention, support and dollars.
Second, media outlets pay attention to shifts, some for altruistic and others for financial reasons. Women athletes are offering them lots of reasons to pay attention, including more than 13.4 million viewers for the 2011 Women's World Cup between the United States and Japan.
And the fact that the U.S. Open Women's Final in 2013 between Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka pulled in a rating of 4.9, compared to the men's final between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, which pulled in a 2.8.
And a 28 percent increase in WNBA regular-season viewers from 2012 to 2013.
These numbers make it harder to defend the fact that just 2 percent to 4 percent of sports coverage is dedicated to female athletes, according to research from Purdue University and the University of Southern California. As hunger for women's sports gets on their radar, gatekeepers are already adding newsprint space or airtime, with coverage that more accurately reflects accomplishments.
Kane has been pleased to see ESPN coverage of women shift over the past five years from "personality and pretty-in-pink" to reporting about "serious, competent athletes, with legendary coaches."
The sports network's coverage of women's March Madness, Kane said, has been marketed and covered, "the same way they cover men's basketball, and viewership has shot up. They're saying, 'Aha! It's working. Let's replicate this with volleyball and softball.' "
Three years ago, ESPN started ESPNW, an online sports forum for those who are passionate about women's sports. While the online-only site is limited, it's a start. And it's likely to grow in size and scope as a brand extension. Already, ESPNW boasts sponsorships from P&G, Gatorade and Under Armour, said LaVoi, who serves on its advisory board.
LaVoi doubts the addition was random. She participated in "high-level" conversations with ESPN to share recent research, which includes a four-year Tucker study, published in 2011, of sports consumers of both genders. Respondents overwhelmingly agreed that sexualized images of female athletes lessened their interest in watching them compete. In a 2013 follow-up study of elite female athletes, "on-court competence" ruled.
The conversations are beginning to make a difference to female athletes' bottom line, too. Star Tribune reporter and columnist Rachel Blount noted that Lynx forward Maya Moore was among the first female athletes signed by the [Michael] Jordan brand.
"When she was drafted by the Lynx, they touted her as a breakthrough female athlete, because her talent was so great that her fans included young men, a demographic that tends to be resistant to women's sports," said Blount, who has covered sports for 28 years.
"Lindsay Whalen has lots of male fans," Blount added. "Those things would have been unthinkable years ago."
Still work to do
Blount also is buoyed by the number of "big female stars" of the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, including ski jumpers who finally got in after years of fighting for Olympic inclusion.
There's still work to do. LaVoi and Kane collaborated on a thoughtful documentary airing this month on TPT, called "Media Coverage and Female Athletes" (tpt.org). The 50-minute film celebrates changes but notes glaring errors, such as the fact that the 2013 NCAA Women's Ice Hockey Championships, featuring the reigning champion U Gophers on an undefeated streak, wasn't televised.
"Such an oversight would be unimaginable had this been a men's sport," Kane said.
Moore, who is also in the documentary, takes a patient approach. "I don't know too many people who have come to me and said, 'You know, I came to a [Lynx] game and it just wasn't exciting,'" she says.
"They come to games and say, 'I just didn't know.' "
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