On the 50th anniversary of the landmark law, there are still hurdles to clear and inequities to redress—these five issues will define the future.
Participation in sports by young girls is often cited as an example of steady progress since Title IX was implemented, but there’s one area, a half century later, that still remains stuck in the 1980s. Women’s sports representation in the media is virtually unchanged, according to a study of coverage from ’89 to 2019, published in March ’21 in the peer-reviewed bimonthly journal, Communication & Sport. On TV news and highlight shows, including ESPN’s SportsCenter, women athletes totaled only 5.4% of all airtime, a negligible difference from 5% in 1989 and 5.1% in ’93. Take away the 2019 Women’s World Cup and that number drops to 3.5%.
The report, titled “One and Done: The Long Eclipse of Women’s Televised Sports,” details gender asymmetries across networks and digital media. It found that men’s sports (particularly the “Big Three” of basketball, football and baseball) received the majority of coverage, while women’s sports typically got the “one and done” treatment, or a single story sandwiched between more extensive men’s news items.
Despite the dismal findings, a ratings snapshot of just one major sports weekend in April of this year revealed what can happen when women are given premium airtime: The South Carolina–UConn national championship basketball game was the most-watched women’s NCAA tournament final in almost 20 years, with 4.85 million viewers tuning in, an 18% jump from 2021 and 30% from ’19. A day earlier, the NWSL Challenge Cup match between the San Diego Wave and Angel City FC drew 456,000 viewers, a mark that MLS has surpassed only twice through mid-April and that paces with the weekend’s top soccer games of Leicester City–Manchester United (608,000), Newcastle-Tottenham (573,000) and Brentford-Chelsea (463,000).
That type of historic success is what the Women’s Sports Network hopes to capitalize on, offering a simple solution to decades of vying for prime TV slots. Launching in Summer 2022, the 24-hour, ad-supported streaming channel from Los Angeles–based Fast Studios will air events from partners such as the LPGA, U.S. Ski and Snowboard, and World Surf League, as well as news and talk programming, including Game On, a daily studio show featuring scores and highlights.
“If you build it, they will come,” says Carol Stiff, a 30-year ESPN veteran and Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame inductee who is on the network’s advisory board, along with Allyson Felix, analyst LaChina Robinson
and USTA executive Stacey Allaster, among others. “We’re putting [women’s sports] where people can find it and not have to search for it,” Stiff says. “That’s what this network is going to be all about.”
While recent numbers show the potential for a hungry audience, Stiff says the channel’s benchmark for success will ultimately be its ability to attract advertisers, which will influence the investment in women’s sports rights, programming, marketing and more.
“Until we get Madison Avenue to double down and spend money on supporting women’s sports, I don’t know where we will be 50 years from now. Hopefully not in the same place,” she says. “That’s going to be the driver here; that’s what we’ve been missing. And that’s what we need.” —Jamie Lisanti