As Women’s Sports Push for Equality, Media Needs to Follow Suit

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This week, Sportico is commemorating the 50th anniversary of Title IX with our WX3 live event and columns from top women’s sports leaders. Today’s guest columnist is Sophie Goldschmidt, president and CEO of U.S. Ski & Snowboard. JohnWallStreet returns June 27.

“For me, losing a tennis match isn’t failure, it’s research.” – Billie Jean King

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I had the great honor of getting to know Billie Jean when I worked for the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) from 2003-07. There is an old adage cautioning that you should never meet your heroes, because it can only lead to disappointment. Whoever came up with that one clearly never met Billie Jean King.

When Billie Jean said losing a tennis match wasn’t a failure if you used the experience to improve, the sentiment clearly extended to other aspects of her life—and the lives of other female athletes.

As Title IX celebrates its 50th anniversary, it’s impossible not to think of people like Billie Jean and marvel at the efforts they’ve made to advance the equality, rights, stature and earnings in women’s sports. However, while great strides have been made, true equality still doesn’t exist.

In particular, the gender gap remains glaringly wide in the coverage that women’s sports receives in comparison to men. The lack of fair and proper exposure is one of the greatest roadblocks in women’s sports today. It impacts media rights payouts, commercial revenues and paths for growth—for both specific sports and individuals.

Currently, women’s sports are significantly undervalued by media companies and, with only a few exceptions, not being given prime slots. A USC/Purdue University study in 2019 found that media has largely ignored women’s sports over the past 30 years, with 80% of televised sports news and highlight shows having zero stories on women’s sports. This is the case even though fandom in women’s sports continues to grow at an impressive pace.

While it has improved somewhat in recent years, media attention to women’s sports still pales compared with men’s sports on the airwaves, in print and online. The proof is mounting that when presented the opportunity, women can match and even beat men in ratings. Just take a look at the U.K., where the BBC’s coverage of women’s sports is attracting consistently larger and larger audiences.

In the U.S., some women’s sports programming is closing the ratings gap with men’s events, and even surpassing them. The WNBA just had a 51% increase in viewership for its most-watched season since 2008; the 2021 Women’s College World Series outperformed the men’s tournament viewership by 60%; and the women’s Beijing Olympics gold medal hockey game between the U.S. and Canada drew 3.54 million viewers—the second most-watched hockey contest in the U.S. since 2019. It’s still difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison, but this much has been proven: Accessibility equals opportunity.

I’m fortunate to have worked for some progressive leaders and organizations, where elevating women’s sports has been a priority and therefore a consistent focus during my career. I’m proud of the progress made in my prior role as CEO of the World Surf League, where we implemented equal prize money for the first time, and other initiatives to elevate female surfing globally.

While I may (understandably!) be a bit partial, I can cite skiing/snowboarding as an example of where the playing field is more equitable. It’s one of the things that drew me to this job last year. On the slopes, the women shine just as brightly as the men. And in the cases of elite athletes like Mikaela Shiffrin, Chloe Kim and Jessie Diggins, they have dominated their sports. Along with the International Ski Federation, we at U.S. Ski & Snowboard have established equal pay; we sell all of our media rights as one package, and our prize money is equal. But media companies in some countries pay us less for women’s rights than for men’s. We need to continue to pressure the rest of the commercial world to invest in women like we have.

This year’s Olympic Winter Games proved to be more equitable for men’s and women’s coverage, but that trend must continue now that the flame is extinguished. Mikaela is one of the greatest female athletes of all time, but I can’t help but wonder how much more widely covered or recognized she would be if she were a man.

Media companies must pay attention to the recent trends. According to the Sports Innovation Lab:

  • This year’s NCAA Women’s National Championship game drew 4.85 million viewers, making it the most-watched women’s title game since 2004.

  • ESPN sold out of advertising space for this year’s Women’s March Madness tournament.

  • In March, Barcelona broke a crowd record for women’s sports with a Champions League win over Real Madrid in front of 91,553 fans at Camp Nou.

  • Of the top 10 most mentioned athletes on social media, 60% are women.

  • Women spend 80% of all sports apparel dollars.

To take a page from Billie Jean, the research has now been done. The audience is there. With better and more regular exposure, viewership will grow and the revenues will flow.

Five full decades after the implementation of Title IX, it’s time to end the gender inequality in sports media coverage. And the time to act is now.

Goldschmidt has held numerous leadership roles, including CEO of the World Surf League, and executive positions at the NBA, the Women’s Tennis Association, the PGA European Tour and Adidas. She has also been honored as one of Forbes’ Most Powerful Women in Sport.

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