Stephany Mayor, Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe in a match between the the U.S. and Mexico at the 2018 CONCACAF Women’s Championship. Photo credit: Jamie Smed, via Wikimedia Commons

Women’s sports continue to be almost entirely excluded from television news and sports highlights shows, according to a study published this week.

In the latest study by USC and Purdue University, researchers found that 95% of total television coverage – as well as the ESPN popular highlights show SportsCenter – focused on men’s sports in 2019.

They saw a similar lopsidedness in social media posts and in online sports newsletter coverage. Those platforms were included in the report for the first time since researchers began gathering data in 1989.

The survey of men’s and women’s sports coverage has been conducted every five years since.

The study, published in the journal Communication & Sport, documented a few bright spots for women’s sports. They include increasing live televised coverage and prominent news outlets like the Los Angeles Times devoting more resources to women’s sports.

But the coverage of women’s sports hasn’t increased in terms of television news shows, the driver of the “larger media apparatus” that creates audiences for sports, said report author Michael Messner.

“News media focus on the `big three’ men’s sports – football, basketball and baseball – creating audience knowledge about and excitement for the same sporting events over and over,” said Messner, a professor of sociology and gender studies at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

“Meanwhile, women’s sports continue to get short shrift, which is significant when you consider the larger picture of girls’ and women’s efforts to achieve equal opportunities, resources, pay and respect in sports.”

Messner and study co-author Cheryl Cooky of Purdue University say this “missing piece” of media coverage stunts the growth of audience interest in women’s sports.

“Eighty percent of the news and highlights programs in our study devoted zero time for women’s sports,” said Cooky, a professor of American studies and women’s, gender and sexuality studies. “On the rare broadcast when a women’s sports story does appear, it is usually a case of `one and done’ – a single women’s sports story partially eclipsed by a cluster of men’s stories that precede it, follow it and are longer in length.”

To ensure their data sample included various sports seasons, the authors analyzed three two-week blocs of televised news on three Los Angeles network affiliates in March, July and November 2019, along with three weeks of the one-hour SportsCenter.

For the first time in the study’s 30-year history, they also included online daily sports newsletters from networks, including NBC, CBS and ESPN, and their associated Twitter accounts.

The inclusion of that coverage was partly in response to assurances by some in the media industry that more coverage of women’s sports could be found in online and social media coverage.

But the more expansive analysis revealed only slightly more coverage of women’s sports, which made up 9% of online newsletter content and 10% of Twitter posts.

Messner and Cooky found that even the tiny percentage of TV news coverage devoted to women’s sports in 2019 was inflated due to a burst of coverage of the U.S. soccer team’s victory in the World Cup and to a lesser extent, the U.S. women’s tennis competitors at Wimbledon.

When they subtracted soccer news from the total, the local television affiliates’ coverage of women’s sports dropped from 5.1% to 4.0% and the airtime on ESPN’s SportsCenter devoted to women’s sports dropped from 5.4% to 3.5%.

That proportion is similar to prior versions of the study.

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