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Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw and Skylar Diggins celebrate the team’s advancing to this weekend’s women’s NCAA Final Four.

March Madness minimizes women

For many sports fans, March is the most wonderful time of the year. For two weeks, men and women are addicted to various media devices including TVs, cellphones, iPads and social media sites to experience the highs and lows that are the “madness”" of the NCAA basketball tournament. The tournament is unlike anything in sports, with the exception of the Olympics, in terms of its popularity and duration.

Despite the tremendous popularity surrounding men’s collegiate basketball today, the extensive media coverage did not always exist. It wasn’t until the 1980s, in the aftermath of the popularity of the UCLA dynasty, when men’s college basketball started to become a major player in the sports media landscape. Although NCAA women’s basketball is one of the most popular women’s sports in the U.S. (in addition to professional tennis and Olympic women’s gymnastics and figure skating), it does not garner the same widespread excitement, media attention and “madness” as the men’s tournament.

Some would assume it is because the women’s game is not as “interesting” as the men’s game. For some, this explains why there is more money and more attention given to the men’s tournament. However, as my colleague, professor Michael Messner at the University of Southern California, and I have found, the news media play an important role in building audiences and creating interest in sport. Part of what makes the tournament so exciting for fans (and I’ll include myself here) is following a team’s progress, learning about the history of the tournament, matchups and players, filling out the bracket, and joining office pools.

While the men’s tournament has been broadcast in its entirety for years, it was not until 2003 when ESPN broadcast the entire women’s basketball tournament – from the 64 teams in the opening round to the final championship game.

Until then, national televised coverage outside the Final Four was largely absent.

Additionally, we’ve found that the quality of broadcast coverage of the men’s tournament is consistently better than the women’s game.

The men’s game includes excitement-building production techniques including editing, multiple camera angles, camera motion speed (instant replays, slow-motion replays), statistics, graphics, halftime shows, music and quality commentary.

While the production of the women’s tournament has improved since the late 1980s, production techniques continue to be of lower quality.

This contributes to a viewer’s perception of watching a “different game.”

Not only is broadcast coverage important, but the news media also help to create and sustain audience and viewer interest in sport. Specifically, news media play a significant role in the tournament experience as fans fill out brackets and relive highs and lows as they watch highlight shows and Internet coverage.

For example, in our most recent study, which examines news media coverage of sport over the span of 20 years, we found that the televised news media coverage of women’s sports has declined since 1989. We also found a great disparity in the televised news media coverage of the NCAA men’s and women’s tournament.

In our most recent data sample from 2009, we found that ESPN’s SportsCenter spent more than three hours and 100 segments covering the men’s tournament and only six-and-a-half minutes and 11 segments on the women’s. Most of the coverage of the women’s tournament was relegated to the small, scrolling ticker at the bottom of the screen. Other researchers have found similar trends in the lack of coverage.

In absence of this coverage, many fans miss out on those experiences that help to sustain fan excitement for the game. And the media miss out on an important opportunity to create and sustain a growing market for women’s sport.

These types of differences are important not simply for sports fans but also for our society. Studies have shown that the vast majority of youth consume some sort of sports media. We also know the powerful role that the media play in influencing the beliefs of people, both young and old.

If we continue to only see men playing sport and continue only to celebrate and embrace the athletic accomplishments of men while ignoring or downplaying the athletic accomplishments of women, we miss out on an opportunity to teach our children important lessons about what men and women can accomplish and what they can achieve.

Cheryl Cooky is an assistant professor in the Department of Health & Kinesiology and Women’s Studies Program at Purdue University and co-author of the report, “Gender in Televised Sports: News and Highlights Shows, 1989 – 2009.” She wrote this for The Journal Gazette.

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