Authors: Travis Scheadler, Audrey Wagstaff, Ph.D., MJE

Corresponding Authors:
Travis Scheadler
(937) 751-5799
6811 Oakland Rd
Loveland, OH 45140
Wilmington College

Audrey Wagstaff, Ph.D., MJE
(937) 481-2253
1870 Quaker Way
Pyle Box 1221
Wilmington, OH 45177
Wilmington College

Exposure to Women’s Sports: Changing Attitudes Toward Female Athletes

Many sports fans argue that women’s sports are boring compared to men’s sports. Simultaneously, women’s sports, compared to men’s sports, are rarely broadcasted in the media. Therefore, could the media be making sports fans believe that women’s sports are less desirable by giving them less coverage? Using the Agenda-Setting Theory, Framing Theory, and Mere Exposure Effect, an intervention was developed to promote women’s sports to sports fans. Half of the participants received watched highlight films of women’s sports each week for 4 weeks. Results indicate that the intervention decreased prejudice towards female athletes after 3 weeks but had no effect on interest towards women’s sports. Future studies should immerse participants into the live action of women’s sports rather than highlight footage.

KEYWORDS: women’s sports; sports media; gender discrimination

Women have been fighting for equality all throughout history. In sport, specifically, women were once not even permitted to watch the Olympic Games (11). After finally being permitted to participate in sports, women had to undergo gender testing to make sure they were not men trying to cheat the system (62). Furthermore, the coverage of women’s sports did not supersede coverage of dogs and horses until 1992 (42). To this day, female athletes still experience significantly less and different media coverage than their male counterparts. The purpose of this study is to examine how increasing exposure to women’s sports impacts attitudes towards women’s sports.

Improvements in Gender Equality in Sports
Although women have faced many challenges throughout history, they have come closer and closer to achieving gender equality and those advances cannot be ignored. The US Congress passed Title IX of the Omnibus Education Act of 1972, for example, mandated equal federal funding opportunities towards male and female students in higher education (38), which encouraged more girls and women to participate in sports. This increased accessibility to sports sparked a change of less than 32,000 intercollegiate women and 300,000 high school girls that participated in sports prior to ‘Title IX’ to 200,000 intercollegiate women and three million girls that participated in sports in 2010 (34).

Title IX has made it possible for women and girls to become more involved, and thus, more competitive in sports. The London 2012 Olympic Games featured, for the first time in history, an equal number of sports for women as for men (25). Upon this expansion of women’s sports, many countries such as the US experienced a large growth in the number of female Olympians – so large that female US Olympians outnumbered male US Olympians (25) and went on to earn more medals, including more gold medals, for the US (12). The 2012 Games provided opportunities for more than just the US, though. Every single country participating, for the first time ever, had at least one female participant (12). Sports fans, too, are seemingly becoming more interested in the push for gender equality by watching more women’s sports. More and more people watch the Women’s Final Four of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) basketball every year, consistently breaking viewership records (3).

It is important to keep women and girls participating in sports and exercise because sports have many benefits for men and women regardless of gender including decreased social loafing later in life with a history of participating in team, rather than individual sports (16); improved respiratory and cardiovascular health (58); enhanced muscle and bone strength and reduced hip fractures, vertebrae fractures, and cancer diagnoses (2, 66); reduced risk of Type II diabetes (22); decreased risk of depression (39); improved grades (51); and in children who participate in team sports, increased self-concept and self-esteem (55).

Gender Inequality in Sports Still Exists
Despite the improvements towards reaching gender equality in sports, female athletes still face numerous obstacles. The media, for example, present sports as if there are masculine (e.g., football and ice hockey) and feminine (e.g., gymnastics and figure skating) sports, aligning with traditional expectations of male and female athletes (36, 44), which makes it more difficult to break traditional gender barriers and allowing women to participate in masculine sports and men to participate in feminine sports. In fact, many female athletes are only accepted by society and receive coverage in the media if they participate in traditionally feminine sports (12). If a woman dares to participate in a masculine sport, their sexuality is immediately questioned (7). The media tends to ignore, which devalues, women’s athletic accomplishments by focusing on their physical appearance (60), private lives (4, 29, 31), and femininity and sexuality even if they achieve more impressive athletic feats (21).

Not only does the media focus on different features of a female athlete opposed to a male athlete, but some researchers analyzed media coverage of female athletes and reported that women receive poorer quality of technical production, less overall coverage, and are demeaned as “girls” while men are portrayed as “strong and powerful men” that are “historically important” (18). Television networks even choose different shots and angles for at least female beach volleyball players (4) and track and field athletes (26), exploiting their bodies. The emphasis on their bodies and sexuality could be putting women and girls at risk for anxiety and fear (49). Females who experience the media’s emphasis of attractive qualities are more likely to also experience anorexia, bulimia, body dissatisfaction, and a drive for thinness (5). In addition, such anxiety is related to quitting sports (24, 53), experiencing less enjoyment in sports (53, 57), and suffering impaired performances (28, 68, 32, 48, 63). Therefore, the unequal attention given to female athletes may lead to many negative consequences for women in addition to protecting male privilege in sports (13, 35).

This unequal attention may seem minimal to some, but is discrimination nonetheless. Even if women and girls do not interpret the inequality as discrimination, it can still cause negative consequences because then any kind of negative outcome (i.e., lower ticket sales compared to male athletes) can be internally attributed (i.e., self-blame) which will result in reductions in motivation, self-esteem, and future expectations for achievement (67).

Media Exposure of Women’s Sports
Gender inequality, as noted, has many negative consequences for female athletes. In addition to the unequal type of coverage that female athletes receive, they also receive less overall coverage (8, 19, 30, 47, 56). Women’s sports are also perceived as less exciting and slower than men’s sports (40). In that same study, participants reported that they had minimal experience with women’s sports and only watched women’s sports if that is what was on television. The media, though, does not give women’s sports much coverage, minimizing the frequency of which sports fans view women’s sports. In fact, less than 10% of sports media covers women’s sports and less than 2% of sports media covers women’s sports that are deemed masculine (37). Unfortunately, news staff are less likely to recognize this difference than viewers (41), meaning that news staff may not realize that they are arguably discriminating against female athletes.

Even though the Olympic Games are now offering the same number of sports for women as they do men as previously noted, the Olympic Games also displays unequal coverage through their networks. For example, the US women’s basketball team won their fifth consecutive gold medal in 2012, but received less than half of a minute in prime-time coverage whereas the men’s team who won their second consecutive gold medal received approximately half of an hour of prime-time coverage (12). Notably, though, the 2012 Olympic Games, for the first time ever, also provided more coverage of women’s sports than men’s sports on NBC; however, this coverage was primarily for women’s sports deemed feminine (e.g., gymnastics) (12).

A study examining ESPN’s SportsCenter and three Los Angeles networks discovered that only 1.4% of SportsCenter’s coverage and 1.6% of the local networks’ coverage were of women’s sports, the lowest in at least 20 years (47). Although this study was conducted earlier than 2012, it provides evidence that women are still receiving less coverage in sports outside of the summer Olympics.

Such misrepresentation of women’s sports has been argued to be responsible for the lack of interest in women’s sports from sports fans (9, 14, 15) and reinforces the public’s general negative attitudes towards women (61). As previously argued, this lack of coverage of women’s sports may be holding sports fans back from developing interest in women’s sports and adapting fan affiliations with women’s sports teams and athletes (27). The same study also noted that societal expectations also promote divisions between boys and girls during youth, arguing that this issue is more than just an issue with the media. The media, however, may play an important role in changing the inequalities women face in sports.

Theoretical Considerations
The Agenda-Setting Function of Mass Media, also known as the Agenda-Setting Theory (45) argues that the media tells the audience what to think about by giving a topic or issue with higher importance more coverage. Therefore, women’s sports, in the eyes of the sports fans, may be experienced as less important than men’s sports because it consistently receives less media exposure with the exception of the 2012 Olympic Games (12).

Framing Theory (23) similarly argues that frames, or mental schemas, facilitate information processing, thus shaping what the audience knows about a topic and what they should think about a topic based on the inclusion, exclusion, and prominence of the frames the media presents (20). In other words, “the audience is thought to adopt the frames of reference offered by journalists and to see the world in a similar way” (46, p.557), thus, shaping the opinions of sports fans when women’s sports are de-emphasized.

The Mere Exposure Effect (69), adds more to these theories, simply arguing that the more an individual is exposed to a stimulus, the more favorable they perceive it. Therefore, when sports fans are not exposed to women’s sports, they comprehend the lack of exposure as if they should not care about women’s sports (10, 15, 17). Additionally, when the media places an emphasis on women’s sports that are feminine opposed to masculine, sports fans begin to believe that women and girls should only be participating in feminine sports and not masculine sports (12).

If the media plays such a large role in shaping attitudes and values in regards to women’s sports, why does the media continue? For starters, as previously mentioned, the media, especially male members of the media, may be unaware of the vast differences in portrayals of women and girls versus men and boys in sports (41). Additionally, sports fans are continuing to watch sports because it allows eustress, boosts self-esteem if a favorite team or athlete performs well, offers a way to ‘escape,’ entertains them, provides an opportunity to gamble, is aesthetically pleasing, commits one to a larger group affiliation (e.g., sport fan of a specific team), and brings families together (64). Perhaps, given all of these potential benefits, sports fans continue to watch sports in an attempt to reap more of the benefits, which unintentionally leads the media to believe that their audience likes what they are watching, reinforcing the emphasis on men’s sports and the de-emphasis of women’s sports.

Athletes such as Danica Patrick and the German National Women’s soccer team, amongst many others, though, often sexualize themselves, despite other feminists claiming the media is the culprit (50). The same article argued, though, that these female athletes feel obligated to sexualize their bodies in an effort to promote their respective sport.

Female athletes and marketing organizations that sell sex believe that it is the most powerful way to advertise and increase sales, ratings, and sponsorships (33). This method, however, does not increase interest or respect for women’s sports and women and girls, the primary fans of women’s sports, react negatively to it (1, 33).

What method could work, then, to generate interest and respect for women’s sports if selling sex does not work? The present study uses the provided information and theories to deduce some hypotheses. For example, because the Mere Exposure Effect argues that increased exposure to a stimulus can generate more favorable attitudes towards the stimulus and because sports fans have indicated that they may watch more women’s sports if they were more accessible, the researchers hypothesized:

  • H1: Individuals who are exposed to a 4-week intervention of watching women’s sports
    will be more interested in women’s sports.
  • H2: Individuals who are exposed to a 4-week intervention of watching women’s sports
    will be less prejudiced towards women in sport.

College students were recruited from various courses related to psychology, sociology, and sport sciences at a Midwestern institution. The participants were divided in half for the control and experimental condition. Although 89 individuals started the study, 58 (65.5% females; 32.8% males) completed all 4 weeks of the study (Mage = 20.0 years). The control group completed a survey each week while the experimental group watched various highlight footage of masculine women’s sports (e.g., soccer, hockey, etc.) each week. Highlight footage of women’s sports that had athletes competing on behalf of the US was purposefully selected in order to foster a connection to the athletes of the respective footage. The researchers chose this method because identification with a sports team is associated with emotional responses toward the competition (6, 4, 65) and because the present study was conducted within the US.

Prejudice. The 12-item Prejudiced Attitudes Survey (59) was used to measure prejudice, a preconceived negative affect toward another individual or group based on their identity (e.g., gender). Items consisted of single words (i.e., hostility, hatred, disliking, disdain) on a 10-point Likert-type scale (0 = No hostility at all; 9 = Extreme hostility). Total prejudice was calculated by averaging the scores for each item. Scores were tracked each week of the study along with the change of scores throughout the study.

Interest. The Interest Questionnaire (52) was adapted (the topic was changed from biochemistry to women’s sports) to assess interest in women’s sports. It consisted of 12 items (i.e., “I am very interested in women’s sports”; “I always look forward to watching women’s sports because I enjoy them”; “later in my life I plan on watching more women’s sports.”) on a 5-point Likert-type scale (1 = Not true at all; 5 = Very true for me). Total interest was calculated by averaging the scores for each item. Scores were tracked each week of the study along with the change of scores throughout the study.

Means and standard deviations for all variables can be found in Table 1. Prior to the primary analyses, Pearson’s correlations were determined between all of the variables (see Table 1). Table 1 depicts many significant correlations. For example, the initial prejudice measure was consistently and positively correlated with future prejudice scores and was consistently and negatively correlated with the change in prejudice over time. The initial interest measure, on the other hand, was consistently and positively correlated with further interest scores and was negatively correlated with the third and final prejudice scores and the change in the interest from week one to week three.

Table 1

A factorial two-way multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) tested the effects of the intervention (Control versus Experimental) and Gender (Male versus Female versus Other) on prejudice, interest, and the changes of prejudice and interest over time as they relate to female athletes and women’s sports, respectively. There was not a statistical significant model for gender, F(16, 92) = 1.598, p = .085; Wilks’ Λ = .612, partial η2 = .218. There was also not a significant model for the combination of gender and intervention, F(8, 46) = 1.668, p = .132; Wilks’ Λ = .775, partial η2 = .225. There was, however, a significant model for the intervention, F(8, 46) = 2.713, p < .05; Wilks' Λ = .679, partial η2 = .321. The model suggested that the intervention had a main effect on the change of prejudice towards female athletes after three weeks, p < .05. The data does not support H1, but does provide limited support for H2.

The main goal of the present study was to explore how increased coverage towards women’s sports changes attitudes towards women’s sports and female athletes. The passage of Title IX supported a dramatic increase in the number of women and girls participating in sports over the past 40 years (34). As women and girls are increasing their sport participation, sports fans are becoming more interested in women’s sports (3). While more women and girls are participating in sports than ever before and sports fans are becoming more interested in women’s sports, many sports fans and critics argue that women’s sports are just boring; they complain that women’s sports are not nearly as exciting as men’s sports (61).

Perhaps, sports fans are not interested in women’s sports because they are covered significantly less than men’s sports, indicating that they are less important and less interesting than men’s sports and other topics that are covered more frequently in the media, some researchers hypothesized (9, 14, 15). Using theoretical frameworks from Agenda Setting Theory, Framing Theory, and the Mere Exposure Effect, we hypothesized that increased awareness and exposure to coverage of women’s sports will increase interest in and decrease prejudice towards women’s sports and female athletes. Increased coverage of women’s sports should arguably create an impression that women’s sports are important. Additionally, this increased coverage should lead to increased exposure to women’s sports. Because the more someone is exposed to a stimulus, the more favorable reactions they have to it (69), the more someone is exposed to women’s sports, the more favorable attitudes they should have towards women’s sports and female athletes.

Despite these theoretical conceptions, our hypotheses were not supported with our intervention. Prejudice towards female athletes, however, did significantly decrease after 3 weeks, but did not decrease after 4 weeks, when exposed to increase coverage of women’s sports. Therefore, increased coverage of women’s sports does improve favorable attitudes towards women’s sports and female athletes but does not necessarily increase interest towards women’s sports. Perhaps, prejudice was not decreased after 4 weeks of the intervention because of the lack of interest and motivation to continue participating in the study considering 31 participants dropped out of the study.

Furthermore, interest may not have been affected because participants did not have an emotional attachment to the women’s sports or female athletes that they were watching. After all, identification with a sports team is highly associated with intense emotional responses to the respective team competing (6, 4, 65). Therefore, because sports fans most easily develop emotional attachments to local and regional teams (54), interest towards women’s sports may increase if sports fans can more easily identify and access local teams and athletes. The emotional attachment to such a team and/or athlete will increase interest in watching the team or player and increase investment in women’s sports.

Interestingly, significant correlations indicated that, despite the condition a participant was assigned, interest consistently decreased over the 4-week period. Participation in the study then, may have bored participants because they were either watching video links or because they were only taking a survey each week. If participants only took pre- and post-tests and if the intervention included in-person sports competition instead of video links, we may have fostered increased interest towards women’s sports.

In addition, prejudice towards female athletes consistently decreased regardless of whether or not participants were exposed to increased coverage of women’s sports. Participants may have become self-aware of their negative attitudes towards female athletes by being regularly questioned on them. Because self-awareness of negative attitudes decreases prejudice (70), enhanced self-awareness from responding to the survey likely motivated participants to try to understand and evaluate their own reasons for having negative thoughts and feelings leading to the decrease in prejudice towards female athletes.

An intervention on increased coverage towards women’s sports decreased prejudice towards female athletes after 3 weeks, but not after 4 weeks and had no effect on interest towards women’s sports. While the intervention did not affect interest and only affected the change in prejudice after three weeks, self-awareness of negative thoughts and attitudes may decrease prejudice. The intervention is limited, though, because of the number of female participants compared to male participants and because of the use of video links opposed to live-footage or in-person experiences. In addition, the study featured participants who were college students and not specifically sports fans. Future studies should implement interventions on male sports fans and children which involves watching women’s sports in person of local or regional teams relative to the participants. Specifically targeting children, for example, may improve attitudes toward female athletes by molding the attitudes of the next generation.

All too often, sports fans, athletes, administrators, etc. discriminate against female athletes. Many sports fans are not even interested in watching women’s sports. The present study provides evidence for what did and did not work to improve attitudes and increase the likelihood that sports fans will continue to watch women’s sports. Researchers should use this information to develop interventions to improve attitudes and the popularity of women’s sports. Researchers should, for example, immerse participants into the game by providing them with live access to the competitions rather than providing them with highlight footage. Such interventions can help bridge the gender gap, especially in sports.

The present study not only provides groundwork for future research, but also advises sports personnel (i.e., coaches, sports media broadcasters, administrators, etc.) on how to promote women’s sports. Many sports personnel and male athletes reinforce negative attitudes towards women’s sports by minimizing and altering (compared to men’s sports) their coverage via airtime on television, among many other forms of media communication. The present study offers the idea that these sports personnel and athletes need to focus more equal attention on women’s sports in order to improve attitudes towards women’s sports.

We would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their great suggestions and continuing support.

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