When I get older, I have a feeling I will turn into Robert De Niro in “Silver Linings Playbook,” when Sunday becomes the greatest day of the week solely because of bacon, beer and Sunday football. Sports television is a large part of what Americans consume on TV — Sunday Night Football is the second-most-watched program on television right now — but to whose benefit?
According to The Economist, 40 percent of American athletic participants are female, and yet they receive only 1.62 percent of sports airtime on major sports networks.
I emailed ESPN, the network whose commentators have been talking with their dicks since 1979 (see: commentary of the 2013 BCS championship game), expecting no response. Surprisingly, a representative got back to me with a PC statement and some bullet points, one of which included: “No other outlet provides the breadth and depth of coverage.”
That’s funny, because from 2004 to 2009, only 3.6 percent of the covers of ESPN The Magazine featured female athletes. Although, to be fair, I was asking about television. I emailed back, requesting a breakdown of live TV events, and she pointed me toward ESPN3, which had featured women in 40 percent of its televised events.
She told me the network had 1,400 hours of women’s sports programming planned for the year. I asked: out of how many total hours? Unfortunately, she said, she did not have that information.
While the rest of the country grapples to catch up with the times, the Pac-12 Networks, the collegiate conference’s independently owned television broadcasting network, is already one step ahead of the game.
“We did 550 events last year, and it was actually an even split between men’s and women’s events,” said Kirk Reynolds, vice president of communications. “This year, we’re doing 750 events, and 383 are women’s sports. … We’re televising women’s volleyball with 90 events, women’s basketball with 100 events, which are unprecedented numbers. Prior to Pac-12 Networks, it used to be like five women’s basketball events televised the whole year.”
I sat down with Sandy Barbour, director of Cal Athletics, and she agreed with Reynolds’ sentiment. “The Pac-12 is head-and-shoulders above anyone else in televising women’s sports,” she said. When asked why she thought there was such a disparity between men and women’s coverage, she said, “It’s a little bit of a chicken-and-egg problem. If you see more women’s sports on TV, do you value it more? Or do you value women’s sports more, and then TV will value it more?”
Out of all the sports television networks in America, only one has a female executive running the show. Guess who? Lydia Murphy-Stephans, president of Pac-12 TV Networks. When I told her about the 1.6 percent statistic, she chuckled.
“This reminds me of 25 years ago — when I was at ABC Sports, I did a similar report,” she said. “I think the numbers back then were 99.8 percent for men’s sports and 0.02 percent for women’s. While this growth may not be aggressive or impressive, it’s going in the right direction.”
Murphy-Stephans told me a story of how in 1999, the executives at ABC Sports wanted to play the men’s PGA Golf Tour over the FIFA Women’s World Cup final. The women’s event won out, and it turned out to be the most attended women’s sports event in history.
Yes, our country has a “Friday Night Lights”-esque obsession with football — the fact that a show called “The League,” a comedy centering on a fantasy football league, exists is proof enough. But the times are changing. Larry Scott, the commissioner of the Pac-12, noted in an op-ed to San Jose Mercury News that the most watched event of the 2012 London Olympics was the U.S. women’s soccer gold medal match, which also happened to be the most watched event in the history of NBC Sports. In the social media universe, Gabby Douglas became the most “clicked” athlete.
“As women’s events become more interesting, TV coverage will come,” Murphy-Stephans said. “The growth will be exponential.”
Now, how long will it take for that growth to spread east?