Media Coverage & Female Athletes

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by @DavidAPortney

(To appear in the next issue of Coaching Volleyball Magazine)

Not long ago I was handed a DVD titled “Media Coverage & Female Athletes,” and popped it in having a vague idea of what to expect.  After 3.5 years of working in the female driven sport of volleyball, I’ve read countless articles and seen even more video clips and DVDs on the topic, but this particular DVD seemed different.  

The Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota did exhaustive research, which resulted in some pretty interesting (but not shocking) results. Prior to my time at the AVCA, I’ve worked in professional football and baseball, so the amount and method of those sports being portrayed in the media was not a grave concern of mine.  But it also gives me a unique perspective on how we should progress to get the recognition we in volleyball deserve. Here are the top three things we need to do:

1)     Stop the blame game. Here’s a stat the DVD opens with: 40% of all athletes in this country are women, they receive 43% of college scholarships and just 4% of the overall media coverage. Do I think the media deserves at least some criticism for covering just the 4%? Absolutely. Will putting them on trial and dragging them through the mud help our cause? Absolutely not.

But it is important to address a few points about the media. Whenever I speak with a reporter about covering volleyball, or any women’s sport for that matter, I often hear “Well no one cares about it.” My first inclination is to reply, “No, YOU don’t care about it,” but that doesn’t do any good so we should take a different approach. Take the facts we have on hand to make your cause. Interest is generally measured by attendance and TV ratings so let’s start there. Since trying to get more volleyball on TV is part of our plea to the media, we’ll look at attendance.

Many programs across the country draw thousands of fans per match, so there is proof enough people care in that region to want to see the highlights on the news or read about it later online and the newspaper. In 2012, 50 NCAA Division I schools averaged nearly 1,000 fans per home match…that’s a lot of media markets! Not to mention many Division II and III schools bring in thousands of fans over the course of the season. It’s a classic chicken or the egg argument. Do people care about certain sports because they’re being covered or do the media report on the sports the public already care about? It’s easy to argue either side.

Another two excuses mentioned in the video for not covering female sports are “We follow winners” and “We lack the resources, there are only so many reporters.”  To the former, the media will cover the local football or basketball team regardless of their record. In the DVD, the example mentioned was questioning whether the Chicago media still follow the Cubs even though they haven’t been historically competitive on a consistent basis (sorry Cubs fans).  Of course they do. To the latter, how many ridiculous new stories involving pet cats and ice sculptures on someone’s front lawn do you see every night on your local news? You’re telling me that is more interesting than the volleyball match against your heated conference rival?

Now let’s look at the ones responsible for filling the newspaper space and TV time slots. According to a report referenced by Star Tribune Sports Reporter Rachel Blount, 90% of sports editors in this country are men. Of those 90%, many of them are in the baby boom generation with traditional values wanting to cover the NFL, MLB, NBA and college football. I bring this up because they will merely cast us aside if we blame them too loudly. Instead, we need to help them. We need to show the mainstream media why they should be covering our sport on a more consistent basis by presenting them with story ideas and angles that any reporter would be interested in.  At the end of the day it doesn’t matter whose fault it is, all that matters is we keep progressing and moving forward. This leads to the second point.

2)     It starts with the volleyball staff. For many college programs it would be the SID, but it also applies to the coaching staff.  It’s vital for any team to be in the media’s ear about not just the everyday stuff surrounding your team, but the real juicy human interest stories. Sending weekly news and notes to a mass distribution of local media doesn’t quite cut it. Those editors and reporters at best will gloss it over, but most likely not even open it. Get to know the most influential media members in your region, introduce yourself by name and invite them to a match. Give them great seats and if possible, food and drink to make them feel special and appreciated. It’s not they purposely neglect volleyball; they just haven’t been exposed to it!

I understand it can be difficult for an SID to dedicate the time to handle this with all of the sports they’re usually responsible for, but someone must take the reins even if it’s a member of the coaching staff. The media won’t know the best stories about your team so that is your job. Think outside the box. While you may be impressed how a player put in the work to be a dominant conference force, it might be more interesting to focus on the lesser-used player who has an incredible back story.

3)     The players need to take personal responsibility. Sorry players, you’re not quite off the hook.  “Sex doesn’t sell women’s sports. Sex sells sex,” said Associate Director of the Tucker Center Nicole Lavoi. She adds while individual athletes in any sport are entitled to make any decisions they’d like in regards to their own sports and modeling careers, it only hurts the mission of women being taken seriously as athletically competent.  This won’t apply to current college athletes, but it’s important they understand this since they may soon have those opportunities.

The Tucker Center revealed females from ages 18-34 and 35-55 and males from 35-55 overwhelmingly prefer on-court competence over a sexualized female athlete. The male ages 18-34 were more closely split, but follow-up questions revealed the sexualized photos don’t make the male viewer take the next step and consume the sport. Going back to what Dr. Lavoi said: “Sex sells sex.” While by percentage very few athletes, male or female, have the opportunity to use their body for a modeling career, it’s important for all athletes, particularly female, to understand they don’t need to pose nude to bring attention to their sport. If anything, the studies show it hurts more than helps.

The message to the players is to be an ambassador to your sport and your team. Go out of your way to grow awareness of what you, your teammates and your coaching staff are doing. Media loves great personalities, give them what they’re looking for while still being true to yourself. Every team has at least a couple of attractive personalities, so use that to your advantage.

Most importantly, if someone tells you “Chicks aren’t fun to watch play sports,” don’t attack them. Just like the first point about the media, while their views might be a bit misguided it won’t help to criticize. Instead, encourage them to come out to the game, and even offer free tickets if possible! All you can do is get them to the match, the rest is up to them.

If you Google “Media Coverage & Female Athletes Tucker Center” you should be able to access the entire video online free of charge (run time 56 minutes). I highly recommend it.

(Image courtesy ESPN)

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About dportmedia

Hi, my name's Dave Portney, and welcome to DPort Media! This is my personal blog where I write things I find relevent to my position as a Media Relations Manager for the American Volleyball Coaches Association. I have a proven track record of building brand awareness through online media working for companies large and small. This is my passion, and I truly love waking up in the morning and communicating with the rest of the world. So shoot me a message and let's connect! Follow me on Twitter @DavidAPortney
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