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How The Olympics Are Helping Close The Gender Gap In Sports

By Jennifer Roback

NBC's coverage of the Olympics has helped bridge the media coverage gender gap in the United States

One of the biggest differences between men's and women's sports throughout the United States is media coverage.

A 30-year study done by USC and Purdue University found that television news and ESPN's SportsCenter continue to ignore women's sports both on-air and online.

“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 Michael Messner, a professor of sociology and gender studies at the USC 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.”

The study was conducted every five years since 1989 and in 2019, found that 95% of total television coverage, including ESPN's highlight show, SportsCenter focused on men's sports alone.

“Eighty percent of the news and highlights programs in our study devoted zero time for women’s sports,” said Cheryl 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.”

While there has been an increase in media coverage of female sports, there is still a large gap when it comes to overall coverage.

One sporting event that has devoted more time to women athletes however is the Olympics.

An analysis done by the University of Delaware of coverage by NBC, who has the exclusive rights to broadcast the Olympics, found that the network's coverage of male athletes began to change during the 2012 games where the female athletes received 55% of the prime-time coverage.

“Results show that women athletes received the majority of clock-time and name mentions during the 2018 coverage … continuing a trend toward increased focus on women’s sports and athletics.”

James Angelini, an associate professor, and director of graduate studies at the University's Department of Communications discussed that this increase in media coverage during the women's events has to do with their continued success.

“Women are winning more medals, and NBC is following the story,” he said

After the 2018 Winter Olympics, Team USA come home with a total of 23 medals and for the first time in 20 years, the women athletes had won more than the men.

While they did not always win gold, out of the six silver medals won that year, women took home three of them, and out of the six bronze medals Team USA won, the women earned four of them.

The results were similar during the 2016 Summer Olympics too.

Women earned 61 out of 121 medals won by Team USA, including 27 out of the 46 gold medals that year, a shocking 59%.

Women can be seen catching up to men in events and NBC is making sure they get the recognition they deserve.

In the year 2021, women's sports continue to prove why they deserve more media coverage.

During the NCAA women's Softball World Series, the event averaged 1.2 million viewers, and the most viewed game drew in 2.1 million viewers throughout the country.

The men's NCAA World Series only averaged 755,000 viewers with the most viewed game drawing in only 1.7 million viewers averaged.

The Softball World Series averaged 60% more viewers than the Baseball World Series did, showing that there is an interest in women's sports when they do get the opportunity to be broadcasted.

While there continues to be a rise, there is still a lot of work to create equal broadcasting rights between men and women's sports.

“Our analysis shows men’s sports are the appetizer, the main course, and the dessert, and if there’s any mention of women’s sports it comes across as begrudging ‘eat your vegetables without the kind of bells and whistles and excitement with which they describe men’s sports and athletes,” Messner added.

More needs to be done to fix this and more organizations will need to get behind the Olympics and continue the representation of women's sports throughout the country all year, not just every four years.

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