Saturday, June 21, 2008

Article About Survival of WNBA Teams

I've just finished reading an article called "The Demise of the WNBA in Florida" which discusses the two former WNBA teams in Flordia, the Miami Sol and the Orlando Miracle. The Miracle still exist as the Connecticut Sun; the Sol were disbanded after the 2003 season.

The point of the article, written for The Sports Journal, discusses the degree to which newspaper coverage influences the survival of a franchise. There are definitely some interesting facts to be discovered.

First, that the coverage of women's sports in general in newspapers is not only poor, it's miserably poor. Here are some percentages over time regarding total column space devoted to women's sports:

1900: 1.2 percent
1925-50: 4 percent
1975: 7.1 percent
1996: 11 percent

Clearly, there's been a lot of progress, but also a long way to go. Whenever women's sports is the subject, coverage in general remains quite poor.

Part of that reason is because of the "big four" in sports: baseball, football, basketball (NBA) and hockey. Those are the sports that drive purchase of newspapers by their respective fans. Thirty percent of newspapers are purchased by people primarily interested in the sports section. The impression from the article is that the fans of those sports wouldn't mind if the entire sports section of the newspaper was devoted to their particular sport, and their sport alone. This leaves no room for women's sports, much less "second tier sports" played by men that are not one of the big four above.

The second interesting fact is that actual amount of paper - physical pages - assigned to the sports section changes. The WNBA makes a smart decision in scheduling its season when few of the "big four" sports are active. However, this is also the time of year when the masters of the paper decide, "Okay, nothing important is going on in sports. Let's take two pages off the Sports section and give it to Lifestyles."

Still, for this brief amount of time, the WNBA can elbow its way into the paper. However, mid-July becomes a critical time of year. Why? Football training camps open. Every paper wants to cover football, and the WNBA has to take the hit because of that. Coverage of WNBA games becomes reduced.

The major focus of the article is how the print media and the WNBA interact. Is it the case that "the WNBA isn't popular, therefore no one covers it" (the jock/fratboy viewpoint) or "no one will cover the WNBA, therefore it can't become popular" (the feminist viewpoint)?

I agree with the article that sports editors act as gatekeepers - they decide how much of the sports section gets devoted to any particular sport. These sports editors - probably 95 percent of whom are men, if not more - most likely reflect the biases of the society they come from. To claim that their perceptions on the relative worth of men's and women's sports would not come into play - in other words to claim that these sports editors live in a vacuum and are completely uninfluenced by their cultures - would be a ludicrous assertion.

The editors claim "hey, we just give the readers what they want to read". Then again, that's the same argument used by television executives when we see the 479th reality show on television - "we just give people what they want". Editors fail to make the jump that one of the reasons the readers come to like particular sports is visibility, and that by acting as gatekeepers, they get to decide what is visible. They influence what the readers want to read.

There was a glimmer of hope, however. The article stated that in both Miami and Orlando, rather than assigning the WNBA beat to the peach-fuzzed kid out of college - the person to whom you give the unpopular beats to - both papers actually hired someone to cover the WNBA, and those hires were people who had backgrounds either in women's college basketball or women's sports in general.

Just remember what Gandhi said: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." The WNBA is in the second of Gandhi's steps in its struggle for survival. (In some necks of the woods, in step three.) But the battle for acceptance is going to take a long time, and it won't be easy.

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