By Jacie deHoop
Sports create community.
Sports have an extraordinary ability to unite people and to create a sense of community. Most of us have likely experienced the excitement that ensues when the Raptors, Leafs or Jays are on a winning streak. The city’s energy is electric - everyone’s in jerseys, people stop working to watch the game, it seems as though people are smiling more, and it’s always the topic of conversation - “You catch last night’s game?”.
But sports aren’t for everyone.
That being said, the sports industry as it stands today has failed us. We, and a lot of our readers, have found that sports can also be exclusionary in many ways. To really follow sports, you not only have to have a base-level knowledge of the rules, teams and players, but also take the time to stay up-to-date on all the wins/losses, trades etc. If you didn’t grow up playing or following western society’s mainstream sports, there is a huge learning curve. This results in many people feeling excluded from the conversation that ensues after - “you catch last night’s game?”.
I have certainly felt this before. I played a lot of sports growing up, including sports that are always on TV, like tennis, basketball and hockey. However, as much as I already had a base knowledge of these sports, that didn’t translate into being a big fan of any of these sports’ professional teams. I’m not really sure why this is, I just know that being a big sports fan didn’t feel like it was for me...I just didn’t relate to it.
It is no secret that majority of sports fans are men. And despite the progress made towards diversity and inclusion in the industry, that progress has been slow. Like, realllllyyyy slow.
Why should we care about changing that?
Because sports are actually fun! As someone who wasn’t really into sports, but has become a pretty big sports fan since we started The GIST (turns out, to run a sports news startup you should stay pretty up-to-date on all things sport), I can honestly say that I have a new and welcomed passion for sport. It is genuinely so fun to be part of it all. On top of the entertainment is the community - sports have always had the magical ability to connect people. Because of this, sports can be a form of social currency, and that currency shouldn’t be limited to some groups of people. Everyone should feel welcome and part of the community that sports provide. This is where The GIST comes in - to make sports fun, but more importantly, to make sports for everyone.
Is this actually a problem?
Short answer, yes. There is a lack of diversity in sport across gender, race and sexual orientation, from athletes to media to ownership. Here are some of the numbers specifically around women in sports:
4% of sports media coverage is on female sports - We don’t see women’s sports on TV, and under representation reflects interest. Just sayin’.
14% of sports journalists are female - There are very few women talking about sports, and when they are, they are often objectified, have their knowledge challenged, aren’t able to voice their own opinions, and/or get some other kind of flack. If you haven’t already, watch #morethanmean - women in sports facing harassment, literally to their faces. It’s hard to watch. It’s no wonder why many women don’t relate to current sports news, when sports content is not being created by women.
0.4% of sponsorship is spent on female athletes - Corporations are not putting money behind female athletes and teams, and leagues aren’t paying female athletes equitably. The Canadian Women’s Hockey League only started paying its athletes in 2017!! The wage gap is real people.
6.7% of sports teams are owned by women in the big 4 leagues - Those making decisions are white men. The usual. (If you’re interested, meet the 9 women who are part of the exclusive club here).
In addition to women, the hyper-masculinity of sports culture can be alienating to many other groups. Kate Fagan of ESPN has said, “Sports has always been, and will likely always be, a place where women struggle to have their voices heard, and where minorities are often the players, but rarely the ones in positions of power.” The numbers support it. While players that are people of colour is significant in most leagues (NBA - 71%, NFL - 73%, MLB - 43%), only 7% of team owners in the NBA, NFL and MLB are people of colour. This is a topic for another blog post, but I will say that as a half-Asian Canadian, I didn’t see Asian athletes on the team sports that were always on TV, let alone Asian female athletes to look up to. And when you don’t see it, you don’t imagine it for yourself. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention the long history of homophobia in sports, proven by the fact that there has never been a single active, openly gay player in the NFL or NHL.
So yeah, it really is a problem.
Okay. What’s causing it?
To be honest, I don’t know. But we at The GIST have been trying to better understand this social problem and have a few ideas.
It starts with the kids - Barriers to playing and succeeding in sports still exist for many - including girls, queer kids, disadvantaged youth and ethnic minorities. Since Title IV passed in the US in 1972, allowing female professional sports to exist, the number of female collegiate athletes has increased by 600%. However, the Women’s Sports Foundation has found that by age 14, girls drop out of sports twice as much as boys do. While it sounds ridiculous in 2018, there are still conflicting messages in society about whether, as a woman, you should be into sports or not. Success in sport often comes from exhibiting traditionally masculine traits, such as competitiveness, drive and strength. When women achieve success in sport, they often face scrutiny for going against conventional feminine ideals (Serena Williams has spoken on this topic at length). Even when you achieve the highest levels of success, you can’t truly win as a female athlete with today’s systemic pressures. I can only imagine how these mixed messages compound for kids who are discovering their sexual orientation, and trying to find inclusive environments. Not exactly what youth sports teams are known for. Layer on the lack of accessibility and cost to play certain sports, and we’ve also excluded many underprivileged youth from ever being able to try these sports.
It spirals from there - As girls grow up and progress through sport, they notice that they never see women’s sports on TV, and that there are fewer opportunities for them compared to their male counterparts. When women’s sports are televised, they’re rarely on at prime time, meaning there are fewer advertisers, and less money going to the athletes. It’s difficult to tell these young women to dedicate their lives to their sport when they’ll be paid half as much as their male counterparts, if paid at all. As a result, women’s sports are not as ingrained in our culture or talked about, and you get more cultural capital by following men’s sports. While female interest in sport is not all about female athletes being on the screen, the lack of media exposure certainly contributes to women feeling sports aren’t for them.
And there’s no one there to stop it - There simply aren’t enough people at the top, with the money and power, pushing for change in the industry. In addition to the lack of female ownership of professional sports teams, is the lack of women in governance and leadership roles. Of the top global sport governing bodies, less than 30% of the seats are held by women.
Still, Progress is being made.
So I realize I have painted a dire situation, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. All of the above numbers aside, the sports industry is moving in the right direction (albeit slowly), and there is significantly more diversity in sports today than ever before.
To start, the number of female sports fans is growing. As of last year, 45% of millennial females identified as being sports fans, versus 41% of Gen X females (Gen X is the older generation - am I the only one that gets that mixed up?). The leagues and teams are taking notice. The NBA has made significant strives to improve racial and gender hiring practices in the organization, with Jenny Boucek, assistant coach for the Dallas Mavericks, being the first ever assistant coach to be pregnant. Turning to viewership of women’s sports, the 2015 Women’s World Cup Final (USA vs. Japan), was the most-watched soccer match in US history, a 77% increase to the same final matchup in 2011! From the success of You Can Play, a project dedicated to eradicating homophobia in sports that has garnered endorsements from over 100 NHL players and personnel, to the country’s love for Hockey Night in Canada’s Punjabi broadcaster Harnarayan Singh, there has been progress in diversity and inclusion in sport across gender, sexual orientation and race.
We still need to do more.
We’ve got to do more, and do more faster. We know there are millions of female sports fans out there that love following, and contributing to, both female and male sports. They deserve to be recognized not just as consumers, but as fans, athletes and people. Why aren’t we making them feel included, safe and prioritized? Why aren’t we creating content specifically for them? And we don’t mean by selling pink jerseys or donating a sliver of earnings to breast cancer research.
There are some female fans out there that are crazy sport fans (crazy in a good way) that don’t feel underserved or left out, and that’s fantastic. But, there is also a large population of female fans out there that could become that crazy fan if they felt like sports were for them.
For this to happen, an inclusive environment for sport needs to be created. This is an environment where we take a firm stance on issues of sexual and domestic abuse and don’t allow female athletes or talent to be objectified. It is an environment where we highlight and celebrate female athletes, coaches and business women doin’ their thang.
I wish there wasn’t a need for a sports news outlet like us, and hopefully, with time, there won’t be a need to provide different content to an underserved population. But today, we do have The GIST, and we are here to level the playing field, and serve a gap in the sports industry.
Jacie deHoop, Co-Founder