The End of the Cinderella Story
The End of the Cinderella Story

Women’s sports need to move beyond the underdog narrative, even as it brings them to this incredible moment.

“Wait, boys wear Alex Morgan jerseys?” I asked [my 5th grader son].

I tried to use Botox Brow, which is what author Michelle Icard says to use when you want your kids to keep talking. You pretend you just got Botox and your face can’t really register emotion, especially surprise or judgment, which tend to make kids cut their stories short.

“Yeah,” he said. “Why?”

“That’s cool,” I said. “I guess I just don’t remember boys wearing jerseys for female athletes when I was a kid.”

Later I asked my daughter, who had already left the dinner table when my son was telling his Morgan story.

“Do boys wear Women’s National Team jerseys at your school?”

She goes to an enormous Chicago Public School on the North Side. It serves 7th through 12th graders. I was careful to do Botox Brow.

“Yeah, why.”

One sentence. Yeah, why. Like I was asking if people still need oxygen.

“I see women and girls wearing male athletes’ jerseys a lot," I said, "but I guess I’ve just never seen a boy or man wearing a female athlete’s.”

Her earbuds were back in by that point.

- From “Boys are Wearing U.S. Women’s National Team Jerseys, and that feels like progress” by Heidi Stevens for the Chicago Tribune.

**

Women’s sports are definitely having a moment in the wake of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNST) World Cup victory. From headlines in the Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post (to name a few) to the July issue of AdWeek Magazine, and even before that with Nike’s declaration that this is the “Year for Women” and Adidas’ new partnership with Beyonce in the same vein, female athletes have the spotlight, and they have a solid grip on it.

But follow any of the links above, and you will see the same narrative that has both boosted and hamstrung U.S. women’s sports for centuries in their quest to be seen as equals: they are always, perpetually framed as the underdogs by anyone trying to help them along. They are the “weaker” sex, the “slower” game, the redheaded stepchild, and at some point “underdog” starts to sound like “loser” unless there is that perfect USWNST “Cinderella Story” at the end. They are four-time champions, so they’re not exactly coming “outta nowhere” at this point.

The truth is, the next generation of soccer fans, the Stevens kids and their friends, aren’t engaging because of the politics of the hour or the struggle for women’s rights – that’s their parents’ fight – they’re engaging because they’re into the sports and the athletes who play them. Period. They grew up with the Williams sisters already in place, with Rousey in the background, with female YouTube stars who can ball with the best of them. They get to take that part for granted and just enjoy the game.

So if brands, leagues and sports media want to bring women’s sports to their true potential, they have to start framing and covering the players and the games with the Stevens kids in mind.

 

 

First of all, skip the fairy godmother bit, they already have the ball.

As noted above, there are plenty of articles about the pay gap that inspired chants at the Women’s World cup. This article isn’t about that, even though this controversy is largely responsible for the current moment. This article is about the fact that women’s sports have been watched and loved for years despite sports journalists who are more interested in a stray dog that wandered into a stadium than the Women’s NCAA Basketball Championship.

And yet every year there is the same old “chicken and egg” debate as to whether women’s sports don’t get enough media coverage because they aren’t exciting enough or they aren’t exciting enough because they don’t get enough media coverage. According to this article in HuffPo:

Here is what we know: Lots of people love watching women’s sports and that number is always growing. But it’s still harder to be a fan of women’s sports because they don’t have anywhere close to the same media infrastructure as men’s sports. While we have unprecedented access to so many women’s events these days, if you want to be an engaged and informed fan, you have to actively search out where to get news about your sport or team and where you can watch (or, really, how to stream) games.

According to Nieman Reports, mainstream coverage of sports in the U.S. only focused 4% on women’s sports. Despite that, Nielsen Sports reports that in a survey across the UK, USA, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Australia and New Zealand, 51% of male sports fans are engaged in women’s sports, and 84% of both men and women have interest in at least one women’s sport. Imagine if women actually were followed story to story, game to game, in the same way that male athletes are.

As it is, the viewership statistics, the endorsements, the social media followings all show that the audience is there for female athletes now as the Stevens kids are coming of age, and not just for soccer, for tennis, field hockey, softball and even basketball. And even if the USWNST audience initially only engaged because of a political interest in the first place, they stayed for the face paint and domestic beer, and their children got caught up in the excitement.

One way or another, women’s sports clearly do not need media coverage to validate their intrigue, nor do they need any more intrigue to validate media coverage. They’ve already done all the hard work of becoming athletes sports lovers love to watch wherever they can find them. The question now is: why the hell isn’t everyone on board?

When Cinderella becomes queen, you stop treating her like a stepchild.

“USWS has won four championships while the men’s team didn’t even qualify for this year’s tournament.”

“The Olympic U.S. Women’s Hockey Team arguably provided the most exciting moment of the 2018 Winter Games.”

Serena Williams is, hands down, a queen.”

Fans could go on and on with examples of why women’s sports are worth watching. But why are they worth covering? As noted, fans are already watching anyway, and to some extent it’s because of this “underdog” framework that is in danger of dissolving if women are actually covered equally.

Beyond questions of journalistic integrity and a morally righteous sense of what “should” happen, the answer is what it always is: ROI.

It’s well established that women hold the purse strings of most households. Knowing this, and seeing the ongoing trend, one of the nation’s leading sports agencies, Wasserman, is creating the Collective, a sub-team entirely dedicated to the promotion of female athletes, hoping that people realize what a “valuable demographic” they can reach through women’s sports specifically:

“In the early days of my career in sports marketing, it never occurred to brands to talk to women,” [Elizabeth Lindsey, Wasserman’s president of brands and properties] said. Even when companies would market to women through sports, she said, it would be to the mother who makes Super Bowl snacks or the wife who is dragged to the game. Women were typecast as supporting players for sports fans and not as fans in their own right.

But Lindsey said she believes that is changing because of the power of female consumers. “They control the purse strings,” she said. “They are passionate and prevalent as fans, and the most important part is what is happening recently, which is they have a voice and are radically unafraid to use it.”

“The best way to talk to women is to talk to women,” she said.

Men may be cheering for women’s sports as much as their wives and children, but generally speaking they aren’t the ones spending the money on the jerseys. In fact, the USWNST jersey is the highest selling Nike soccer jersey of all time. Moreover, both Nike and Adidas have reported a 4% increase in revenue since launching their women’s sports initiatives this year.

A few brands even seem to be moving beyond the tired Cinderella narrative, presumably understanding it’s lost on the Stevens children. This Beats by Dre ad focusing on American gymnast Simone Biles, alongside LeBron James, Serena Williams and others, simply has all the athletes in it doing their thing to music.

So if leagues and networks and newspapers are making the majority of their money through ad space, and ads are geared toward women and women are more inspired by women’s sports, not covering women’s sports makes zero sense at this point.

 

 

What does happily ever after look like?

And what is it that these Stevens children want, besides to tune us all out with their Beats by Dre?

Simply put: more women’s sports. But to truly give them that, the mainstream media needs a little more than Carl Spackler’s monologue to say about it (because even that can get old). The following are some strategies that might help women’s sports move beyond the “crazy” and into the “normalized” territory they deserve:

  • Focus on the players more than the game. With the exception of soccer, the most successful women’s sports to date are individual (as opposed to team) sports. Tennis, Olympic gymnastics, figure skating, MMA, racing. While some may argue that a few of these sports are “more feminine,” that argument does not explain the whole picture. What does explain it is that fans are latching onto the athletes’ stories, which they are consuming largely through social media right now since journalists aren’t covering them. Even with the USNWST, arguably the popularity of the sport had much more to do with Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan than the team identity.
  • Don’t shy away from controversy, just make sure it’s meaningful. This might seem antithetical, but the reality is that men’s sports are just as politically charged in the media as women’s sports are right now, and the players are perhaps even more controversial. But male athlete scandals and gossip address abuses and cheating while women deal with questions about “celebrating too much” and tennis outfits. If there is really nothing more damning to say, maybe say nothing at all.
  • Play to the strengths. While the interest in direct gendered sports discourse might wane among the Stevens, the appeal of female athletics for a given sport will likely be different than the appeal of their male counterparts. For example, many fans say they prefer women’s tennis because women can get some incredible rallies going where men often hit the ball so hard on the serve that it’s rarely returned. You don’t have to mention men or women to know you’re building the anticipation of a rally for one game and the serve for another. And if a female athlete is coming back from something like, say pregnancy, that’s a story worth telling for the moms in the stands.
  • Speaking of which, follow the stories, and not just the fairytales. To be clear, we will all still like some Cinderella in our sports coverage until the End of Days. But we still watched the NBA Championships when we knew Golden State wouldn’t be beat because we were invested in seeing what would happen, specifically. We wanted the gory details. Kevin Durant was the absolute antithesis of an underdog that first year with them as he ran after a ring. It was a trainwreck story. And we didn’t look away. We followed Tiger Woods from hero to villain to underdog to hero (reprise) at this year’s Master’s championship. Not just the comeback parts, the ups and downs, the scandals, the bad games, the incredible moments.

Right now the women’s story is one-dimensional, and there is only so much drama to be gleaned from that same ol’ Disney princess movie that we, the adults, grew up with. Hopefully, with the help of our kids, who already recognize women athletes as the badasses they are, we can move this space forward to the solid, multi-dimensional narrative it deserves.

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