Why this matters
Sports media is still slow to embrace women's sports, even as viewership and fan engagement grows. So women athletes are taking to social media to connect with fans, grow their leagues, and increasingly drive social change beyond the field of play.
At 10:11 a.m. on June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court of the United States announced its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson, overturning the precedent established in 1973 with Roe v. Wade and eliminating the constitutional right to an abortion.
Just 11 minutes after the news broke, NJ/NY Gotham FC of the National Women’s Soccer League posted a statement on its Twitter feed denouncing the decision. “NJ/NY Gotham FC vehemently objects to any rollback of Roe v. Wade and believes reproductive rights are human rights,” the team wrote in the statement, which in four days had been liked more than 4,000 times and shared more than 600 times.
By the end of that first day, the NSWL and Women’s National Basketball Association had issued statements opposing the decision, the WNBA’s being a joint statement with the National Basketball Association. In addition, dozens of women’s sports teams and numerous female athletes had posted comments to Twitter and Instagram opposing the Dobbs ruling. Yet while several high-profile male athletes – including NBA superstar LeBron James and Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow – also had posted to social media protesting the decision, no team in the four major North American men’s sports leagues had posted a statement. That left the NBA’s joint statement with the WNBA as the only statement from a men’s league.
To followers of sports media in the digital and social media age, the contrast between the immediate and potent comments from women’s teams and leagues and the overwhelming silence from their counterparts in men’s sports came as no surprise.
Women athletes in the U.S., who have long been largely shut out from conventional, mainstream sports coverage, have successfully used the new media ecosystem to get around traditional gatekeepers, amplify their voices, and directly connect with the public. What’s more, they’re not reluctant to leverage their digital clout into offline power and influence.
“We are always judged more harshly and, within the world of sports, treated as the butt of the joke,” Elizabeth Williams, then with the Atlanta Dream and now with the Washington Mystics, wrote in an op-ed at Vox. “And that’s made many of us more attuned to the injustice of the world. People will always judge us anyway — why not make our voices heard?”
The examples in the past few years alone are numerous, including the U.S. women’s national soccer team’s ultimately successful campaign for equal pay; athletes’ embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement and push for greater LGBTQ rights and representation; the Atlanta Dream’s campaigning against former team owner Kelly Loeffler and supporting Rev. Raphael Warnock in the 2020 Georgia Senate race; and athletes’ efforts to keep WNBA star Brittney Griner’s 2022 imprisonment in Russia in the headlines.
“We’ve seen examples where female athletes can draw attention to disparities,” said Dr. Marie Hardin, dean of the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications at Penn State University and one of the pioneering researchers into media coverage of women’s sports. “So when mainstream news outlets aren’t going to amplify those disparities, female athletes are going to do that.”
Out of the Picture
For much of American sports history, if an athlete wanted to communicate directly with fans, it had to happen through traditional media outlets.
Newspapers, magazines, radio, and especially television played an enormous role in shaping public discourse around sports. The golden age of mass media was also a golden era of media gatekeeping – of news organizations deciding which stories were covered, whose voices would be heard, and, for the most part, which subjects their audiences would consider important in the first place.
Back then, athletes simply couldn’t get their message to a wider audience without media coverage — a story in Sports Illustrated, an article in the local newspaper, a segment on TV news. Whether through newspaper reporters, a friendly radio host, or a TV anchor, athletes needed the amplifying bullhorn of traditional media. This was the case if they wanted more money, needed a new contract, or had a cause to advocate for.
This posed a unique problem for female athletes.
It’s no secret that women’s sports was, for most of the 20th century, ignored by mainstream sports media. Even successful athletes like Billie Jean King – whom influential sports journalist Frank DeFord called “the most significant athlete of this century” back in 1975 – needed to do stunts like “The Battle of The Sexes” (in which she played tennis against aging huckster Bobby Riggs in the Houston Astrodome) to get any kind of attention.
Researchers at the University of Southern California and Purdue University have conducted longitudinal studies every five years starting in 1989 to measure the coverage women’s sports receive on TV sports highlight shows. By 1989, the study’s first year, women’s sports received 5 percent of air time on the three major network affiliates’ sport news telecasts. In 2019, that figure stood at 5.1 percent. The proportion of air time women’s sports received on ESPN’s SportsCenter in 2019 was its highest figure in 20 years — but it was still only 5.7 percent.
What this means is that 95 percent of airtime on traditional sports highlight shows is dedicated to men’s sports. But digital and social media are changing this game.
Bypassing the Gatekeepers
Lyndsey D’Arcangelo begins each day the same way. “I get different newsletters related to the WNBA in my inbox every day, and all of it’s great information,” said D’Arcangelo, a WNBA beat writer for The Athletic who has written about women’s sports online since the early 2000s. “I’m constantly reading.”
Dr. Molly Yanity, a former sports journalist who’s now an associate professor at Quinnipiac University, has a similar routine. “I wake up in the morning, and in my inbox is The IX Newsletter, the Just Women’s Sports newsletter, that gives me a level of depth and diversity that I’ve never had before,” Yanity said. “I also will get my Athletic newsletter that is prescribed to me, and in that I get their WNBA coverage or women’s soccer coverage.”
Along with social media, newsletters like these are indicative of an ever-expanding sports media ecosystem. Yes, being on prime-time television still helps deliver ratings and exposure. For example, the 2022 National Collegiate Athletic Association women’s basketball championship game between the University of Connecticut and the University of South Carolina was ESPN’s most-watched college basketball game, men or women, since 2008 and the highest-rated women’s game since 2004. However, mainstream media coverage is not as vital as it once was. Women’s sports don’t need it because they’ve found other ways to connect with the public.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, that meant blogs from fans and writers. Today, it means newsletters and digital startups. Both are ways for women’s sports fans to follow their favorite teams and athletes without hoping or wishing for a morsel of coverage on ESPN or in Sports Illustrated. The gatekeepers of traditional media have less power than in previous generations.
Then there’s social media, where leagues and athletes can directly communicate with the public – bypassing the gates entirely. In 2021, the WNBA’s television ratings were their highest since 2008 – but the league also had more than 135 million video views on social media. Athletes like Simone Biles gained millions of followers last year, and many of the top earners on name, image, and likeness deals in college sports are women.
When tennis player Naomi Osaka announced that she would not be taking part in news conferences at the 2021 French Open for mental health reasons, she did so not by contacting a friendly reporter at a newspaper or magazine (like, say, Billie Jean King or Chris Evert would have done a generation earlier), but by posting a statement she wrote on the Notes app of her phone to her personal Twitter and Instagram accounts. This allowed her to directly reach more than a million followers on each platform in her own words – without having to work through a media intermediary.
During the 2021 NCAA basketball tournaments, Sedona Prince from the University of Oregon posted a video to her personal TikTok account showing the differences between the well-appointed training facilities at the men’s tournament and the paltry facilities at the women’s tournament. Prince’s video was viewed millions of times, shared widely on various social media platforms, and became a mainstream news story that led to the NCAA quickly updating the workout facilities for the women’s tournament.
A study published in 2018 in Communication and Sport found that members of the U.S. women’s soccer team at the FIFA World Cup in 2015 used Twitter to show “a candid approach to communication as opposed to a polished performance.” The study also found that a majority of the tweets players sent in 2015 were retweets, a majority of which came from official organizations, which the authors suggest is important because of the lack of mainstream coverage women’s sports tends to receive.
“If you can’t just solely rely on getting the same equity as far as time and investment as men’s league, then you have to do other things,” D’Arcangelo said. “And social media is one of the things that the WNBA has been really good at leveraging, and I think the National Women’s Soccer League as well.”
Not Sticking to Sports
There’s no consensus on a single moment when the power of women athletes’ voices in this new media environment became clear. There was the 2016 WNBA-wide protest supporting Black Lives Matter that The New York Times called a “pioneering moment” for the league. Players, who were originally fined by the WNBA for wearing protest T-shirts, held media blackouts and instead posted their messages to Instagram and Periscope. Eventually, the league changed its rules, allowing players to wear shirts advocating for social justice causes.
The U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team used a social-media campaign to push toward wins on pay equity in court and labor negotiations. Players on the USWNT tweeted with the hashtag #EqualPay, creating public support and momentum in their years-long legal fight that ended with a new, equitable contract in 2022. In addition to pay equality, soccer players, most notably Megan Rapinoe, have actively used their platforms to support social justice causes and denounce former president Donald Trump.
D’Arcangelo points to 2020 protests over George Floyd’s murder and the Dream’s involvement in that year’s elections as a tipping point. Natasha Cloud of the Mystics penned an essay for The Players Tribune on Floyd’s murder, and images of players wearing “Vote Warnock” shirts in the 2020 WNBA Bubble were widespread on social media.
Yanity believes there’s a simple reason that so many women athletes are using their platforms to advocate for political issues – and that those same athletes seem so much better at leveraging social media than their male counterparts.
“So much of women’s sports has just been about the fight to get on the field – literally, just to play,” she said. “Once they’re playing, it’s ‘we don’t want hand-me-down uniforms; we need a trainer’ – all these basic things that men in sports have never had to think about.
“Female athletes don’t know anything else (other) than to fight. You gotta fight just to be on the field, for uniforms, locker rooms, health care, pay. And they see things in their world that they also want to be better, and they’ve been conditioned and bred to fight in this arena of sports, and they just keep doing it.”
Despite all the growth in women’s sports in the 50 years of the Title IX era, it’s indisputable that American sports is still a man’s world, with men receiving the lion’s share of the financial spoils. In the political arena, however, that liability can become an asset for women athletes.
“(Women athletes) have more to gain and less to lose,” Hardin said. “I think that if you just look at the history of activism, oftentimes the groundswell, the real activism on the streets, it is often women, and I think it’s because if you’re closer to the bottom of the pyramid than to the top, it’s a less precarious position in terms of social capital and social power. You have more to gain, and you also have the lived experience that can fuel your activism.”
D’Arcangelo said that younger women athletes, as a whole, bring more confidence and vocalness to social media than previous generations. Add them to a media world in which they do not have to rely on appealing to a small set of gatekeepers, and you have a recipe for disruption.
“There’s so many other outlets for them to be comfortable with, and that’s what they do,” she said. “You're not having your PR team, your PR person, or your team come up and be like, ‘It’s ESPN. You’ve got to give them a quote.’ It’s like, ‘Do you want to do this story?’ or ‘There is this other opportunity over here.’ It’s a good thing all around to have more options in their coverage.
“There's so much less gatekeeping, which means there's more space for other people to tell good stories about these athletes.”
Making Progress by Setting the Agenda
While it’s easy to look at women’s sports and the growth of digital and social media as a clear success story, experts see it as a more nuanced phenomenon.
For one, there’s an issue of equity within women’s sports itself. While the overly sexualized coverage of previous eras is, for the most part, gone, the fact remains that many women athletes with the largest social media followings are White – even in the WNBA and women's college basketball, where close to 80 percent of the players are Black. A player's sexual orientation or gender identity also influences who can be a influencer.
"A rising tide may, in fact, lift all boats," Katie Barnes wrote for ESPN in June 2022. "But the question remains whether all of the boats will rise equitably."
Then there's the fact that for as much as digital and social media have expanded coverage of women’s sports and given athletes bigger bullhorns, sports TV remains for the boys. The same USC/Purdue study that found men’s sports account for 95 percent of all televised sports highlights also found that coverage of women’s sports tends to feature “one and dones” – isolated stories that are sandwiched between men’s coverage.
“Sometimes we assume progress is linear, and we have to be very careful assuming that,” said Hardin, who has been researching the coverage of women’s sports for more than 20 years. “Ground that has been gained is not ground that is automatically kept.”
One way women athletes can continue to make progress is to use their digital and social media influence to set the agenda for traditional media outlets. Twitter has a relatively small audience: Just 22 percent of all U.S. internet users are active on the platform, by far the smallest of the major platforms. However, it has a large user base among media members, both inside and outside of sports, and in many ways acts as an assignment editor for those users. The things posted today on Twitter or Instagram become tomorrow’s lead stories on the morning talk shows, on NPR, and in newspapers. “The conversation that takes place on Twitter often programs the media,” Charlie Warzel wrote in The New York Times in 2020.
The same dynamic plays out in sports. Consider the Prince video from the NCAA basketball tournaments in 2021, which has had more than 12 million views on TikTok alone. After Prince posted the video to TikTok and Twitter, it was shared by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry, and tennis legend Billie Jean King. That widespread sharing on social media led to stories in mainstream media, including non-sports programs like The Today Show and Good Morning America.
Those media appearances and the resulting public pressure led to real changes in the NCAA. Not only did women basketball players almost immediately receive more and better training equipment for the rest of the 2021 tournament, but the NCAA also hired an independent law firm to conduct a gender equity review of its men’s and women’s basketball championships – a review that found in “both practice and perception, women’s basketball essentially reports to and is subordinate to men’s basketball.” Since then, the NCAA has started using its “March Madness” trademark at the women’s tournament rather than just at the men’s event.
All of this happened because of one video one player posted on TikTok. That video led to mainstream coverage that wouldn’t have otherwise happened, which led to actual change. It’s a formula, Yanity said, that can be replicated. “If they can do this on their own, do [female athletes] need mainstream media?” she said. “Clearly, no. But it sure helps.”
The media shapes how people view characters and issues in sport and society. Today, however, journalists' stories are increasingly found online and on social networks in addition to more traditional mediums like print, television and radio.
As the media itself has changed, its relationship to and impact on athletes and the sports industry has changed as well. Does a more disparate and diverse media ecosystem inspire hope for a better future in sport, or could old pitfalls arise again in an era defined by digitization and immediacy?