Why Women Watch the Olympics (but Tune Out Other Sports)

A new study explores why women may be participating in sports more, but not watching them on TV -- except for the Olympic games

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With the London Olympics a few weeks away, a new study shows that women will be watching the Games, but that they will likely go back to tuning out from sports after the last medal is awarded.

Since Title IX was passed in 1972, requiring that girls have equal opportunities to participate in sports at federally funded schools, more women have taken advantage of the chance to join school teams or enjoy sports recreationally. Within six years of the law’s passage, for example, the number of high school girls participating in sports jumped six fold. Marketers eager to tap into a new sports-enthused population willing to watch female athletes on television, however, has been disappointed, since this viewing audience has yet to materialize.

In a new study published in Communication, Culture & Critique, Erin Whiteside, an assistant professor in the school of journalism and electronic media at the University of Tenn., and Marie Hardin, at the College of Communication at Penn State University, explore why women may be participating in sports but not watching it on TV. The researchers interviewed 19 women aged 26 to 43 in small groups for about 90 minutes each. They asked the participants about what sports they watched on television, why they watched, and what factors influenced their viewing habits. Overall, it’s clear that despite participating in sports, women still don’t watch athletic events on television for a variety of surprisingly gender-based reasons.

(MORE: One Cure for Title IX Woes: Make Cheerleading a Sport)

“The public narrative that as more women play sports, more women are going to watch sports, is simply not happening,” says Whiteside. “And one reason for that is the role that women have in the family unit. Their role as domestic caretakers trumps their role as fan.”

In the interviews, the women, some of whom were stay-at-home moms, and others who worked outside the home, all acknowledged that household chores such as cleaning, and family responsibilities such as driving their children to school and after-school activities, took priority over watching sports on TV. And when they did watch sports, they rarely caught events in their entirety, catching sporadic bits and pieces instead. “Women’s TV sports consumption habits were more mediated by their personal schedules than by team schedules or TV schedules,” says Whiteside.

(MORE: Feminism: Girl Power)

That could explain why, despite high hopes for the Women’s National Basketball Association when it debuted in 1997, broadcasters have been reluctant to air games and tournaments since the league hasn’t found an audience yet that marketers can target.

Unanimously, however, the women said they preferred watching the Olympics, because of the way the programming is packaged and delivered in compressed and easy-to-follow narratives. The vignettes that bring viewers up to date on the athletes to follow, and the relevant highlights of their personal struggles during their journey to the Games, appeal to women who don’t have time to follow athletes during an entire season, much less over several years.

(PHOTOS: Basketball Star Candace Parker)

But even with the Olympics, say Whiteside and Hardin, gender-based influences dictate what women watch. The participants in the study preferred the watching women in sports that featured traditionally feminine features, such as grace and elegance rather than sports in which more masculine characteristics, such as physicality and aggressive strategies drive the outcome. By far, the women said that if they watched female Olympic events, they watched sports such as gymnastics, figure skating and tennis, where a premium is placed on women’s style over their aggressiveness.

While some of the women were able to take full advantage of Title IX changes to women’s sports, the small size of the study may not reflect larger trends in how women watch sports on television, admits Whiteside. But, she says, “Thinking about the future of women’s sports, and building an audience for women’s sports, our study is not necessarily positive in that regard. The women in our study were still dependent on the father figure in terms of what they are watching.”

(MORE: Where Are the Women Coaches?)

That means that while girls may be participating in sports at school, or even outside of school, they still aren’t watching women’s sports on television. Part of that has to do with the fact that women’s sports don’t receive the same prime time broadcasting that male sports do, but more than that, it may be that at home, viewing patterns still driven by male-dominated sports.

Alice Park is a writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @aliceparkny . You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

66 comments
Nikki Bosboom
Nikki Bosboom

 Since when is tennis style over aggressiveness??

MaxsterBaxsterBailey
MaxsterBaxsterBailey

What about wii? Thats hooking up to your tv and "watching" tv...does that count? :_

Raggedhand
Raggedhand

In other words, who is plopped in front of the TV with the remote in their hands determines what will be watched. 

I guess the feminist mantra shouldn't be "A room of their own" but a "remote of their own".

Raymond Chuang
Raymond Chuang

I think what's interesting is that when it comes to the NFL, there are a surprisingly large amount of female viewers--and the NFL knows it, too. Have you noticed you see a good amount of female fans in the stands at many NFL games?

John D. Harlepas
John D. Harlepas

Title IX was one of the worst pieces of legislation ever created, in terms of forcing women to do something that isn't in their collective DNA. Can we take a moment and step back for a second and ask a simple question: Why were sports invented? In honor of the Olympic games, I will use it to answer the question. 

The ancient Greeks had a big problem. Every summer their men would go out and kill each other in battles fought for land, money but basically the reason was due to an over abundance of natural aggressiveness. So, what did the wise men of Greece do? They created the Olympics. It was created to siphon the natural aggressive of men towards more productive and safe activities. 

Now, lets flash forward. If sports were invented to siphon the aggressive of men, why are we forcing it down the throats woman, who aren't biological predisposed to the aggressiveness men are equipped with? The only reason is because in our rush for equality we forgot that men and women are not equal and instead of making sure we created institutions that protected people's rights, we created a system that advocates making everyone the same. The consequence is that we spend endless amounts of money on female sports in middle school, high school, and college at the expense of male sports.

In a society where boys are growing up without fathers, sports can be used as an aide for providing guidance on how to channel the aggressiveness men are born with. Unfortunately, we don't do that. We cut male sports so we can march women into a field they are naturally unfit for.

Women's sports will never catch on. Sports is not a universal human activity. It is a male orientated activity with a specific purpose. As soon as we come to grips that, we can stop wasting time with the WNBA (which is a complete failure that only exists because the daddy NBA subsidizes it) and other females sports and focus our attention on making a healthier society. One which takes into account that men and women are different, so lets stop trying to make them the same.

Sara Rose
Sara Rose

Why I don't watch sports: the announcers. Shut up guys 'n gals--I tuned in for the game, not you. And don't get me started on the Olympics, with the ten minutes of "heartwarming" stories before every event.

How about this, ESPN: A sportcaster-free channel.

nmchris
nmchris

Title IX is not just about sports.  It is about equal opportunity in all academic pursuits.  To talk only about the impact it has had on sports is to diminish everything else.

Boy Bib
Boy Bib

Women and gay men are watching the divers and gymnasts, geez this isn't brain surgery, and the opening and closing pageantry. In winter games we watch gymnasts and ice dancers.

Krystal
Krystal

This article is absolutely appalling. As a 23 year old woman, I actively watch sports just as much as my male counterpart. That doesn't mean I sacrifice my "womanly duties" for sports. I can still cook, clean, and babysit my baby nephew while watching a full football game (which is like 3 hours!). As someone who conducted research at school, I think the women who conducted this study were irresponsible. Had they taken a better sample of the female population, they would not have had such clear evidence. Instead, they took the cowardly way out. They chose to take a minute sample to satisfy their shoddy points to publish an article. Furthermore, they picked ONE sport on TV, one whose problems stem from the lack of interest in players to draft, not just viewership. 

Yes, it seems that Figure Skating and Gymnastics are the more "graceful" sports, but it's such a generalization to say that women don't prefer aggressive sports (also, tennis is a graceful sport? They grunt and scream SO LOUDLY, even for women in skirts). 

It's not fair to try and compare playing sports to watching sports. They're very different conversations. It's not like women weren't watching sports before Title XI. Because they were. And the legislation did not bolster female viewership. Also, female sports are not dominated by female  fans. Men watch women's sports too! Seriously though...shame on Time for publishing this article. It's offensive to women who actually watch sports and are trying to break stereotypes. 

hannahkatz
hannahkatz

I like the expansion of sports opportunities for women, but hate the cutting of men's sports under Title IX.  They say the sports were not cut due to Title IX, but it is for lack of money, because Title IX forced them to spend more on women's sports.  Okay....  Go ahead and cut the men's scholarships but keep the sports.  It keeps them off the streets.  Most men will still compete because they love their sports.  Women, however, will not participate in college sports unless you give them scholarships.  Bottom line, men love their sports more than women do.  Stealing their sports programs is a crime.

Victor251
Victor251

I am so tired of women telling themselves over and over how busy they are.  Get over yourselves.  If this were the case how do you explain all the rest of the shows on television including the Real Housewives, realtity TV generally, Access Hollywood, etc., etc.   Here's a theory for you...men watch sports for the same reason boys play pick-up games of sports and girls only play organized sports...girls play sports out of obligation; boys play sports cause they love it.  Period end of story.

Mary Napoleone
Mary Napoleone

Maybe women watch the Olympics because they are packaged and put on during prime time, when women have time to watch.  The Olympics are like another reality show....other sports are not so viewer friendly.

GRS62
GRS62

Lets set aside the sport vs non-sport arguments and just agree that the Olympics offers the highest  male genitalia-in-spandex sightings per minute than any other televised event.

Jacob Blues
Jacob Blues

Simple answer is  - that the Olympic competitions are not really sporting events. 

Let me clarify. 

The broadcasting of Olympic competitions are not sporting events, but have been packaged as stories.   There is no more 'the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat'.  There are now Hallmark stories that wrap around various athletes (99.999% American - at least for the US broadcasts).   You don't have actual games, you have Bob Costas, who despite his excellent knowledge and skill, comes across as a combination MC/ narrator in a Disney World ride to the Wide World of Sports.  It would be as if the NFL let Terry Bradshaw amp; Co, rampage across the screen for three hours and leave you with highlights of the actual games. 

The events themselves are chopped up into mainly American athletic performances - live art almost.  With a fingerful of known foreign athletes, usually the front runner, or the rare foreign story line - either a political or specific  cultural point to make. 

Actually broadcasting of an entire competition is out.  You don't see successive attempts in individual events - you don't see competitors moving up and down the rankings.  There is no real drama, only manufactured tenses.  Indeed, I half expect to see Padma Lakshmi and her fellow 'Top-Chef' judges or Gordon Ramsay sitting at the tables making the athletes publically beg why they should be allowed to compete in the medal round. 

And it's just as bad for team events like hockey, basketball, or soccer (futbol to the rest of the world). 

In effect, a global sporting event has been turned into a broadcast of the Rose Bowl or Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade - with all too much commentary, and fake lip-synched numbers in front of the reviewing stand, while the marching bands are drowned out with inane commentary.

Could you imagine any other playoff game that would get chopped up?  The FIFA World Cup finals?  Baseball's World Series?  The Superbowl?  The Stanley Cup Finals?   Wimbleton?  The British Open?  Or the World Rugby or Cricket Finals? 

NEVER!

But for "The Olypmics" well, it's become all fluff and drama. 

leew261
leew261

My question is why women enjoy watching the Olympics.  Do they really like the neverending commercials and the teases for upcoming events?

Yeon Sang Yoon
Yeon Sang Yoon

Wow. This is the first time I've ever logged onto Time to comment. This  article is super-annoying because it suggests that men watch sports because they choose to give it priority over household chores and being a good husband/father while women don't. If the subject matter was soap-operas rather than televised sports, we could more or less say the opposite.

Women don't watch sports in general because most of them are just not interested in it, just as I prefer not to watch Sex and the City or Desperate Housewives. The women in the study (if you can call it a study) are just trying to make themselves into overworked household victims. Just be honest and say you're not interested, but you would be willing to make time to watch Ugly Betty.

geedavey
geedavey

My wife follows her baseball, football and hockey teams religiously. Thank goodness she doesn't care for basketball, since I also don't. But I see plenty of women in the stands at the games. I bet I could find 18 others so I could write the complete rebuttal of this story.

NStat
NStat

its no mystery why no one watches the wnba

Jen Kuhn
Jen Kuhn

I don't watch sports because I simply could not care less about something that I will never do.  Unless you follow sports and understand the rules and all the team rankings and such watching ball games is boring, complicated and confusing. I cannot imagine wasting my time tracking a bunch of people playing a big game and getting paid millions of dollars, and then getting the onslaught of advertising that goes with it. Needles in the eye. As bad as following Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie around.

Cheryl Deering
Cheryl Deering

Talk about sexist crap. This study was based on only 19 women?!? That's hardly a sample,  much less one that can adequately determine what sports women frequently watch. Very shoddy work--and article.

Timothy Lastrova
Timothy Lastrova

There are a lot of people who don't watch sports who watch the Olympics.  It's not a woman thing.  I hate sports, but the Olympics is about countries, giving the best they have on the world stage, and competing at the highest levels.  Also, it involves a wide variety of sports.  That's interesting, if ephemeral.

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