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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.


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