The 2014 U.S. Open held some unbelievable competition for both the men and women. This year’s high-quality matches included a historic victory for Serena Williams, as she claimed her 18th Grand Slam title. Only three other women in the history of tennis have won more tennis major titles: Margaret Court (24), Steffi Graf (22) and Helen Wills Moody (19).
History was also made on the men’s side, as No. 11 Kei Nishikori of Japan became the first man from Asia to reach a Grand Slam singles final. However, despite his impressive touranment run, his adversary, No. 14 Marin Cilic of Croatia, ousted him in the finals in three sets.
Given the supreme level of play on both sides, the coverage of the tournament disappointingly emphasized the feminine qualities of the women, whereas the coverage of the men’s matches emphasized traditional masculine qualities. While obviously some of the reporting was dedicated to the actual tennis matches themselves, it seemed as if there was an underlying message of sexism behind a significant portion of the commentary.
ESPN’s article, “Serena Williams wins 18th slam”, published on September 7, 2014, focuses on the friendship between the two athletes (Serena and Caroline Wozniacki), rather than on the game itself.
The article reads, “They’ve been pals for years, and they hung out together in Miami — heading to the beach, watching an NBA playoff game — after both lost early at the French Open in May. Wozniacki says Williams helped her get over the end of her engagement to golf star Rory McIlroy.” ‘We text almost every day. She’s such a great person, a nice friend,’ Williams said.”
While friendships between competitors are obviously positive, they should not be a major part of an article at this level of play. Instead, it should have focused on Serena’s sixth U.S. Open championship and outstanding play throughout the tournament.
However, this style strikes a stark contrast against ESPN’s articles focusing on the men’s side of the U.S. Open.
The article written September 7, 2014 entitled “Bryan Brothers Win 100th Title” followed the typical mantra of masculine-dominated athletic rivalry, enhancing the “manliness” of the athletes.
The articles states, “The twins were so excited to win their first Grand Slam championship in more than a year that they botched their signature chest bump at Sunday’s U.S. Open final.”
While the twins are certainly iconic tennis players, and that image can bring a smile to many tennis fan’s faces, the writers feel the need to mention the “signature” male chest bump, and that focus contrasts starkly with the aforementioned article on Serena.
That article also took care to describe Serena’s “black-and-pink hightops,” an undue reference to fashion that is never found in a men’s article. Serena is, of course, famous for starting her own clothing brand, and playing in some of her own designs. Her huge hoop earrings and dress choices have become iconic in women’s tennis. Maria Sharapova, a model turned top athlete in women’s tennis, was nearly as famous for her modeling as for her success in sports.
With great tennis records to back these two powerhouses in women’s tennis, it is unfortunate that their clothing and fashion statements continue to get the majority of the coverage in the press; however, it is not in the least bit surprising.
Women’s sports are featured on TV a whopping 4% of the time. Men get the entire other 96% of sports coverage.
In a 2012 article in The Guardian titled “No increase in women’s sport coverage since the 2012 Olympics”, it was found that only one out of every 20 sports articles feature female athletes, and just a mere 3% of sports writers are women.
Because men are the primary viewing audience for sports broadcasts, it may be natural that women’s sports are required to not only be playing at the highest professional level to get coverage, but they also have to be conscious of their appeal. Female Olympians, for example, have perhaps seconds to short minutes of screen time at the pinnacle of their athletic careers, and they must take full advantage of these moments to draw in funding to train during the next four years.
The Febuary 12, 2014 Time article titled, “Medals Aren’t Enough: Female Olympians Still Have to Sell Sexiness” quotes Kevin Adler, the Chief Engagement Officer at Chicago-based sports marketing agency Engage Marketing, stating, “I don’t think there’s any question that there’s a double standard … For male athletes, it’s primarily about their performance. And for female athletes it’s definitely as much about their looks as it is about their performance.”
While male athletes focus mainly on one thing — optimum performance — female athletes must split their attention between performance and appeal, detracting from maximizing their athletic capabilities. For these female athletes, excelling at their sport is just a little harder. And for high caliber athletics, that little bit can make all the difference.