athletes · stereotypes

Media Culpa: Why Focusing on Sexy Sports Moments and WAGs Isn’t Helping Women’s Sports

the-evolution-of-female-athletes-on-the-cover-of-sports-illustratedA recent study by University of Louisville researchers of Sports Illustrated covers reveals, unsurprisingly, that women athletes are seriously under-represented.

According to the cited study:

Despite females’ increased participation in sport since the enactment of Title IX and calls for greater media coverage of female athletes, women appeared on just 4.9 percent of covers. The percentage of covers did not change significantly over the span and were comparable to levels reported for the 1980s by other researchers. Indeed, women were depicted on a higher percentage of covers from 1954–1965 than from 2000–2011.

Not only that but:

when women athletes were featured as cover models, they were often sharing the cover with a male athlete, representing traditionally “feminine” sports or depicted in “sexually objectifying” poses. “Of the 35 covers including a female,  only 18 … featured a female as the primary or sole image,” the researchers wrote, reported Pacific Standard. “Three covers included females, but only as insets (small boxed image), or as part of a collage background of both male and female athletes.”

Considering Sports Illustrated still insists on its popular swimsuit issues, it should come as no surprise that it fails to take female athletes as seriously as male athletes.

This fact about it is disturbing, considering it is at the top of the list of best-selling sports magazines. On one such list, it is described as follows:

Sports Illustrated magazine is a weekly magazine that is the sports authority for American sports. SI magazine features quality photographs and news articles inclusive of all sports–college and professional, men’s and women’s.


Remember, Anna Kournikova? She made the cover but you’d never know from the picture that she played professional tennis.

This tendency not to take women seriously as athletes permeates popular mainstream sports media. is an unbelievable website that first caught my attention for its article, The 15 Sexiest Sports Moments from 2012 Will Blow Your Mind. [sic]

I thought, “Sexy sports moments. Really?”  The article turns out to include not fifteen but twenty-four “sexy sports moments.”  Twenty-one of them have to do with sexy female athletes, sports reporters, and WAGs (Wives And Girlfriends).  Four are more generic, including a moment offensively called “Kevin Durant and the Old Lady,”  in which the basketball player kisses an elderly woman who was hit by the ball.

The commentary includes several gems.  For example, one of the sexy moments is the moment Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor won gold at the Olympics in beach volleyball.  This caption is typical of what you will see throughout the article:

It’s hard to believe but this team keeps cranking out gold medals. The duo brought gold home from London this summer and they looked amazing in the process. I know I took time out of my day to watch them compete.

And when soccer player Alex Morgan saves the day against the Canadian women’s team?

Morgan is probably the most popular lady on the USWNT. Her goal against Canada saved the match for the team and it was a great moment. It was even better because Morgan is a stone cold fox.

Links to other articles offered to people who land on the sexiest sports moment page include: Best-Looking Female Athletes in Bikinis; 20 of the Hottest Athlete WAGs You’ll Ever See; and The 50 Hottest Female Olympians.

What’s so relevant about the Wives and Girlfriends (I had to look up WAGs) of professional athletes. It’s proof that:

…professional athletes have it made. The gorgeous women that grace this list are among the most beautiful athlete wives and girlfriends we have ever seen. They are models, tennis stars, Olympians and much, much more. It would be easy to lose an entire day, flipping back and forth through these photos.

This focus on the sexiness of female athletes, on the wives and girlfriends of professional athletes, on the hot-factor among the elite women athletes who compete in the Olympics is a major contributor to their inequality of representation in major sports media.

Their athleticism takes the silver to their gold medal sex appeal.  There is nothing wrong with being sexy, but when being sexy is the only thing that can gain us recognition, there’s a real problem.

Male professional athletes are more often than not depicted as actively engaging in their sport of choice. They are shown as competitors first and foremost.  If women were given equal air time and press in the same manner — taking their athleticism seriously — then the occasional comment about their beauty or sex appeal wouldn’t be undermining.

But when that’s the overwhelming focus of attention, indeed, practically the only way they can get attention, it’s just a sad state of affairs for women in sport.  It’s why, sadly, Sam’s blog post on crotch shots and upskirts is among the most popular posts on this blog. People literally search the internet for pictures of female athletes in action so they can peer up their skirts and look at their crotches.

Is it any wonder, then, that women’s sports aren’t taken as seriously as men’s by the top sports magazines and the popular sports websites?

One of the single best things we can do for women’s sport would be to promote media coverage and representations of the athletes in action, pursuing their sport, the way we do with men’s sports.

I realize that sport is big business, and can already hear people saying that if we didn’t play up their sexy factor, women’s sports just wouldn’t sell.

But then we need to ask the further question of “why?”  Why in 2013 do women still need to bring their sexuality to the table if they want attention in realms where their sexuality is not relevant?

We can add that question to the list of things to say to people who challenge the view that feminism still has an active role to play in today’s world.

11 thoughts on “Media Culpa: Why Focusing on Sexy Sports Moments and WAGs Isn’t Helping Women’s Sports

  1. Maybe in the public eye, “sports” is still analogous to winning, battles, wars, etc, thus to masculinity, testosterone, blood, sweat and tears, and women are not thought of as “suitable” members in such war games. So if they are not equal soldiers, women in sports end up being visulized as “pretty little things” even if they are strong, flexible, supple, fast, etc and win medals and games. Just some thoughts…

  2. 100% agree with everything you just said, Tracy. The change has to start with the media coverage given to women’s sports; if it’s on television, and it’s given a big budget and huge advertising, people will watch it. And if they watch it and it is not sexualized, then they will start to change their views regarding such matters. The problem is that the media business is just a business like any other business these days, and it is run on the premise of giving people what they think they want, and in the case of covering women’s sports, they’ll sex it up, as will the advertisers, because they darn well know that today, sex sells. The change is going to be sloooooooooow…

  3. Maybe its not quite as exciting to see a basketball game that almost looks like its being played in slow motion. How many male little league games get the coverage of a pro womens team? Not any. I dont think you get to have it both ways. You have separate leagues for men and women because women cant usually compete with men. How can you demand commercial media interests cover these as they do men’s? If i was in a men’s pro wheelchair league, i wouldnt expect there to be equal coverage.

    1. Ever consider that maybe women might want to watch womens’ sports? Last I heard they constituted over 50% of the population. And I like watching LPGA events, just for instance – they hit the ball as far as I can, and they are alot better than me. Play a sport with a professional female athlete – I think you’ll walk away more than a little impressed with what they can do. Female professional athletes are superhuman in the same way as male professional athletes. Only problem with the coverage for LPGA events as I see it (and nowadays there seems to be almost no LPGA coverage), is that the money spent to cover such events is significantly less in comparision to PGA events, i.e. less cameras, commentators, etc.

  4. Of course they included Michelle Jenneke’s warm up dance. I thought that was both hilarious and fun and was going to post about it. I sort of love how it’s become an internet thing of its very own and that she’s playing a role. Presumably she even made some money with this ad, Not that makes everything okay for women in sports but it’s clear in this case that her agency is involved. And she seems to have a sense of humour about it.

  5. Thank you! You’ve hit on a subject that vexes me.

    I don’t necessarily blame the female athletes who play up their sex appeal. They probably make peanuts compared to men in the same sport, and the money from those sex-appeal ads and promos, in many cases, is probably a significant boost to their salaries. It’s sad.

  6. Thank you for this article. I want to see more coverage of women’s sports, not just the pretty ones, but all of them. One of my favorite bits of last year’s summer Olympics was watching the women weightlifters. I was cheering for Sara Robles and Holly Mangold, but it was interesting to watch other categories than theirs. Powerful women using their powerful bodies – there is nothing more beautiful than that, imo. (And I consider all women athletes in that category.)

    1. So very true. Seeing powerful women using their bodies in ways that show off their power is inspiring and beautiful. Thanks for your comment.

  7. Your views are predictable! WNBA and WPS (Women’s Pro Soccer) both failed, both did not and do not attract enough viewers to make money. The inverse of this political view is how to get women to actually watch women’s professional sports over Oprah or reality trash? That is the critical element to profitability. Work on that over this tired and well-worn, and honestly short sighted and gender-bigotry trying to pass as political discourse. That would be a worthy endeavor.

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