New study shows media coverage of women’s football on the rise

New study shows media coverage of women’s football on the rise
World Cup 2011 winner Aya Miyama and FIFA Beyond Greatness champion Natasha Stott Despoja pose with the trophy during the FIFA Women’s World Cup Trophy Tour. (Noe Llamas/SPP)

Media coverage of women’s football has substantially increased in the last few years with respectful coverage continuing to grow, according to a new study published by Durham University today.

Comparing the 2015 and 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cups, there was a sixfold increase in the number of articles in English print newspapers with the number of front pages going up from seven during the 2015 tournament to 22 in 2019.

The analysis also showed there were no articles in 2019 which sexualised women players and all coverage instead focused on the skill and competence of players and teams. There was also a reduction in the use of infantilising language, such as the use of ‘girls’ or ‘ladies’.

Players and team skills were criticised in parts of coverage in line with the typical reporting of men’s football which could represent a shift towards greater equality, with women subject to respectful but honest evaluations.

The study, which is the first of its kind in the UK, looked at the quantity and quality of print media coverage in five newspapers and asked fans about their thoughts on the coverage.

With just a couple of weeks until the FIFA Women’s World Cup kicks off, the study calls on media organisations and football governing bodies to work together to continue positive coverage all year round, not just for the duration of the World Cup.

The authors say continued profile could help to further advance gender equality in the sport, such as equal pay for women footballers and equal opportunities to play football.

Fans who were interviewed felt that increasing and respectful coverage challenged sexist attitudes, leading to greater respect and appreciation for women’s football. They were critical of the time-limited ‘revolution’ whereby coverage was limited to the World Cup and not continued consistently afterwards.

Although women’s sport has become more visible in recent years, figures from the Women’s Sport Trust show that it still takes up less than ten per cent of annual print and TV coverage.

 Dr Stacey Pope
Dr Stacey Pope

Dr Stacey Pope, from the Department of Sport and Exercise Sciences, at Durham University, led the study. She said: “It’s really encouraging to see this growth in profile for women’s football, but we now need to build on this ‘new age’ of gender equality in women’s sport and make sure positive coverage is sustained.

“Media coverage alone is not enough but it can help to put pressure on organisations such as FIFA and the Football Association to advance gender equality, particularly when it comes to the general treatment of women’s football, pay inequalities and creating equal opportunities to play.”

The newspapers analysed were The Times, The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Sun and the Daily Mirror.

During the 2015 tournament, there were 124 articles which increased to 642 during the 2019 World Cup. Of these, 72 per cent (642) were from broadsheets and 28 per cent (180) were from tabloids.

The number of articles on the back pages also went up from five in 2015 to 40 in 2019 with every newspaper in the study including at least one pull-out magazine with information about fixtures, players and stories in the lead up to the 2019 tournament. None of these newspapers published a pull-out in 2015.

The use of infantilising language, such as ‘girls’ and ‘ladies’ was minimal across the newspapers and reduced drastically in tabloids with 28 references to ‘girls’ in 2015 compared to only 8 in 2019. Usage of the term ‘Lionesses’ increased in tabloids and broadsheets in 2019, helping to construct a sense of national pride for the England women’s team.

The researchers found there was a fourfold increase in the number of photographs published, from 159 in 2015 to 636 in 2019. The quality of photographs also improved significantly with the number of competitive photos going up from 69 per cent (438) in 2015 to 88 per cent (557) in 2019. Only 64 photos were non-competitive and 15 were posed in a non-sport setting.

Dr Rachel Allison, from the Department of Sociology at Mississippi State University, is the study’s co-author. She said: “The increased quantity and quality of media coverage of the Women’s World Cup is a positive trend, but the attention does tend to wane in the years between tournaments.

“The fans in our study also want more regular media coverage of professional leagues like the Women’s Super League or National Women’s Soccer League. This coverage would help audiences to become invested in and knowledgeable about players before the next Women’s World Cup.”

The study’s recommendations:

  • Coverage of women’s football should be all-year round, not just limited to mega-events like the World Cup with similar levels of coverage for domestic leagues and pre-season build up.
  • There should be the same levels of high-quality and knowledgeable coverage for women’s and men’s sport.
  • Coverage must be respectful but honest with praise for exceptional athleticism and criticism of poor-quality play, as in men’s sport.
  • There should be more focus on building players’ profiles as is the case for male footballers by promoting off-the-field stories.
  • Coverage should continue to tackle ‘thorny’ issues around gender inequality as this helps lobby for change amongst organisations with potential to improve conditions for women in sport.

The research, published in the Sociology of Sport Journal, was led by Dr Stacey Pope from Durham University in collaboration with Dr Rachel Allison (Mississippi State University) and Kate Petty (Durham University/Leeds University).

The study was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and a FIFA Research Scholarship awarded by the International Centre for Sports Studies (CIES) and FIFA. The next stage of the research will look at media coverage of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

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