From Broadcasting Inequality to Stereotyping Players, Unpacking Media’s Treatment of Women in Football; A Closer Look at How Media Perpetuates Stereotypes, Undermines Achievements, and Paves the Way for Change in Women’s Football
At 23 years old, Spanish skipper Olga Carmona made history by leading Spain to a 1-0 victory over England in the FIFA Women’s World Cup final. With this goal, Spain sealed their first-ever World Cup title. However, Western media overshadowed the achievement with articles on how her celebration turned into mourning due to her father’s passing.
On the other hand, Spain’s Jennifer Hermoso faced humiliation when Spanish Football Federation chief Luis Rubiales kissed Hermoso on the lips after the final. While FIFA temporarily suspended Rubiales, he was reluctant to quit for his actions. Media stories about Hermoso have largely revolved around the infamous ‘kiss’. Media coverage of women in sports has historically been mired with gender stereotypes and is very different from the coverage men’s sports receive. Most news stories about women have been about off-field events.
Compare this with the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup in Qatar, which received record-breaking media coverage. Even so, the tournament was courted by controversies surrounding Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers. Early reports focused on the host’s human rights records, corruption allegations, and the politics around it, rather than the players’ lives off the pitch, like the Women’s World Cup coverage.
At the fag-end of the tournament, the media focus shifted to Argentina’s Lionel Messi, who emerged as the highlight of the Men’s World Cup, which attracted world-over love with headlines reading, “Messi wins World Cup.”
Broadcasting fiasco ahead of the World Cup
The first bump on the road in the run-up to the women’s tournament was the broadcasting rights deal. One could hardly say that the Women’s World Cup was about to kick off on July 20 with hardly any buzz around it. FIFA cracked the deal with five European nations only six weeks before the tournament began — the delay meant no adverts or build-up in these countries. This was after the FIFA President said that the five countries would face blackouts unless “unacceptable” bids were improved.
Broadcasters had initially offered $1 million to $10 million for Women’s World Cup media rights, significantly less than the $100 million to $200 million for the Men’s World Cup. FIFA’s decision to sell the broadcast rights for the Women’s World Cup separately was deemed “premature” by the media.
There was also criticism that unlike men’s football, which had a free-to-air network, women’s football had to be watched via subscription. This meant the World Cup didn’t get enough coverage, considering it was held in Australia and New Zealand and not in Europe.
Media coverage dominated by gender stereotypes
Once the tournament began, the media focused heavily on players’ age, sexuality, motherhood, etc., instead of commentary on on-field events. A Channel Seven commentator sparked controversy when he said Matildas’ midfielder Katrina Gorry had retained her “competitive instincts despite motherhood”.
One of the most inappropriate questions came from a BBC reporter to Morocco captain Ghizlane Chebbak, if there are any gay players in the team considering it is illegal in the country. The BBC later apologized for this question. There was another question about Nouhaila Benzina being the first player to wear a hijab at the tournament, which Chebbak eventually ignored. As the first Arab country to qualify for the tournament, there was very little focus on Morocco breaking new barriers.
Women, not just men, contributed to gender bias as well. American journalist Megyn Kelly lashed out at the US team for political reasons, referring to them as “morons” for their lack of patriotism during the Women’s World Cup. She went a step further and said that Megan Rapinoe had “poisoned” the squad. Rapinoe is a football icon known for advocating minority rights and opposing racial discrimination. Right-wing commentators and politicians have bashed Rapinoe’s “wokeness” and equated it to “failure”.
How often does this happen to male footballers? Imagine Marcus Rashford getting ridiculed by commentators and sports journalists for his fight against the British lawmakers for not funding free school meals over the holidays — all because he missed a penalty. Nevertheless, Rashford’s effort was lauded by the football community, and he was honored with a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for his campaign efforts. Notice the difference?
The good wins: Is it enough?
Sure, there has been some improvement in the women’s football coverage over the years. A study by Durham University and Mississippi State University examined print media coverage in the UK from 2015 to 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. They found that the overall coverage, including front-page articles, has increased, word usage for the England Women’s Football team has changed from “girls” to “lionesses”, and posed shots have made way for on-field shots. But is it enough?
DDB Group Aotearoa and FINCH launched a global campaign called “Correct The Internet” to remove gender bias that powers search results. The next time you search for who scored the most goals in international football, the internet should tell you it is Canada’s Christine Sinclair with 190, not Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo features at the top of the men’s list with 123 goals. Similarly, Google had also announced a gender-focused tailoring of its search function ahead of the World Cup.
Viewership has also gone up as well. The Matildas’ (Australian Women’s team) game against England in the 2023 semi-finals became the most-watched television program in Australia since 2001. Despite the initial broadcast issues, the Women’s World Cup final attracted record television viewership.
FIFA’s measures: All talk and no show?
Riding this wave, FIFA Chief Gianni Infantino said, “Women have the power to convince men” His statement received backlash, with former Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg saying she is working on a “presentation to convince men”.
FIFA faced criticism for its blackout threat, an attempt to drum up investment for broadcast rights, but ended up becoming a public battle instead. Infantino called it a “slap in the face of all great women players”. Critics pointed out that the aggression was misplaced and that the body was attempting to fill its coffers without addressing the parity between men and women in football.
In 2022, FIFA’s move to add three female referees at the Qatar men’s World Cup — Yamashita Yoshimi, Salima Mukansanga, and Stephanie Frappart — had also received mixed responses on the internet, especially with the irony of the location that has a poor track record when it came to women’s rights.
Miles to go:
Greater media coverage: According to UNESCO, while 40% of all sports participants are women they receive only 4% media coverage. Even in the coverage available, the portrayal of women is often around what happens off the pitch.
Push for pay parity: The prize fund for 32 women’s World Cup teams was $110 million, four times lower when compared to $440 million for men’s teams. The UN women’s rights agency has urged FIFA to bridge this gap by the next World Cup at least.
Asking the right questions: The media must ask why the pay gap between men’s and women’s football is so low, what can be done to ensure sponsorship revenue and support for players increases, and why women need to be appointed to senior positions. Questions on age and relationships, instead, are counter-productive.
One of the biggest issues is spectator bias. Multiple studies have shown how male football fans tend to be sexist. A clever advertisement by the French division of telecom giants Orange showed VFX-edited footage of a women’s football match with men’s faces only to reveal that the video was edited towards the end. The advertisement pointed out how viewers dismiss women in football, not because of the sport, but because of their gender.
With these challenges, it is time for the media to step up. Engage in more conversations on why perceptions need to change and ensure gender-sensitive reporting is pivotal while covering women in sports.
The thoughts and opinions expressed in this are those of the author and not necessarily WeThePress.