ESPN--the women's sports network? A content analysis of Internet coverage of March madness.

Author:Kian, Edward "Ted" M.

Sports have long been ingrained into the social fabric of the United States, but many Americans are probably unaware that sport has been estimated to be the sixth largest industry in the United States, annually averaging between $213-324 billion (Pitts & Stotlar, 2002; "The Sports Industry," 2008). However, participation in sport at all levels was predominately limited to men and boys throughout most of U.S. history (Rader, 2004). That changed with the passage of Title IX of the 1972 Educational Amendments. Title IX is a federal statute that prohibits sex discrimination in schools receiving federal assistance. Before Title IX's passage by Congress, there were fewer than 32,000 women in college sport, and under 300,000 high school female athletes (Steeg, 2008). By 2007, those numbers had risen to more than 170,000 and 3 million, respectively (Steeg, 2008).

It is not surprising mass media regularly produce a great deal of sport content via magazines, newspapers, radio, television, and, in recent years, the Internet. However, despite the vast increase in the number of women and girls who actively participate or once played organized sports, research has consistently shown sport media generally provide far more coverage of men's sports than women's sports (Duncan, 2006; Kane, 1996). This holds true in nearly all levels of competition and in the vast majority of sports. Moreover, the coverage of women's sports by media often trivializes and minimizes the accomplishments of female athletes through portrayals, images, descriptors, and narratives, regardless of the medium examined (Bishop, 2003; Messner, Duncan, & Cooky, 2003; Pedersen, Whisenant, & Schneider, 2003). These trends have certainly held true for the limited research published on media coverage of men's and women's college basketball.

For 3 weeks each spring, mainstream U.S. sport media turn much of their focus toward college basketball. March Madness, the nickname commonly used to describe The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I men's and women's basketball tournaments, is ingrained in U.S. culture (Billings, Halone, & Denham, 2002). The NCAA derives roughly 90% of its total revenues just from the 3-week men's Division I tournament (Matheson & Baade, 2004). However, all of the research on media coverage of NCAA basketball tournaments focused exclusively on television. Most of those studies found broadcast commentary of March Madness reinforced gender differences commonly found in research on sport media content. Generally, male athletes were revered and praised for their athleticism, while female athletes' skill and accomplishments were trivialized. Furthermore, television commentators often unfavorably compared women's players to men's players (Billings et al., 2002; Duncan & Hasbrook, 1988; Eastman, & Billings, 2001; Hallmark & Armstrong, 1999; Messner, Duncan, & Jensen, 1993; Messner, Duncan, & Wachs, 1996).

These findings, along with results from most research on sport media content, led scholars to conclude mainstream sport media perpetuates and reinforces hegemonic masculinity (Hardin, Lynn, Walsdorf, & Hardin, 2002; Miloch, Pedersen, Smucker, & Whisenant, 2005).

Theoretical Background and Purpose

Derived from Gramsci's (1971) concept of hegemony in an examination of social classes, hegemonic masculinity ideologically reinforces androcentrism as a primary characteristic of Western society that hierarchically places women in positions below men (Connell, 2005). Hegemonic social systems use ideology to create consent for dominance of one group over another (Gramsci, 1971). In modern society it is assumed media play a large role in how consent is obtained (Connell, 1990; Pedersen et al., 2003). Scholars have claimed sport is one of the primary forces helping to preserve hegemonic masculinity in the Western World, while also noting that sport also assists in upholding antiquated definitions of gender and negative stereotypes of women who do not conform to traditional notions of femininity (e.g., Connell, 1990; Davis, 1997).

However, there is little research on media coverage of women in sport via the Internet (Pedersen, Miloch, & Laucella, 2007; Real, 2006). As online communication evolves as a medium, the gendering of the Internet remains in question (van Zoonen, 2003). Connell and Messerschmidt (2005) argued that perceived notions of desirable masculinities in society are frequently contested and challenged. Since the Internet remains contested gender terrain (van Zoonen, 2003), the advent of this relatively new but far more specialized medium of journalism may provide the impetus for a shift from the sport media routines that have long relegated women's sport to second-team status (Hardin, 2005; Johnson & Kelly, 2003).

Therefore, the primary purpose of this exploratory study was to see if two popular Internet-only sport news publications reinforce hegemonic masculine stereotypes through the use of gender-specific descriptors found to be prevalent in broadcast, magazine, and newspaper sport coverage (Bishop, 2003; Higgs, Weiller, & Martin, 2003; Vincent, Imwold, Masemann, & Johnson, 2002). Connell's (2005) theory of the gender order and its hegemonic forms was used to analyze results on Internet coverage of men's and women's college basketball.

Internet and Gender

Men were prevalent in the creation of the Internet and dominated the ranks of early users (Morahan-Martin, 1998). However, the United States now has 150 million citizens online, with men and women comprising similar demographics of users (Pew Research, 2006; Royal, 2008). Scholars have argued the communal nature of the Internet is more accommodating to women and feminist issues than other forms of communication (Spender, 1995; Turkle, 1995). However, the collective nature of chat rooms and message boards is less prevalent in the content published on mainstream news sites, which are the most popular form of news media production on the Internet (Dueze, 2003).

New media outlets continuously "change the collection, distribution, and editing of media content, along with access and consumption" (Schultz & Sheffer, 2007, p. 62). Moreover, audiences of online sport media content--which are dominated by the 18-34-year-old demographic--may be more open to reading different types of content (e.g., extreme sports, women's sports, youth sports, etc.) than what has long been extensively covered in more traditional mediums such as newspapers and television (Real, 2006). However, researchers have not examined if the advent of Internet sport news sites has resulted in any gender-related changes in media content compared with traditional media. NCAA basketball would seem ideal for such an examination, since online sport news sites are especially popular during the 3 weeks encompassing March Madness. Nielsen/Net ratings estimated 20 million unique visitors to sport Internet sites for the primary purpose of following March Madness in 2004 (Real, 2006).

Internet Coverage of Female Athletes

Research of sport coverage provided on the Internet is in its infancy (Pedersen et al., 2007; Real, 2006). In fact, there is no set standard as to what qualifies as sport media coverage on the Internet (Butler & Sagas, 2008). Beck and Bosshart (2003) noted the many different types of content the Web offers sports fans, including its service as an encyclopedia, a publicity vehicle for teams and athletes, and a venue for media-conglomerates, such as ESPN and CBS, to strengthen their domination of sport media.

The only two articles on U.S. Internet coverage of female athletes are both centered on university-sponsored coverage of sports offered to both women and men. Cunningham (2003) found university Web sites provided more coverage of women's tennis than of men's tennis teams at the same schools. In contrast, Sagas, Cunningham, Wigley, and Ashley (2000) discovered university Internet sites provided higher quality and more detailed coverage of men's baseball than women's softball.

Another study examined Internet coverage of the 2000 Olympic Games by the Australian Broadcast Company (ABC). Jones (2004) found few female role models were shown on ABC's Web pages. In addition, when women were covered, hegemonic masculinity was reinforced as stereotypical descriptions portrayed adult females as emotionally instable, dependant adolescents. In contrast, male athletes were never infantilized, and were less likely to have their outward emotions described (Jones, 2004).

Research Questions

Research questions were employed rather than hypotheses for this exploratory study:

[RQ.sub.1]: How much coverage of women's and men's basketball was provided by Internet sport media outlets during March Madness?

[RQ.sub.2]: What types of descriptors did Internet sportswriters use when writing about NCAA Division I women's and men's basketball tournaments?

[RQ.sub.3]: Were the gender-specific descriptors reinforcing gender stereotypes previously found in television broadcast commentary of women's and men's college basketball also present in online stories on March Madness?


All 249 (N = 249) byline articles from CBS SportsLine and ESPN Internet were read, coded, and content analyzed to determine the descriptors in Internet articles on March Madness. Content analysis is an unobtrusive or non-reactive method used by social scientists that has been applied to nearly every form of communication, such as newspapers, television and radio broadcasts, speeches, literature, etc. (Gunter, 2000; Holsti, 1969; Krippendorff, 2004). Forming a systematic coding of a text or narrative is paramount to beginning a content analysis (Kaid & Wadsworth, 1989; Neuendorf, 2002; Weber, 1990). However, looking for specific examples of these textual elements could lead to differing interpretations by different researchers. Thus, researchers (e.g., Lombard, Snyder-Duch, & Bracken, 2002; Neuendorf, 2002) argued intercoder...

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