On Jan. 8 I published a letter from reader Kellie Carter about women's sports getting short shrift in my column and the media generally. Carter argued that the sports media uses the insulting excuse that women's sports are a "niche market" to justify not covering them. I argued that my job is to write about what people are talking about, not to promote sports that people aren't talking about.
Then I invited you to offer your thoughts, and I'm just now digging out from the e-mail avalanche. I'm always looking for an excuses to use (no relation) George S. Kaufman's famous line to a chattering dinner companion -- "Don't you have any unexpressed thoughts?" -- but yours don't deserve it. They're too interesting.
Many readers wrote that there's a large audience out there looking for diverse coverage of sports, and while I'd like to believe that, I don't see any evidence of it. The Jan. 8 column, as usual when I write about women's sports, got pretty much no hits, though it got tons of letters, partly because I asked for them. Seems to me what we have here is the very definition of a niche market: Not a lot of people care, but the people who care really care a lot.
I don't think "niche market" is an insult. There's nothing wrong with niche markets. They provide opportunities for niche publications to serve them, for one thing. With time and clever stewardship, niche markets can become mainstream ones. Witness NASCAR.
Here's what you have to say about it. It's impossible to present the full array of readers' opinions in a column of readable length, so I've tried to pick a representative sampling. Though a clear majority of those who wrote in disagreed with Carter that women's sports should get more coverage, I didn't feel the need to portray that in the column, so the sampling below is split about evenly between those who agree and disagree with her.
I did some editing for length and clarity and tried not to change anyone's meaning. Since the question in the original column was about the role of the media -- "What is my job?" -- I've identified people I know to be media professionals.
Suzi Fonda: Your column on women's sports was a bit of a cop-out. I think you are missing a trend -- women's sports are increasing in popularity. Many water coolers I frequent were buzzing with talk of UConn's utter collapse against the Duke press in the last five minutes of [their Jan. 3] game. And one of the reasons I read Salon is to read about things that may not be topic No. 1 at the water cooler. If I want to read about Pete Rose or LeBron James, I can go to any number of sites
C.R.: I don't know the sociological reason that we pay more attention to baseball, men's basketball and football. I would suspect that it has something to do with the politics of identity, that being a fan is more about asserting your place in the cultural narrative than it is about the sport itself. The WNBA, like Major League Soccer and a lot of these other leagues, just doesn't have a compelling narrative or myth that makes me want to watch. Does it make me more American? Does it make me more manly? Does it make me more intelligent? Does it make me feel better about my city? (I don't care about MLS or any of the European Leagues, but I do watch the World Cup with a great deal of interest.)
Michael Holman: I'm a little wary of the impulse to only tell people (about) what they want to hear (about). So while I don't want you to become a shill for the WNBA, if something's happening in women's basketball, or in the NHL, that excites you, and you think you can write an interesting and engaging column about it, then, even though I have no real interest in either of those sports, I'd kind of like to see you write about it.
Jonathan Brill: Title IX? Fine. Get the NBA to subsidize the WNBA? Fine. Start telling me its my fault for not watching? I dont think so. I watch sports to be entertained. If you could find a way to make women's sports entertaining, Id find a way to care.
Nicole Follet-Dunn: I don't know if I'm one of your only woman readers, but I would be certainly willing, thrilled even, to read more about women's sports, even if it were just a blurb now and then. Surely you could slip in a blurb about the WNBA from time to time, couldn't you? I'm not asking for a whole column. After all, when the egg hatched, it was only a chick, right?
Bob Cook: Your letter writer made a good point that the sports section could benefit from the variety of more women's sports stories, but we could all benefit by eating more broccoli, too. I don't see everybody rushing to put down their ice cream. What your letter writer forgets, too, is that the popularity of the Big 3 [football, basketball and baseball] didn't happen overnight. These leagues have been around a while. Maybe if someone wants to finance the WNBA for 50 years, there's a chance by then it will be as popular. Of course, most men likely still will be pigs and check out a sport only if the chicks are hot.
Note: Cook writes the weekly Kick Out the Sports! column for Flak Magazine.
Jon Simmons: I have watched the odd WNBA game, was a frequent TV viewer of the ol' WUSA and was quite thrilled to see my beloved Dukies led by Alana Beard come back against UConn on their home court. What do I always notice when I watch these games? That the women are playing just as hard as the men, and in many cases with much impressive skill, but that the speed and skill level just isn't the same. I think this size and skill disparity, like it or not, will always impede women's sports from getting recognized at the same level as men's. Notice that where women compete on essentially equal or even higher footing with men -- skating, gymnastics -- size and speed are less valued than form and balance. I think Americans as a rule are insistent to a fault that our pro and college leagues have to have the best players in the world at that stage, or they are not legitimate.
Laura Powers: Indeed it is not your job to popularize a sport, whether it is played by men or women. However, it is your job to write something smart, interesting, and newsworthy, and I would argue that newsworthiness should not be equated with what everyone already knows. After all, isn't at least some of the mission of Salon.com to act as a venue for news and information that is not exhaustively hammered on by Fox or CNN? Movie reviewers, after all, may have to cover the blockbusters, but they also review the smaller movies that people might miss, and that is meet and proper.
Lawrence Pelo: You are right to say that it's not your responsibility as a journalist to help make women's sports -- or any obscure sport -- more popular. I am a fan of professional indoor lacrosse, a sport that receives less coverage in the national media than a competitive hot-dog eating. If lacrosse is to become a nationally prominent sport, it's up to lacrosse organizers and fans to find new ways to spread the word. Advocates of women's sports are trying to build support from the top down. It doesn't work that way.
Beth Osborne: You know you would cover Tonya Harding if she took a baseball bat to a competitor or a student today -- real sport or not -- because it is a good story. We are just asking you and your colleagues to include other good stories (hopefully, more positive ones) from other less mainstream sports.
Duncan Basson: Men live vicariously through athletes because they wish they were the athletes, and let's be honest, this ties into sex on some level. Men want to be Michael Jordan because women want to sleep with Michael Jordan because men want to be Michael Jordan. And also because he's hot and sexy, being the athlete that he is. But there's nothing sexy, at least in popular culture, about women athletes. Bottom line: as of January 2004, there are about 100 times as many 13-year-old girls who worship Britney Spears as Mia Hamm. And there are about 100 times more men who'd like to sleep with Britney over Mia. There's your answer. You'll either have to make female athletes more sexy or institute a fundamental change to human nature in order to sell WNBA tickets.
C.D. Kaplan: Seems to me the situation is similar to affirmative action to help right wrongs from years of racial discrimination. While I think media is obliged to cover matters of interest to its constituency, I also believe there is an obligation to explore and enlighten. I don't propose quotas (the bane of affirmative action's critics), but an increased emphasis to seek out interesting stories on women's athletics would be welcome. And, eye opening. What comes first, chicken or egg? I say both. Fry the chicken, eggs over light and add some pancakes with real maple syrup. We get what we want, what we need and some lagniappe.
Kaplan writes the Culture Maven column for LEO, the Louisville Eccentric Observer.
Matt Harp: It really feels like we're kinda saturated with sports right now. People like myself don't have the time or desire really to watch new sports or even some old ones. Seems like I watch less and less full games as the years go by. I think it's up to those new sports to develop their audience and pull people into the fold. It's a real different demographic in my opinion that is interested in women's sports and they need to figure out how to target those people.
Michael Goodman: Obviously, I don't dispute that your job is to comment on what your readers are talking about -- in short, getting as many eyeballs on your column as possible (I work for a dot-com journalism site myself, and am keen to feeding the almighty page-view dragon). However, the argument also strikes me a bit as a kind of "washing of the hands," in effect saying you're not responsible for taking the lead on lesser-known sports since you're merely giving the readers what they want. This is the kind of argument that clogs up my television with 18 neurotic headcases trying to off each other to gain a job as Donald Trump's lackey. It seems to me, from your incisive writing, that you also undoubtedly consider part of your writing as an effort to provoke thought in your readers and enlighten them to things they may not have considered. Is there something wrong with making lesser known sports, including women's sports, a part of that? If you actually believe that in a "perfect" world more attention would be given to some cool but unpopular sports that your readers may be ignorant of, then write about it! What's wrong with a little guidance now and then?
Goodman is a senior editor at RealMoney.com.
Ken Goldstein: One problem with the coverage of women's sports is of it's own making. Both the WNBA and WUSA decided to make a conscious effort to promote themselves as a source of good role models for young girls. Unfortunately being a good role model is essentially marketing death. We say we want good role models, and lament the lack of them, but God help any athlete who's stupid enough to fall for that trap.
Bruce Hafford: As a writer with a progressive, intelligent fan base at Salon, I think you could take some chances and not have people click away immediately. Make the first paragraph intriguing enough, and people will read it. I don't read Salon for scores and data, I read it for breadth of opinion. I can't be the only one who reads that way.
Catherine Bracy: As far as some women wanting the WNBA and WUSA to be just as high profile as the NFL or NBA, I'd say to them: Be careful what you wish for.
Unsigned: The responsibility of a columnist is to offer his readers news and insight, with something of a tilt towards the insight. This means not just covering what's popular, because what's new is not necessarily popular. Changes in the industry--of which the rise of women's professional sports is one of the most significant of the last 50 years -- are news, whether or not they are popular. So the role of the great columnist is not merely to contribute to the water-cooler debate, but even to frame it or start a new one.
John Solomon: Like you, I've been covering women's sports for a while. In fact, I wrote a piece for Salon about the WNBA's first game. And I agree with you. If there's no audience to read or watch these women's sports stories why should the media have to do them? The fact is that most women don't even read about or watch women's sports anyway. In fact, what's been interesting to me is that while women have flocked to WNBA and other in-arena games (and have become bigger participants themselves), they haven't been willing to sit on their couches and watch.
Solomon is a journalist who has written for Salon, Sports Illustrated and many other publications.
André Apatini: Certainly, one must cater to ones customers and provide the product the customers are looking for. However, if you believe that womens sports gets short shrift, you should from time to time push it a little. That is the only way things will continue to change in an evolutionary way. So, be a man! Support female sports. P.S.: Please continue to avoid figure skating of any kind ...
Ari Epstein: I think you've missed the boat a bit on the question of women's sports. It seems to me that a true journalist's job involves telling people about interesting things they don't know about, as well as covering in detail things they do know about. Sports journalists do well at the second, but they are routinely the worst in the paper at doing the first. Almost never do you read about a sporting event that you didn't, in some way, already know existed. So the sports pages become largely promotional material for the well-known sports teams and leagues, with some interesting features scattered around too. But a real sports journalist should go farther, and tell sports fans surprising things that will interest them.
J. Kremer: Writing for Salon, you have a unique opportunity -- people who come to this site expect more from their periodicals, and are willing to read longer and deeper to find subjects of interest. I doubt any sportswriter in the country has an opportunity like you do, but (to be blunt) I rarely see anything in your column I can't find at a thousand other sites. I'm sorry to hear that your hit counter is the cause. Maybe you should turn it off?
Patrick Files: To bang out prose intended to entice people to watch a sport isn't sportswriting--it's public relations copywriting.
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