Where Are the Women?

Photo Courtesy of vitalmtb.com | Despite consistent success, world renowned biker Rachel Atherton is still not a household name.

Cameo Tietje ‘18
Sports Editor

One of the greatest female champions in mountain bike racing has just finished with a perfect season; so why have most people never heard of her? Rachel Atherton won all seven rounds of the UCI Downhill Mountain Bike World Cup and is a four-time world title winner at 28 years old.  She went 15 races undefeated. Since Atherton was named Times Young Sports Woman of the Year in 2005, she has torn up the trails, redefining women’s downhill racing. In 2008 she took the World Cup overall, the World Championship gold and four other World Cup wins (2008, 2012, 2013 and 2015). Following an accident, she missed the 2009 season, but she rebounded by climbing to seventh place overall in the UCI Women’s Elite Downhill Ranking. Atherton is an athlete who is able to overcome adversity, not letting anything stop her climb to greatness. Overcoming an illness during the 2014 season, she rallied to snatch the 2015 World Cup title. She continued to climb to the top by winning every round of the UCI Downhill World Cup series in 2016, which set her apart from her competitors. She again won the world champion title, marking her fourth victory. This year she was crowned the Laureus Action Sportsperson of the year in Monaco.

wIf she were born the opposite sex, would she be a household name by now? ESPN is one of the most successful sports networks. It is in 81.1 percent of households with at least one television set in the U.S. The Optimum cable provider has seven channels for ESPN, which focus on men’s sports. There is only one channel devoted to women’s sports, but it does not come with the regular cable package and costs extra. “In 2014, LA-based network affiliates devoted only 3.2 percent of airtime to women’s sports, down from five percent in 1989,” according to USC News. Critics argue that women’s sports do not bring in as much revenue as men’s, but the cycle is perpetuated when women are continuously underrepresented in media outlets, like ESPN. The US Women’s National Team for soccer drew in 750 million viewers with 61 million fans present in the stadium for the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. This event had record-breaking ratings as they beat Japan 5-2. It became the most watched sporting event in U.S. history, yet you could not find all of these games on TV or the ESPN app. Critics still argue that women’s sports will not bring in revenue to rival men’s sports. How can women’s sports bring in more money if they are underrepresented in sports media? Having fewer games aired decreases the amount of commercial time that networks can make money from. This will decrease the amount and value of sponsorships due to the lack of visibility. The airtime difference between women and men’s sports is astonishing when comparing the US Men’s National soccer team’s record to the USWNT.

Another example of the perpetuation of underrepresentation in sports media is demonstrated in tennis. As previously stated, women’s sports cannot make as much money, as they simply do not have the airtime for sponsorships and commercials. In tennis of four grand slams or majors, men play five rounds, while women only play three. When women’s tennis was finally added in 1884, they were deemed too frail to play a five-set match. The rules created only gave the women a three-set match. A men’s match can last up to five hours and on average is three, while women’s max is three hours and, on average is two, according to Quora.com. The rules and regulations would cause a discrepancy in airtime, even if men and women had equal visibility in sports media. The men have longer matches, which allow more time for more commercial breaks. More commercials equal more revenue for the players, sponsors and ad companies.

Rachel Atherton is the best in Downhill Mountain Bike, yet most people have never heard of her. Atherton should be a household name, and maybe if she were a man, she would be. Research shows a huge gap between women and men’s visibility in sports. Media outlets, like ESPN, perpetuate underrepresentation, unequal pay and the public’s opinion of women’s sports. This started long before any of us were born and unfortunately, these discrepancies may be here long after we are gone. However, this does not mean that we shouldn’t fight for future generations to have what we couldn’t: for women to be able to identify with sports media, and for women within sports media to get the pay and visibility that athletes, like the USWNT, deserve.

Leave a Comment