Anyone who follows US sports in more than the most cursory manner probably has an opinion on ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith — and anyone who’s been paying attention will know that he is, as Australian basketballer Andrew Bogut put it rather succinctly a couple of months back, a wanker. Smith is a professional loudmouth, a man whose career revolves around spouting “controversial” opinions in a controversial manner. As such, it wasn’t entirely surprising to hear him make an ass of himself last week with his opinions about women provoking domestic violence, and it’s been rather heartening to see his comments being ridiculed around the Internet. What’s less heartening is the way that ESPN has refused to sanction him — the network played a taped apology yesterday, but Smith will go back to work as though nothing’s happened, at least until the next time he says something stupid.
Of course, this isn’t surprising; male sports culture isn’t exactly well known for its understanding of or sensitivity to what all too often are described as “women’s issues.” Or, more accurately, it’s not well known for understanding anything outside of a pretty specific brand of heteronormative masculinity. You might argue that ESPN’s refusal to discipline Smith is entirely predictable, and that we shouldn’t have expected any different — it’s just a matter of bros being bros.
Quite apart from the rights and the wrongs of the matter — which in this case are fairly clear-cut, i.e. that Smith’s comments were victim-blaming horseshit and that he deserves all the opprobrium that’s been directed at him — that’s bullshit. Sports aren’t just of interest to the sort of stereotypical jock to whom people like Smith pander. Men are the majority audience for pretty much any sport you can think of, it’s true. But they’re not as big a majority as you might expect. If you take a look at a recent study by TV By the Numbers, the TV audience for America’s major sports comprises somewhere between 65-70 percent men. Women are never a majority, but they’re a significant minority.
You’d think, then, that they’d be an audience that an outlet like ESPN might want to reach. But according to this media kit, ESPN.com’s readership is 94 percent male. That’s a pretty remarkable figure when you stop to think about it. It’s essentially erasing women. Its audience skews even more male than the viewership of the most ultra-macho sports. UFC’s audience contains more women than ESPN.com’s. So does that of the World Snooker Tour. So does pretty much anything else you can think of.
Actually, let’s look at UFC for a moment, because hidden in the article linked above is this rather fascinating piece of information:
“One of the largest contributors to the interest in [UFC] is the female demographic: ‘Another key factor, possibly the key factor, in a freshening fighting audience is the growth in avid interest by women. From 2002 to 2012, interest in boxing is up for women of all ages. And avid interest in MMA is stronger for women 12-54 than for men 55 and older. Clearly the presence of women boxers and MMA fighters is leading this interest. These numbers (see chart) are substantial and, if sustained, demand a closer look at the overall sports landscape from a woman’s perspective.'”
This is fascinating and instructive, not least because the assumption in sports — especially physical ones like mixed martial arts, boxing, wrestling, etc. — has historically been that female competitors (and women in general) are there for the purpose of male titillation rather than to attract female audiences. Cheerleaders, pneumatic female wrestlers in bikinis, professionally perky sideline reporters… they’ve all been there for the eyes of men, not for the edification of women.
Again, quite apart from the rights and wrongs of this, it’s kinda dumb. Because the UFC pattern is one that we see repeated across all sorts of sports: women are a growth market. And it makes sense, when you think about it. There’s wall-to-wall coverage of male sports, aimed largely at a male audience. Pretty much every sports-lovin’ dude out there already knows what he likes and watches it. Women? They’re a historically ignored market, so it makes sense that they’re the demographic with most potential for growth.
Similarly, the market for male sports journalism is entirely saturated. There are a million voices vying for the attention of the 18-34 male demographic, from ESPN to similarly meatheaded sites like Bleacher Report (from the guy who brought you Bustle!), SI.com, etc. And their audiences are the same. As per Quantcast, Bleacher Report — ESPN’s closest competitor and the world’s third-biggest sports site, trailing only Yahoo! Sports — attracts a similar demographic. There’s a clear disconnect here between the audiences attracted by sports media and the audiences attracted by sports themselves.
Why? The answer seems pretty obvious: sports media just isn’t very female friendly. The talking heads on TV are overwhelmingly male, the writers are overwhelmingly male, the tone is very much aimed at a male audience. This is changing, slowly — it’s been great seeing Doris Burke calling NBA games, for instance, or reading Ramona Shelburne’s excellent reporting on the LA Lakers. But these women remain exceptions to a rule that’s barely changed since sports journalism began: this is a job for boys.
There’s no reason why it should be. There’s a lot of received wisdom about sports culture: that girls just aren’t interested, that men are somehow genetically predisposed to be stats nerds, that Serious Analysis is something for men only. This doesn’t really seem to be backed up by any data, and in any case, it’s self-fulfilling: create media designed to appeal to men, and you’ll attract a male audience. Why not flip the script?
I’m not talking about a sort of pink-bordered half-hour where second-rate talking heads mansplain sports for girls. Historically, attempts at producing products for women have ranged from the cynical to the hilariously inept, and I can’t imagine that ESPN For Girls™ would be any different. But the point is, there doesn’t need to be sports commentary or analysis aimed specifically at women. It just needs to be less unthinkingly aimed solely at men.
As my colleague Judy Berman pointed out recently in her article about Boyhood, male-dominated culture is often viewed as gender neutral — as Simone De Beauvoir wrote, “Humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him.” The great majority of sports media is aimed at men as a sort of default audience. Changing this shouldn’t be difficult, and it starts with assholes like Stephen A. Smith. If ESPN had any sense, they’d fire him for just generally being a dickhead, but even if not, he should be disciplined for his comments and sent off to some sort of course on why victim-blaming is a Very Bad Thing.
Beyond that, though, there’s clear potential for sports media to remove its head from its ass and start trying to talk to a largely ignored segment of its audience. If I were the editor-in-chief of ESPN.com, I’d make it a top priority, because we’re talking pretty crazy numbers here. Think about it: ESPN gets an estimated 80 million monthly unique visitors, of whom 94 percent are men. If they could get their audience to even a 75 percent/25 percent split, that’d mean an extra 20 million uniques a month. I imagine their ad sales people would be pretty thrilled with that kind of growth. As with every other aspect of sports, money talks.