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Sexism or ignorance? Why the NWSL Challenge Cup continues to be ignored By Broadcast partner CBS

There was outrage across the American women’s soccer landscape this week as major sports network CNBC sent out a now deleted tweet highlighting Major League Soccer's supposed fortune at being the first major sports league to return to action. Except it most definitely isn’t. Whilst the MLS' well publicised return to action in Orlando is swiftly approaching (8th July), the NWSL is set to burst onto our screens on June 27th for 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup in Utah. The NWSL's broadcast partner seems to have forgotten the tournament is even taking place, with little to no marketing online. You could be forgiven for just palming these instances off as a faux pas of rather embarrassing proportions. However, to do so would be naive at best. It sadly goes far deeper than that. 

The issue of systemic sexism in US Soccer, and more broadly, US sports isn’t exactly something new. You need only open Google, and type 'US Soccer Sexism' and you'll get hundreds of hits on the issue. A recent survey of US sports coverage, irrespective of the sport or network, concluded that female sports are wildly underrepresented in relation to their male counterparts. One such longitudinal study, (It’s Dude Time, 2015) showed that broadcasters spend a mere 3% of their airtime covering women’s sports, with the Disney owned ESPN being outed as one of the main culprits. The sports broadcasting giants only allocate a meagre 2% of its coverage to women’s sports. And that’s not just soccer. That’s women’s sport in general. 

Sexism in US sports media has almost become like gone off milk to a well brewed cup of tea. It leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, and makes the average women’s soccer fan feel a bit queasy. Earlier this year the USSF (United States Soccer Federation) openly expressed their inherent belief that their 4 time World Cup winning soccer team was biologically inferior to their male counterparts (The Guardian, 2020). Yes, that team that failed to even qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. This cancerous and horribly misguided view of women’s soccer, and sport in general, has undoubtedly filtered itself into the various sub sections of mainstream sports media in the United States. It’s become an unwelcome stench, and threatens to sully all of the amazing strides women’s soccer has made in the United States.

There is no doubt in my mind that systemic sexism within US sports journalism has contributed to the lack of coverage being afforded to the NWSL Challenge Cup, not only by the league’s broadcast partner CBS, but also by the wider US sporting media. A baffling notion when you consider all of the work that has gone on behind the scenes to make this tournament happen. At a time where the sporting world has been cast to the shadows, the NWSL is willing to thrust itself into the spotlight. Centre stage. Whilst the crowds wait patiently in the stalls. At a healthy social distance of course. The journalists and reviewers in the podiums, however? Not so much. 

The deal to provide CBS with exclusive broadcasting rights was rightly seen as a major coup for recently appointed NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird. Coming off the back of equally successful deals with the likes of Budweiser and ESPN in recent times, the deal seemed to indicate that women’s soccer was really gaining momentum. At a time when soccer on the whole continues to grow its profile in the US; a country that is traditionally more used to cheering a hail Mary or a home run than a penalty kick. The success of the USWNT (US Women’s National Team) at last summer’s 2019 FIFA World Cup seemed to be the dawning of a new era for women’s soccer in the United States. And don’t get me wrong, it most certainly has been. There is a lot to smile about. However, the looming shadow of sexism in the sport - as a whole, and not just within the media - continues to wrap its unwelcome talons around the throat of our beautiful game.

It’s this narrative that seems to come at the behest of the major sporting networks. It’s a commonly accepted ideal in sports marketing that the manner networks promote and display products is what, at least partially, determines the commercial success of that particular product. Generally speaking, television ratings are directly impacted by the amount of hype and promotion drummed up preceding the event. Isn’t that the whole point of marketing? To that point CBS' continued silence regarding the NWSL Challenge Cup is negligible at best. At the time of writing, there had been one tweet from the CBS Sports Twitter feed about the tournament during the whole of June. One. I’m no economist or sports marketing expert, but surely, it’s in CBS' best interest to market this thing well? Especially at a time when other sports have yet to get back underway.

The actions of one journalist, author of the now infamous CNBC article I made reference to earlier, Jubari Young, are indicative of a wider systemic problem in US sports media. Young was unapologetic in his view that the NWSL is not a major sports league. His article argued at great length how the MLS might use their status as the first professional American sports league to return to action, to its advantage. Despite, you know, not being the first American professional sports League to return to action. Instead of acknowledging the mistake, CNBC made corrections that simply further implied the NWSL wasn’t a major league, by amending the article to say MLS was the first 'major' league to return. It wasn’t until their third attempt at a correction that they referred to the NWSL as a major league. At best it was sloppy journalism, at worst it was downright ignorant and sexist. All I’m going to say is, no journalist or editor is that sloppy. Twice. 

Here we are on the precipice of a potential watershed moment for the NWSL, and the media continues to downplay its significance. The NWSL is a league packed full of talent. World Cup and World Player of the Year winners. Players like Alex Morgan and Marta are infinitely more recognisable as household names than some of their MLS counterparts. Both are superb leagues, who have made tremendous strides in pushing the sport forward in the US. Sadly, one seems to be valued more highly than the other. A view that has precious little to do with the beautiful game itself, rather the gender of those taking part in it. 

At the time of writing, CNBC had made no attempt to distance themselves from Young’s comments. His comments about the NWSL not being a major league, and CNBC's lack of rebuttal are unfortunately representative of a much larger problem within US sports media. A lack of respect for women’s sports. Whilst I don’t want to dwell too much on the personal views of an individual journalist, nor am I suggesting anything untoward, it’s clear to see where some in the US sporting media entourage see the NWSL. Regardless of how you view soccer, it is the world’s game. As such the premier women’s league simply deserves more respect. 

Attitudes from the male dominated sports media world, generally speaking, towards women’s sports are just not consistent with those shown towards male sports. Even during the USWNT’s run to the 2019 FIFA World Cup final, there was unfair criticism for the team following their 13-0 walloping of a hapless Thailand team (The Guardian, 2019). Whilst to a certain extent I agree that some of the latter goals in this drubbing were a tad over celebrated, much of the criticism stemmed from the simply idiotic notion that Morgan, Rapinoe et al shouldn’t have run up a score like that. I’m sorry, you don’t want the team to win as well as they can? There was no such criticism in 2008, when their male counterparts took apart Barbados in an 8-0 win. The victory was described as a ‘bludgeoning' in reports (Goal, 2008). The teams are simply held to different moral standards, and dare I say it viewed differently on the basis of gender. These double standards are characteristic of the way women’s sports are viewed in the United States by many in the sports media core. 

This is not a problem that is exclusive to soccer either. Nor is it one that is exclusive to CBS as we have seen. The ignorance on display from Young and CNBC was just the latest instance of women's sports leagues being disrespected and overlooked by major sports media networks in the US. In April, ESPN's leading NFL analyst, Adam Schefter, came under fire during the 2020 NFL Draft after he tweeted: "For the first time in what feels like forever, a real live sporting event." Basketball fans were quick to point out that the 2020 WNBA had aired live on Schefter's own network, less than one week prior. The WNBA Draft had also attracted more viewers than any of the previous 10 WNBA drafts. 

Oftentimes when major women’s sports events, such as the WNBA Draft or a prime NWSL game are broadcast, they are allocated to more obscure channels and TV slots. Some will argue, the interest isn’t there to command these spots. This is honestly such a tired argument, and more often than not women’s sports do benefit from higher ratings when they are afforded those coveted prime-time spots. One such glaring example was the 2020 WNBA Draft. The draft was originally shunted to ESPN 2 with a less than favourable time slot. Fan pressure on social media eventually encouraged the powers that be at ESPN, to switch the draft to its flagship channel with a prime-time spot. As I mentioned previously the draft attracted large viewer numbers. All this, at a time when the whole sporting world had ground to a halt.

As such, it begs the question, why did the network need convincing it was a worthwhile move to give the draft a prime-time spot? Especially when there were no other major sporting events scheduled at the time, due to the Covid-19 pandemic? Why would a TV network, who claims to provide world class coverage of all sports, not provide ample coverage for a sport that clearly gets people tuning in? I have my theory. 

Many apologists and cynics point to attendances and a perceived lack of interest in the sport, as being a mitigating factor in why US sports broadcasters don’t seem to promote women’s soccer. Even in 2020 we are still facing calls of 'no one cares about women’s soccer'. Despite the fact that the Portland Thorns regularly attracted more supporters than the Baltimore Orioles, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Miami Marlins in 2019. Furthermore, there are those that believe women’s soccer does not generate as much commerce as men's soccer. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2019, that from 2016-2018 the USWNT actually generated more commercial revenue than their male counterparts. To the tune of $1.9m dollars. 

These arguments simply do not hold up. Whilst CBS is yet to break its silence on its lack of NWSL promotion, you have to question their motives for staging the tournament in the first place? Was it merely a token gesture, that they really had no intention of promoting? Just so they can be seen as progressive? Only they will know that, though I very much doubt they will ever elaborate on the subject. Despite all of this, the popularity of women’s soccer is soaring. And the numbers back it up. 

Women’s soccer has been riding the crest of a wave since the 2019 FIFA World Cup. The average audience for ESPN2 (not a prime channel) was 148,000 per game in 2019. Up 66 percent on 2018. Please, bear in mind that ESPN's coverage did not start until after the World Cup. Why are CBS not taking advantage of this momentum? The NWSL is coming off a lengthy break, and games are being played behind closed doors. More fans will surely be watching games 'on the box' as we say in Blighty. OK, full disclosure. No one says that. Anyway, it feels almost like CBS want the tournament to fail. Possibly so they can turn around and say 'we're progressive, we tried. The appetite isn’t there'. It certainly makes you think.

Whilst it’s important to acknowledge and not to disparage the tremendous progress that women’s soccer is making in the United States, and indeed globally, it’s important that we continue to tackle the issue of sexism in sports. The beautiful game is for everyone. And it’s time that the major US sports networks realised this. Your move CBS.

By Dan Berridge

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