The Truth Sometimes Hurts

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Some will consider this post to be a very sexist stance from me. It isn’t intended that way. I don’t consider it sexist at all, but unfortunately – some will take it that way. This does tie in to motorsports and IndyCar, so please bear with me.

Over the New Year’s weekend, there was an article in our local paper that originated in USA Today. It was about the overall dearth of coverage of women’s sports compared to the amount of coverage that men’s sports receive. What stood out to me was a statement near the end of the article. While the author was bemoaning the fact that women’s sports receive only a small fraction of the coverage of men’s sports, he said “…only the news media can change that. It’s our responsibility to do so.”

This is not a discussion about gender equity, Title IX, or to say what is fair and what isn’t when it comes to the coverage of women’s sports. It’s about market driven coverage.

As an IndyCar fan, I am often perplexed that no one seems to care any longer about open-wheel racing or the Indianapolis 500. I’m old enough to remember the time when ratings for the “500” were through the roof and open-wheel racing was the pinnacle in American motorsports. It’s much easier to blame the coverage, or lack thereof, than it is to admit that we are following what is now considered a niche sport.

As painful as it is for devotees of women’s sports to admit, women’s sports also – for the most part – has a niche following.

It’s always fun to complain about the way we perceive that ESPN treats our sport. I know, because I’ve done it myself many times over the years. But one thing we all need to keep in mind as we complain about few SportsCenter highlights for IndyCar – ESPN didn’t become the behemoth that they are by being stupid or not being in touch with what the market wants.

A good example of that occurred with last week’s College Football semifinal playoff games. Last year, the two semifinal games played on New Year’s Day garnered a whopping rating of 15.5 and 15.3 respectively. In their infinite wisdom, College Football Playoff (CFP) decided that this year’s games should be played on Thursday, New Year’s Eve; when a large amount of people were working during the first game, including yours truly. They made this move against the staunch opposition of ESPN, who knew this would be a ratings nightmare. The result? The Orange and Cotton Bowls drew ratings of 9.7 and 9.9 respectively – an overall drop of around 38%.

CFP is arrogant enough that they think they can make this work and become “a new New Year’s Eve tradition”. New Year’s Eve has had its own traditions for decades, if not centuries. The College Football Playoff has a two year tradition, yet they think they can make this work. The ratings would suggest otherwise. Next year, New Year’s Eve is on a Saturday, so it won’t be tested again on a work-day until New Year’s Eve of 2018. But I’ll be willing to bet that ESPN is right.

Unfortunately for fans of IndyCar and women’s sports, ESPN is right in those regards also. Their sparse IndyCar coverage outside the month of May is strictly a business decision. If there was a huge demand from viewers for the IndyCar races at Barber or Pocono, ESPN would be tripping over themselves to air it. It’s much the same for women’s sports.

While it may be a shame that not many people will have the chance to watch many games of UConn’s women’s basketball team, I strongly disagree with the author that the media has a responsibility to force such games down the collective throats of the viewing public. Why on earth would ESPN show a women’s soccer match over a Major League Baseball game or a college football game? The ratings comparison would be laughable. ESPN isn’t in the business to advance the agenda for women’s sports any more than they are there to promote American open-wheel racing. They are in the business to turn a profit – plain and simple.

I consider myself a fairly typical sports fan. Besides my obsession with IndyCar racing, I absolutely love college and pro football. I watch college basketball, Major League Baseball and NASCAR, but I don’t schedule my weekends around them. I watch the Triple Crown horse racing events, but no others. I will watch an occasional Nashville Predator game, but no other NHL games. I rarely watch golf or tennis and I never watch the NBA – even in the finals. Ditto for boxing, MMA, UFC or any other sport where two people simply beat each other up.

Nowhere in that list did you see any women’s sports. Being an alumnus of the University of Tennessee, I have tried to watch the occasional Lady Vols basketball game. But even when coach Pat Summit was in her heyday and winning national championships, I found the games virtually unwatchable. They were slow, awkward and had a very minor league feel to them. I don’t think I am alone, or the ratings would be much better than they are.

Since the seventies, the media has tried to force soccer down the throats of sports fans and it still has not taken hold. It perplexes some that the most popular sport in the world cannot gain any traction here. In 1994, I forced myself to watch a few World Cup games. I found myself dozing off in every single one of them. Consequently I did not watch a single second of the games played last year in Brazil.

Advocates for women’s sports say it’s a new day and that today’s public appreciates gender-equity more than ever. I heard the same thing three decades ago in the eighties, but the ratings don’t bear that out. There is a disparity for a reason and it’s not because the media has failed in their “responsibility” to promote women’s sports properly. It’s just not a sport that the vast majority of the general public is clamoring for.

As hard as it is to admit, it’s the same case for IndyCar. There is a small segment of die-hards that read IndyCar blogs such as this one, listen to Trackside every week and tune in to every race. We are a very loyal and devoted bunch, but our numbers are small. We keep thinking that if the general public could just be inundated with constant exposure to the Verizon IndyCar Series, enough people could become fans to make this the hottest sport going. It’s a nice thought, but very unrealistic. The truth hurts.

Like with women’s sports, any growth for the series has to be organic. It has to be a result of a longtime effort to cultivate a few new fans and then hope that those new fans will spread the words to potentially newer fans. It will not come from the media feeling it has a responsibility to cram IndyCar down the throat of viewers.

How do we do that? I have no idea. If I did, I would be the marketing czar of IndyCar. But IndyCar fans need to understand something just like fans of women’s sports do – ESPN nor any other sports outlet will not be showing a product, just because there is a small segment that wants it. There has to be a strong demand for it. As it is right now, there is very little demand for IndyCar or women’s sports among the general public. Until that changes, those sports are owed nothing by the sports media. The truth sometimes hurts.

George Phillips

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18 Responses to “The Truth Sometimes Hurts”

  1. I’m not going to say that women’s sports are a total washout. I do enjoy watching women’s snow skiing, if I happen to catch it on the TV. I never set out to watch it, but if I’m bored and channel surfing and find it, yes, I’ll watch it. But anything else? No way. Like you, I find most women’s sports incredibly boring. Oh, wait, I’m wrong. I do like women’s beach volleyball, which I only watch during the Olympics. I’d probably watch more women’s sports if they had good looking gals in bikinis. Sexist? Yep.

    That writer who said they should force it down our throats is another one of the PC crowd. We have to watch because it’s women, and to refuse to do so is sexist. So what? I don’t watch anything I don’t like. Let ESPN put more women’s sports on and see what happens. As you said, the ratings would tank.

    I think networks make a lot of questionable decisions, not just in women’s sports. For example, poker tournaments? When did poker become a sport? Talk about putting someone to sleep!

    Ah well, 11 more weeks until St Pete and the beginning of another great season. Right now is the real silly season, with neither college football nor IndyCar racing……time to go fishing, see ya later.

  2. “Since seventies…. still has(‘nt) taken hold”.

    Men and women are different. Not as many women are as interested in participating in sports as men. That’s not sexist. That’s just the way it is. And, so, not as many women are as interested in watching sports as men are.

    That isn’t to say that women’s sports don’t have a following. But, some sports are more widely followed than others. Women’s tennis gets decent viewership from both men and women. I happen to watch both men and women’s curling. They both put on a good show, for me. But, I find women’s hockey to be unwatchable.

    I can’t recall the college but some college in the U.S. a few years ago decided that funding for sports had to be equal for both the male and female students. So, you had students trying to cajole as many women as they could to join sports teams so the men’s teams would survive. They managed to get a few more ladies to join teams but overall was a huge failure.

    This is what happens when you get pinheads trying to implement their idea of “equality”. Equal rights, no problem. But, trying to mandate someone’s idea of equal results leads us on a journey of absurdity.

  3. I can’t say I follow it but the one women’s sport I find interesting is women’s softball. As an old softball player myself I’d love to try to hit some of the hard underhand pitching. Both my daughters have played it in youth leagues and its fun to watch. But the key probably is there is not a men’s league alternative. Softball for men is slow pitch. So there is a uniqueness there.

    I agree with what you’ve written, but the difference is that Indycar has been bigger than it is now. Not something theoretically in the future, maybe. Apart from the Indy 500, its probably always been a niche sport, but we all can remember the days when Indycar was king and Nascar was its small town southern cousin. I’ve never really accepted the change!

    I’d rather be out digging ditches on a hot summer day than wasting any time watching a soccer game.

  4. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    I’d like to look at this subject, not through my eyes and my already well-grooved viewing habits, but through someone who is just forming their’s.

    My 15 year old daughter is an athlete. A swimmer. A very good swimmer actually, but when I ask her to name some swimming icons or even just any athlete she thinks are a prototype for a great athlete, I hear only the names of men. That is my survey sample of precisely one but it strikes me in the negative.

    I happen to think that response is a direct relationship with, and function of, the amount of exposure male athletes receive (not only in ratings land but also via endorsements, etc.) in relation to women in the precise same activity – especially with regard to swimming.

    So I am left to ponder, are there so few women’s sports available to see because no one watches them, or is it no-one is in the habit of watching or looking for them because there is so little programming devoted to them?

    In many ways ‘market-driven’ is used to describe why things are the way the are, but if you exclude, or don’t attempt to set your company up to market to over half of the available marketplace, is that really a ‘market-driven’ philosophy?

    We all know sports broadcasting is about owning “properties”. Is the incredible ratings growth of English Premiere League football coverage in the US is because there is demand for it and it fills a previously underserved market in the US in timeslots that had little competition. It is now my adult equivalent of Saturday morning cartoons and I love it. Get up early, get a good breakfast in me and get the TV on.

    (PS for those who aren’t in the habit of watching soccer – I’m a late-comer to the sport, less than 10 years in, but here’s what I love about it:
    1. NO commercials during play – for 45-50 minutes at a time.
    2. Action is constant and always in flux, akin to basketball with less stoppages, whistles, and more genuine runs of play,
    3. It’s easy to watch and be social while doing – meaning it’s better when you watch with others.
    4. The commentators are clear, well-spoken, more professional, and easier to listen to compared to most sports.
    5. The window to watch a full event is ALWAYS 2 hours. ALWAYS, ALWAYS. It’s easy to know just how much time it will take. How much of that is actual action WITHOUT commercials?” you ask. 95 to 100 minutes out of 120. That 120 also includes some highlights and events-related banter.
    6. Did I mention the part about commercials being less than 10% of the total viewing window? Try that with NFL or MLB or NBA)

    I happen to think there is also tremendous potential in broadcasting more women’s sports for the next generation – for a forward-minded company who wants to capitalize on a largely untapped market.

    Who dares to be the best at it?

    • Good points, DZ. I have never been a soccer fan until a colleague who teaches kinesiology laughed when I said I didn’t get it. “It is like hockey on the grass.” That made sense to me and I have learned to enjoy it more. I thought the women’s team this year was sensational and they have a convert. A market cannot be built if people are unaware of the talent.

      What bugs me the most about IndyCar is the lack of marketing. I did tape the Rose Parade this year, so I could see RHR pacing the floats. I could not tell it was him, but I watch it nonetheless. We still have about 9 weeks left and should have drivers out all over the country advertising our sport. I wonder if any one of them will be attending the Chili Bowl next weekend and if they will get press if they do. The Captain did last year, if I remember correctly. Will be watching live on MAV-TV.

      • billytheskink Says:

        The “hockey on grass” analogy works especially well for indoor soccer, a very enjoyable sport that is sadly looked down upon by most soccer fans and non-fans alike.

      • Robin Miller wrote on his last mailbag that he had suggested to IndyCar management that they have a presence at the Chili Bowl, a presence that would not cost much money. Eventually he was told that the Chili Bowl fans do not fit the IndyCar demographics or words to that effect. Un-freakin’-believable! Like you, this non-demographic fan will be watching on MavTV.

        • Yes Ron. I saw the Mailbag and was quite indignant with the comment about IndyCar’s fan demographics. I try not to get too steamed over their arrogance and ignorance, but I must say I’m still mad two days later. I wonder how many of us are really within these demographics?

        • Hey Ron, Happy New Year! I read RM’s comment in the mailbag too. I would like to know what exactly what is IndyCar’s target demographic exactly? I would really like to see it defined for all of us to see. Arrogance and ignorance are two very descriptive words that explain the situation well.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    “They were slow, awkward and had a very minor league feel to them.”

    Hey, leave the NASCAR Truck Series out of this…

  6. Dale Christenson Says:

    Do you know why so many American kids play Soccer? So they don’t have to watch it on TV.

  7. shutterspeeder Says:

    IndyCar could get much higher ratings if they would market it properly and invest in the future. They water the leaves of the tree, which keeps them green while the roots die.

    So long as this is a rich kids sport, they will only be a niche sport. But the ones that runs the series and the teams like it exactly the way it is. They can get their hobby paid for and maybe make a few bucks.

    If they made a push to generate the loyalties that other sports have, they would see more viewers and attendance.

    Colleges need to be running teams. Its that simple. I have been telling them this for years. But one of the most powerful people in the sport, when I discussed a proposal with him to get exactly that happening (and drivers never having to write a check ever again) said to me “I have no doubt that would be very successful. But it would attract the wrong element to the sport.”

    Which clearly stated that they like their country club the way it is, and they don’t want just anyone being able to walk in and play on their course, even if they can hit 600 yard drives and putt blindfolded.

  8. “As an IndyCar fan, I am often perplexed that no one seems to care any longer about open-wheel racing or the Indianapolis 500. I’m old enough to remember the time when ratings for the “500” were through the roof and open-wheel racing was the pinnacle in American motorsports. ”

    You can thank Tony George for this sad state of affairs.

    Back in the early to mid 90s, Indycar’s ratings were on par with Nascar. It had good corporate sponsorship, solid attendance just about everywhere, and a growing international presence.

    Then along came Tony and the IRL. The rest is history. Now we’re back to the 70′ s where it’s Indy, and everything else is an afterthought. And even though Tony is long gone, the control of everything rests in the hands of the Indy-centric Hulmans/IMS.

    Be glad, no, be GRATEFUL, that it’s still at least a niche sport. Because with its current trend, once the 100th Indy 500 is over and done, you all may think of its “niche” status as the ” good old days”

  9. I loved the CFP games on NYE. I do not see what all the fuss is about. The Super Bowl is a big hit and we all have to work the next day. Everything we watch has a degree of sacrifice to it. Sure ratings were down but the games were not competitive and included two teams with ZERO national following. College Football usually doesn’t work that way. Tradition doesn’t happen overnight. If establishing tradition is their goal, then bailing after one year is not the way to go. ESPN signed the contract. They can only be mad at themselves.

  10. Ugly women who can not find husband crying for equal time of women sports in the media . If the majority of women in sports where hot I would watch for the T&A . Men drive the sports market , So hot women would increase ratings .

  11. I would say that media coverage of girls and women in racing is pathetic if it were not already non-existant. I enjoy many women’s sporting events, particularly in the winter Olympics. I coached a women’s softball league for over 20 years. My granddaughters participate in a variety of sports, including hockey, basketball, and martial arts. I watch when I can.

    My parents encouraged me to do stuff rather than watch stuff. That has been passed along in my family. This weekend, if given a choice between sitting on a couch watching football or playing a little pond hockey, I will be reaching for my skates and hockey stick despite having just celebrated 75 trips around the sun. Games can be taped.

    The TV suits have too much influence on sports in my opinion. Decisions are too often made to benefit the folks watching on TV and to the detriment of those fans or players participating in a sport or those actually attending an event. For example, the Packer/Vikings game last Sunday was switched to a night game with relatively little notice. Inconvenience to fans attending the game was not considered. The last race at the Milwaukee Mile was started at 4 PM on a Sunday due to TV considerations.

    I don’t think my granddaughters give a damn what the general public is clamoring for or whether their favorite sport is on TV. They are doing stuff, not just watching stuff.

  12. Wrong article but while I’m thinking of it an idea to promote the sport and get young fans interested would be giving out IndyCar toy cars. Like Hot Wheels only IndyCar’s. You put enough of those in enough young hands and you’ll increase your viewership and some will become life long fans.

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