The Truth Sometimes Hurts
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.