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Ottawa athletes’ attitudes and ideas about solving unbalanced coverage of women’s sports

By Charlie Pinkerton

By the final season of her Carleton University basketball career, Heather Lindsay was used to the little-to-no coverage that her Ravens team received from the mainstream media.

Then one of the program’s most important wins in history was ignored, which set her off.

The morning after the 2018 Capital Hoops Classic, an outing that saw the Ravens fend off their cross-town rival uOttawa Gee-Gees to keep their historic undefeated season alive, Lindsay and her father picked up a local newspaper, the Ottawa Sun, while out for a celebratory breakfast.

They flipped to the sports section to see what had been written about her game, which was one-half of what’s annually among the three biggest spectacles in all of U Sports.

What they found sent Lindsay into a fury.

“They didn’t even mention it,” Lindsay recalls. “They didn’t mention the score. It was like the game had never happened. I was shocked.”

Heather Lindsay (Photo provided)

Her immediate reaction was to take to Twitter.

“It’s a shame the local media ignored reporting on the women’s game last (night) which also featured 2 of the best teams in the country,” Lindsay wrote. “A whole page spread in the paper on the men’s game & nothing about the women. It’s a setback for women’s sports @ottawasuncom.”

The tweet racked up hundreds of likes and dozens of retweets, but the lack of fallout also epitomized the ongoing bias that women’s sports face in the media. Ottawa Magazine took note of Lindsay’s point, publishing an article about it seven months later. Outside of that article, local media largely ignored the issue.

(For disclosure’s sake, the Sports Pages wrote a lengthy feature about the 2017-18 Ravens women’s basketball team after they won the national title. We did not report on Lindsay’s callout.)

While playing professionally in Germany the next year, Lindsay took to Twitter again on International Women’s Day, to re-emphasize her point. This time, it was over a momentous Gee-Gees victory that was ignored by the city’s newspapers.

“Today I was shocked to hear that after the uOttawa women’s basketball team won a hard fought game in the national quarter finals against a resilient Regina Cougars, the Ottawa newspapers did not so much as bother to publish their score,” Lindsay posted on Twitter on March 8, 2019. “After the nationals last year, there were many media sources that reached out to apologize about their lack of coverage and promised that it was a misstep and that things would get better. It has only been a year since this occurred and it seems as though very little has changed.”

The coverage discrepancy pointed out by Lindsay is backed by alarming data as well: In 2014, only 4 per cent of Canada’s 4 leading sports broadcast networks’ airtime was devoted to women’s sports, according to an analysis of their schedules that was published in the Canadian Women & Sport’s (CWS) Rally Report in June 2020.

The Sports Pages analyzed coverage by the Ottawa Citizen and found that in February 2020 (the final publishing month pre-pandemic) that less than 9 per cent of the Citizen’s sports stories were on women’s sport, and there wasn’t one sports section cover story about a female athlete.

Our own reporting represents an exception: 62 per cent of the stories in our February 2020 edition were about women. Roughly two-thirds of the covers in our newspaper’s history have focussed on female athletes. However, our coverage is not due to any explicit mandate but rather is a product of two main factors: we prioritize amateur sport over the pros and happen to report on a city that’s recently produced more elite-level female athletes than those who are male.

What’s less conclusive is how many Canadians align with Lindsay’s thinking: Just slightly more than half of adult women (54 per cent) want there to be more women’s sports content on TV and online, while slightly less than half of adult men (45 per cent) think there should be more, according to CWS’s June report.

But the younger generation is more likely to share her frustration. Of girls aged 13-18, 61 per cent wished there were more women’s sports on TV and online.

“I think the mindset is shifting to women understanding that they have a right to coverage that people want to watch or read about,” Lindsay said.

Asked what she believes could be solutions, Lindsay said “it’s hard to come up with just one” because of how much progress is needed. Media organizations having more women in positions of power would help, and commitments by CBC Sports, Canada’s public broadcaster, to produce gender-balanced coverage across all their platforms are welcome as well, she added.

Former Nepean Wildcat Lindsay Eastwood, who played her first professional hockey season with the Toronto Six of the National Women’s Hockey League this year, has a more optimistic outlook on women’s sports coverage in the media.

“I think we’re moving in the right direction,” she said, referencing reporting on women’s sports history-making moments, like when Sarah Thomas became the first woman to referee a Super Bowl this year.

Toronto Six defender Lindsay Eastwood (File photo)

Eastwood also pointed out that nowadays women can use social media to promote themselves and generate their own attention.

“If you can build your own brand then you’re going to draw more eyeballs to yourself and your team,” Eastwood said.

She’s also hopeful that if some media organizations build up their women’s coverage, then the result could be a snowball effect.

But simply showing more isn’t good enough, Allison Sandmeyer-Graves, the CEO of Canadian Women & Sport, says. Timing of coverage, on what platform it’s shown, the quality of the coverage and the assurance that sexualized or other harmful depictions of female athletes aren’t incorporated are all also important, she said.

Sandmeyer-Graves also believes that sports media organizations hiring more women to decision-making positions would go a long way in the pursuit of more equitable, and better, coverage.

“Bet on women,” Sandmeyer-Graves said. “Identify some properties that you think have potential and invest in them… Men’s sports don’t turn a profit right away, and neither do women’s sports, but somehow women’s sports get held to a different standard.”

With files from Dan Plouffe.

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