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Burden, Buzz or Both?: Reflections on Social Media & Women’s Sports

10/28/2009
by

Heather-bw

Heather D. Maxwell, PhD

Consumer Insight Networks, General Mills Inc.

Former Tucker Center Research Assistant

@DigitalMaxwell

The recent Tucker Center Distinguished Lecture concerning social media is timely. The lecture panelists started the conversation from varying perspectives and addressed a key question—What does social media mean for women’s sport? Since I was able to attend the event and participate as an invited respondent the following morning at the event breakfast, I have some additional thoughts I’d like to contribute to the conversation.

Online media and how it is leveraged to communicate is changing quickly.  Before social media, organizations crafted their marketing messages through advertising such as television commercials, a radio spot, a few column inches in newspapers or magazines, and perhaps a banner ad on a website.  These messages were sent one-way—from the organization to the potential consumers. Today in a world where the lines between online and offline have blurred, the capabilities of social media have raised consumers’ expectations. Consumers expect a dialogue—a two-way conversation—with companies, and sports organizations are no exception. Given the rapidly changing nature of social media, sport organizations and companies do not yet have all the answers as to how to effectively use this dynamic medium. Unless an organization is completely unaware, most are experimenting and at minimum, joining the social media conversation.

It is easy to recognize and appreciate the potential of the quickly evolving media landscape, but perspective must be kept.  While social media does present new opportunities for women’s sport and female athletes, it isn’t a magic bullet with the power to instantly equalize the under-representation women’s sport has historically experienced in traditional media. Social media is simply another communication tool—it isn’t inherently good or bad. Women’s basketball fans have always been “social”. Due to smaller marketing budgets allocated for women’s sport, social events, grass roots initiatives (“Take a Kid to the Game” promotion) and community buzz have often prompted attendance at women’s sporting events. Social media might be a new way to facilitate and maintain connections and relationship building with fans.

The open nature of social media prompts two differing viewpoints: 1) Social media provides more access and control for supporters of women’s sport and female athletes or, 2) Social media creates an unfair burden on supporters of women’s sport and female athletes.

On one hand, many who have fought for coverage of women’s sports in traditional media are excited by the idea of using social media to take media into their own hands without relying on journalists to cover women’s sport. The open access of social media allows supporters of women’s sport to connect with one another and allows female athletes to connect directly with their fans. For example, Angela Ruggiero mentioned since she plays a non-traditional female sport, ice hockey, her team receives very little media coverage and most of the coverage occurs every four years during the Olympics. Meanwhile her website and Twitter account have allowed women’s hockey fans to stay informed of the U.S. National Team’s activities and participation in a dialogue with Angela. Social media allows Ruggiero to partially control her brand—the piece that is related to her personal brand identity.

On the other hand, some question if supporters of women’s sport or female athletes should be expected to carry the burden of reporting on women’s sport via social media when the same expectations aren’t extended to male athletes. For professional male athletes and men’s sports, social media is a small part of marketing and promotional efforts as men get the vast majority of traditional sports coverage. If Shaq doesn’t Tweet, his fans will still know how he and his team are playing. It will be in every traditional media outlet. If he does Tweet, it is a nice “extra” for fans. The same is not true even for the most popular female athletes or teams. Many female athletes and teams have taken to using social media to “prove” interest—a strategy that has some real potential because it is quantifiable via web hit counts, Twitter followers, and Facebook fans.

Those in positions of power in traditional media routinely claim that minimal women’s sport coverage is due to the perceived “lack of interest” in women’s sport. Yet some worry traditional media decision makers will point supporters of women’s sport and female athletes to social media as a viable alternative. If female athletes, advocates of women’s sport, women’s sport teams and female sport journalists can use social media to promote themselves and their teams then traditional media can continue not to—and therefore the status quo remains unchanged and unchallenged. Most social networking sites and blogs simply do not have the reach of the ESPN.com’s of the world—yet. Sites such as WomenTalkSports.com (which is a great addition!) currently are niche places for women’s sports information but don’t necessarily expose new fans to women’s sports. In addition, the absence of female athletes from the mainstream online sports media further marginalizes women’s sports. This is reminiscent of the old “separate but equal” argument which historically hasn’t been very successful in promoting equality in any context.

In the end, social media is an excellent complimentary media channel for communicating information about women’s sport and for female athletes to interact with fans but women’s sport activists should continue to expose and question inequalities in media coverage.  It is imperative that half the world’s athletes—women—are fairly represented in traditional media while continuing to build a presence in social media. What are your thoughts? Join the conversation!

Dr. Maxwell explored the intersections of gender, social media and women’s sports in her dissertation titled “Women’s and Men’s Intercollegiate Basketball Media Coverage on ESPN.com:A Mixed Methods Analysis of a Complete Season”. Prior to her doctoral work and position as a Research Assistant in the Tucker Center, Maxwell served as the Director of Operations and Marketing for the Women’s Basketball Team at the University of Notre Dame. During her five-year tenure, season ticket sales rose 300%. Currently she is pioneering online social networking research for General Mills.

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