I have a confession to make: I’m a tad obsessed with the polls on ESPN.com.

Sarah Royce

To be more specific, I love the still relatively new feature that allows users to scroll over an interactive map and see where people from each state – and, as an aggregate, the rest of the world – stand on issues like “Who is the best closer in baseball history?” or “Which team will win when New England visits Denver?”

Even though SI.com displays its poll results in a more traditional – and less exciting – format, I still enjoy checking out what question the good folks at Sports Illustrated have posed. And for the first time since ESPN’s multicolored maps appeared on the scene, one of SI.com’s queries really captured my attention yesterday.

The question: “Would you watch ‘The Sports Reporters’ if the panel only consisted of female journalists?”

Maybe it shows a lack of faith on my part in the open-mindedness of most sports fans, but I was pretty sure right away what the answer would be. I assumed that more than half of the visitors to this site would be men, as would a sizable majority of those who had responded to the poll. And I just didn’t think that men would want to watch women give their opinions about sports.

The results confirmed my prejudice. Sixty percent of the 14,500-some people who had responded at that point said “No.”

For anyone who isn’t familiar with ESPN’s programming, “The Sports Reporters” airs on Sunday mornings and consists of four prominent sports journalists – most often those working in print journalism – sitting together and discussing the week’s biggest sports stories. I think it’s one of the most intelligent sports programs on television – a stark contrast to the contentious yapping on shows like “Around the Horn.”

But why was Sports Illustrated asking America about the program now?

A little Internet exploring provided me with an answer. Early yesterday morning, SI.com posted a story from writer Richard Deitsch about the 10 changes he wants to see made to sports television this year.

Number three on his list was an all-female version of “The Sports Reporters.”

Deitsch wrote: “Perhaps you’ve noticed the growing number of sports writers-turned-talking-heads that fill ESPN’s various networks. Here’s what I don’t see on the shows featuring competitive banter: Women. With a dreamy dual revenue stream (advertising and monthly subscription fees) and more money than the principality of Monaco, ESPN can afford to take a flyer on shows that may need some time to find an audience. Thus, why not develop a half-hour show featuring both ESPN and female sports journalists from around the country debating the sports issues of the week? Talent isn’t an issue. There are hundreds of women in various mediums who provide sports content on a daily basis. Allow me to channel my inner-Joe Namath here: I guarantee such a show will get better ratings than ESPN Hollywood. Why? Because men will actually tune in, for starters.”

Basically, Deitsch disagrees with the poll results; he thinks men would want to watch “The Sports Reporters” with an all-female cast.

I beg to differ. I think the current landscape of women in sports journalism indicates that men would have little interest in watching serious female sports reporters.

On most of the major networks that broadcast sports, women are relegated to reporting on fluffy human interest stories. Some often come across as if they know little about sports (not that male sideline reporters always appear much wiser; that cluelessness comes with the job).

There are certainly exceptions. Lesley Visser covers the NFL and the NCAA men’s basketball tournament for CBS Sports, working mostly as a sideline reporter. But she accelerated her career at the Boston Globe as the New England Patriots beat reporter in the 1970s.

Visser earned her job based on her talent, not her looks. And there are hundreds of similarly qualified female sports journalists working at newspapers, magazines and TV stations around the country. I’m sure that some of the sideline reporters that I dismiss as nothing more than pretty faces actually do know what they’re talking about.

The problem is how little they’re able to show it. On almost all major broadcasts, female sports reporters stand on the sidelines, asking coaches pointless questions as they head to the locker room at halftime and waiting for the men in the booth to allow them to speak. In truth, it’s hard to know how qualified any sideline reporter is – regardless of gender – because they’re rarely given meaty assignments.

Women have a presence in sports media, but on television, they’re hardly ever present in those roles that demand intelligent commentary.

Times are changing though. Suzy Kolber is among the women who have anchored “SportsCenter” and hosts “NFL Matchup,” a technical football show that breaks down plays from the week’s NFL action. Pam Ward calls college football games for ESPN.

It isn’t perfect equality; it probably never will be. But Visser, Kolber and Ward prove that women can more than hold their own as sports reporters.

Why wouldn’t you want to watch four knowledgeable, experienced female sports reporters debate the biggest stories of the week?

Now that’s a question I’d like to know the answer to.

 

– Stephanie Wright can be reached at smwr@umich.edu.

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