UNDAUNTED: Visibility and viewership

Kentucky Wildcats libero Gabby Curry (12) makes confetti angels after the University of Kentucky vs. Texas NCAA women’s volleyball championship game on Saturday, April 24, 2021, at CHI Health Center in Omaha, Nebraska. UK won 3-1. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Natalie Parks

Maddie Berezowitz is a UK junior, NCAA Elite 90 award winner and a national champion. She’s also a volleyball fan. And she wants other people to be, too.

As Berezowitz and her team progressed through the NCAA tournament en route to their national title, they repeatedly said their goal lay beyond winning – they wanted to shine a light on their sport.

Volleyball is the second most popular sport among young girls in America, according to AAA State of Play. But collegiate games are rarely on television.

“If we are, especially in the spring when all the sports are playing, we’re basically only on SEC Network+, which for a lot of people is tough to even get to,” Berezowitz said.

Despite limited opportunity, the audience is out there. For women’s sports, the old adage of “if you build it, they will come” is not just a cliché. Kentucky’s title match against Texas had 696,000 viewers on ESPN 2 – the most viewed game on ESPN 2 that month, surpassing the MLB.

If you ask volleyball head coach Craig Skinner, that kind of media visibility is key to growing the sport.

“Not many people understand the nuances of volleyball, and what’s happening and the rotations and signing out,” Skinner said. “So the more opportunities that people see it, they get more comfortable of trying to explain the game to somebody else and so for us to be on a national stage like this helps in that area.”

Media visibility – on television especially – is a glaring gap in gender equality in both collegiate and professional sports. More representation leads to more appreciation, which affects change not only for the athletes’ experience but also revenue streams.

But while more airtime is beneficial to the sport in terms of dollars and respect, the athletes have to purchase that attention with their performance. Women’s games aren’t granted the same visibility men’s sports are given automatically. Instead, they must rely on their success.

“If you want more fans you’ve got to perform – that it’s, that’s the thing,” said former UK tennis player Akvile Paražinskaite. “If you don’t perform, no one wants to come in and watch.”

Lauren Poole, a UK swimmer who won bronze at thee NCAA finals in 2021, said attention is definitely dependent on success in her sport.

“I guarantee you the only professional swimmer they [the general public] can name is Katie Ledecky because she’s been so successful, but I think beyond that, people really don’t know who women swimmers are,” Poole said.

Many of UK’s most successful women’s sports – gymnastics, swim and dive, track – are less mainstream than other sports, but women’s teams get less attention than their male counterparts regardless of their sport’s overall popularity.

“Look at how people treat men’s March Madness – people will know all 64 teams in the men’s tournament and know what they expect from them, and there’s definitely a big difference in how they’re treated,” Poole said.

As Skinner remarked in a press conference during UK volleyball’s title run, marketing and revenue are key ingredients to supporting collegiate programs and women’s sports as a whole.

“[UK Athletic Director] Mitch Barnhart thought I was crazy, 10 years ago. I say a lot of crazy stuff and I said, ‘You know Mitch, I truly believe we can generate revenue’ and I just hope our fans buy into this program … I hope fans buy into every program that we play against because the sport is about ready to combust in the stratosphere,” Skinner said.

Buy-in has a lot to do with promotion, Berezowitz thinks.

“Big 10 Volleyball has an unbelievable crowd, unbelievable like crazy crowds, and that’s just because they televise it and they encourage people to come out and watch,” Berezowitz said.

The COVID-19 pandemic put a halt on attendance at sporting events, which is key to growing a fan following. Unlike televised games, watching in-person has an atmosphere and energy that comes from being close to the team and the sport.

Especially for women’s sports that are less mainstream, in-person games are a unique experience. Athletics aside, themed meets like “Excite Night” for UK gymnastics and other fan interactions give women’s sports a close relationship between players and fans.

“Gymnastics is getting bigger on TV, so little girls can watch it more and more. That’s honestly been like a dream come true to be able to have these little girls that come up,” UK gymnast Josie Angeny said. “They write us letters, say all this stuff like they want their shirts signed, and it always makes us feel super important.”

The ability to attend and watch games in-person is critical to how women’s programs connect with their community, younger athletes and potential sponsors, all vital metrics for continued success. But that ability is limited by one crucial factor – space.

UK men’s basketball plays in Rupp Arena, a state-of-the-art facility with a seating capacity of 20,500. Half of the seats in Rupp are new chairback seats – the other half are cushioned theater seats.

UK women’s basketball plays in Memorial Coliseum, last renovated in 1990 with a capacity of 8,500 – less than half of Rupp’s. Most of the seats in Memorial are wooden benches without backs. And Memorial is not the home court just for women’s basketball – the arena is shared with gymnastics and volleyball.

Meanwhile, the 61,000-seat Kroger Field was renovated at a cost of $126 million in 2015 and belongs only to UK’s football team – a sport for which there is no female equivalent at UK.

“Every now and then you’ll see with women’s basketball, [they] will sell out Rupp if we market those games,” UK softball coach Rachel Lawson said.

But marketing is an area where the financial backing falls behind, partly because media advertisers think there is less demand for women’s sports.

An NCAA probe into the gender equity of March Madness found that television rights to broadcast the women’s tournament were valued at less than $6 million per year by the NCAA.

Television contracts for the men’s tournament come in at $850 million.

Television networks prioritizing men’s sports is something Angeny learned about in her sports communication class.

“When the SEC Network started, that was their focus, because they knew obviously football kidnapped everyone’s attention and that does not have a girl side of that sport, which I feel is a big reason that it’s been so targeted towards guys instead of girls,” Angeny said.

She’s found herself watching more men’s games than women’s because that is what’s available on the big platforms.

“You don’t have to pay the premiums you have to to see the women’s basketball game,” Angeny said.

That kind of gap is hugely detrimental for college sports, which depend on their popularity for growth. “The bigger the audience, the more people will continue to watch in the future,” Skinner said.

How to get a bigger audience – now that’s the issue. The only answer within the control of the players and coaches is their performance.

But even when women’s sports are easily accessible on television, the broadcasts are not without flaws.

When UK volleyball played Western Kentucky in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA tournament, the match was scheduled for 10 p.m. – and began at 10:44 p.m.

That late time impacted the players, who had to adjust their normal schedule so they could peak at the right time. But it also pulled fans out of their comfort zone, leading to fewer views.

Primetime slots feature more men’s sports, while women’s sports are given daytime or late showings. 

“Being able to play on SEC Network or having primetime games is something that the people that make decisions need to do a better job of, because there’s just many young girls, there are younger boys that want to watch us play,” Berezowitz said.

Angeny thinks the way networks broadcast gymnastics is flawed because they tend to pick the most photogenic images to show.

“Obviously, this sport is supposed to be ‘be as perfect as you can,’ but it’s very obvious,” Angeny said. “The media will pick the prettiest ones or the ones that are very viewer-based, so not really, like, caring what the girls would want shown or what people are actually like.”

That kind of aesthetic emphasis is noticeable even at the highest level of professional sports.

NBC, the broadcaster behind the Olympics, put out a notice during the 2021 games that they would curb sexual images of female athletes – aiming for “sport appeal, not sex appeal.”

The change to coverage meant eliminating shots commonly seen in the past, such as detailed, close-up shots of athletes’ bodies. The International Olympic Committee also adjusted its media guidelines to “not focus unnecessarily on looks, clothing or intimate body parts.”

Angeny has also noticed that women’s sports become more visible when they’re successful, something that’s happened during her time at UK. Kentucky was ranked 25th when she committed but has since ranked as high as 9th.

“That’s when people started noticing us and actually recognizing us and all that,” Angeny said. “And I’d say that’s obviously in women’s gymnastics like in the Olympics, that’s why they’re recognized so much – just because they win, because the men’s gymnastics are right there and they never win.”

That formula makes sense – people watch their team more when their team is winning because it’s more fun, because it’s a community movement, because people are attracted to success. That’s true for all sports, men’s and women’s.

But the difference between the two, and where the gender gap arises in visibility, is that men’s sports are granted media space and attention as a default, even when they are not winning.

In April 2021, the University of Southern California allowed four fans per player into the stadium for a women’s soccer game against USC’s rival, UCLA – a big match with high stakes.

But in the same venue in the same week, USC allowed 5,000 fans to attend a men’s football game, an offseason scrimmage.

Softball is lucky, said shortstop Lauren Johnson, because they have a loyal fanbase that does not care about the team’s success relative to men’s.

“That’s really cool to have a fanbase like that because you know they’re going to be watching whether you’re winning or losing, just because like they love watching our team play,” Johnson said.

Having so much TV time also shows young girls that there are people who watch softball, she added. That’s what Johnson wishes someone would have told her about being a female athlete – that there are people out there who care about women’s teams.

“If it’s inspiring to me already being a college athlete, then it’s definitely inspiring young girls across the country just watching Kentucky … and just how strong all of us are,” Johnson said.

Softball’s television rankings are some of the highest in the country, so even though they have fewer fans in person, their reach is consistently high, occasionally hitting the million-viewer mark. Television alone isn’t enough to raise the profile of women’s sports, and to raise revenue and support as a consequence.

But new forms of media are providing an avenue not bound to traditional media and advertising rights that may help women’s sports gain an edge.

“I did not care about social media whatsoever,” Lawson said. “I can’t stand social media in terms of, like, the negativity of it, but once I saw the power of how many people were actually viewing stuff I was just floored. It’s that kind of electronic platform that causes changes to happen at a faster rate.”

This is important, Lawson said, because women’s sports are battling time. Men’s sports have been around much longer, so they have had more time to progress and build up fanbases. To speed progress along, Lawson would like to see more money put into marketing and advertising for women’s sports.

Tiktok has become an easily accessible platform for collegiate athletes to promote their sports. Players like Oregon’s Sedona Price even used the app, which is free and, unlike television, doesn’t require purchasing rights, to point out the gender disparity of this year’s March Madness.

With new name, image and likeness laws in place, the marketability of players themselves may contribute to growing equality in sports.

For the time being, UK’s female athletes are betting on themselves to bring attention to their sports.

“I’m excited to watch the game grow even more because of this … we’re not just female athletes, we’re athletes,” Madison Lilley said of UK volleyball’s title. “Being able to bring [a championship] back to Lexington and spread the game even more, we always talk about giving back to the game.”

As UK volleyball proved, women’s sports garner the same viewership and demand when given an equal media spotlight.

“I hope it blows the roof off,” Skinner said after winning the championship. “This game is an unbelievable game. There’s more girls playing high school volleyball than any other team sport in the country … there’s just a market to take it to a whole ‘nother level.”

So despite being left behind in attention from the media, the NCAA and the SEC, it is the women’s sports at UK that are using their success to embody the SEC’s slogan – it just means more.

UNDAUNTED, a series by Natalie Parks, explores the intersection of gender and athletics with testimony from UK athletes and coaches. Series installments will discuss body image pressures, unequal access, representation, mentorship and double standards between men’s and women’s sports.