Why this matters
Media coverage of women athletes is growing, but the way the media puts certain athletes in the spotlight and relegates others to the shadows can explain a lot about the role of sport in our society and how it relates to gender.
There is a laundry list of reasons that recently retired Amanda Nunes is considered to be one of the best women’s mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters of all time. Not only is she the first woman to win a two-division title in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, but she is the third fighter in UFC history to simultaneously hold titles in two classes, and she is the first and only fighter in UFC history to defend two titles while holding them.
Given Nunes’s dominance and the popularity of her sport, it’s easy to assume that she tops the list of the most followed women’s UFC fighters. That would be a mistake, though. Nunes’s 1.75 million Instagram followers put her outside of the top five most-followed female UFC fighters. Factor in women’s MMA influencers as a whole, and Nunes doesn’t even make the top 10.
So, what gives? According to feminist media scholar Dr. Jenn McClearen, a lot of athletes’ success in sports media – including social media – has to do with a concept called visibility. “At a very basic level, [visibility asks] ‘Do we see sports women present in our media system?’” McClearen explained. “So, can we identify where they are and, obviously, where they're not.”
From a basic visibility standpoint, female UFC fighters have been fighting an uphill battle for years. In 2011, UFC president Dana White said he would “never” allow women to compete in the UFC, but he changed his mind when he met Ronda Rousey, who, alongside Liz Carmouche, became the UFC’s first female fighters in 2012.
As Rousey was climbing the ranks, winning six consecutive titles and becoming one of UFC’s biggest draws on pay-per-view, White reflected on why he decided to turn the UFC into the “Ronda Rousey Show.”
“There’s this thing that people have, you can’t put your finger on,” White told Rousey. “And you had it.”
White’s bet on Rousey paid off for UFC and for Rousey, who had a phenomenal career in the UFC, going 12-2 before moving on to a successful run in the WWE. But her record pales in comparison to the run of Nunes, whose career record stands at 23-5. Rousey’s net worth, however, far exceeds Nunes’s, sitting at $14 million versus Nunes’s $4 million.
The discrepancy can be at least partly attributed to the “it” factor of Rousey, which encompasses many things, including her athletic dominance that helped put women’s UFC on the map. But if Nunes is the GOAT of women’s MMA, something else contributes to this dynamic. According to McClearen, other factors have also been important to Rousey’s reception and overall coverage.
“Ronda Rousey is White,” she said. “She’s conventionally attractive. And she had this sort of charisma and bravado that was appealing to that specific sports demographic.”
Spotlights and Shadows
For McClearen, both traditional media and sports media reaffirm the standards that female athletes often feel pressured to conform to. That’s why increasing the number of female athletes we see in sports media alone isn’t enough. Comprehensive representation is an important element of visibility in today’s vast sports media space.
Women are much less represented in sports media than men. According to Dr. Cheryl Cooky, a professor of interdisciplinary studies at Purdue, in 2019, coverage of female athletes on news and highlight shows, including ESPN’s SportsCenter, accounted for 5.4% of total sports coverage – up from 5% in 1989 and 5.1% in 1993. However, McClearen further conceptualizes visibility in sports media as a spotlight that shines on particular people in any given media space.
“So let’s say it’s women in sports,” McClearen said. “We’re going to shine a spotlight on that, [and] invariably because it’s a spotlight, there’s still going to be shadows. So there’s going to be things that we don’t see.”
Athletes like Nunes, who are non-white and fall outside of the parameters of “conventional” femininity, are often sidelined in sports coverage. According to Resa Lovelace, the assistant athletic director for student-athlete development at the University of Maryland, sports media affects the way that fans see athletes and can skew the perception of players and leagues when they don’t portray a full spectrum of people and personalities. This dynamic could be seen in the media’s recent coverage of seven-time Women’s National Basketball Association All-Star Brittney Griner, whose story of being wrongfully detained in Russia revamped headlines surrounding her life. But the 6-foot-9, queer Phoenix Mercury star has faced media scrutiny since her days playing basketball for Baylor due in large part to being in the “shadow” of women’s sport media – which her former college coach, Kim Mulkey, played a part in by keeping Griner’s sexuality out of the public eye.
“I feel like, to me, it’s the media’s job to highlight all of those different individuals and not kind of put us in a box,” Lovelace said. “And I think where Brittney Griner unfortunately has been, is that she’s not what they’re expecting to see for so long.”
Due to the constraints that women athletes face as compared to men, they have only so much control over the narratives that surround them, which can be detrimental to the overall visibility of intersecting identities. According to McClearen, narratives are incredibly appealing within sports media – but sports narratives are overwhelmingly controlled by White, cishet men, so it’s no surprise that they often reinforce traditional gender roles and can also work against female athletes who do not fit into traditional stereotypes. Specifically, McClearen notes that the “mother trope” can be limiting for athletes who do not fit into conventional motherly imaging.
Taking Nunes as an example again. McClearen explained that although the UFC star is a mother, there’s a reason that she doesn’t get as much attention as, say, soccer star Alex Morgan.
“She’s a really incredibly dynamic fighter and is an exciting fighter to watch,” McClearen said of Nunes, “but she is a lesbian woman married to a woman. They recently had a child, and you just don’t get the same level of exposure to their family as you would a more conventional mother story like with Alex Morgan.”
According to Lovelace, the media’s tendency to highlight only women athletes who check off certain boxes is not just seen in the National Women’s Soccer League or UFC.
“Our media wants to portray women's athletes in one way – very feminine,” she said. “Very feminine – you know, they dress very feminine. They have a husband. They have kids, right? Like, that's the image that people want to portray.”
Visibility and Monetization
According to McClearen, the standards set for women by both traditional sports media and social media create difficult limitations for women athletes who today must not only fight for visibility in sports media but also need to use social media and sponsorships to cash in outside of their sports. Elite female athletes often feel the need to supplement their playing salaries, even in popular leagues like the WNBA and the NWSL. Their visibility and online presence thus are often an important part of their income. Reporters’ choice about who stays in the shadows of that spotlight can have an outsized impact on who profits most on social media as well, especially in a women’s sports system that lacks consistent investment already.
Traditional femininity, characterized by stereotypes like the aforementioned “mother trope,” heterosexuality, or even feminine characteristics like grace and humility, has helped sell women athletes for decades at the expense of those who, like Griner, are athletically dominant but not conventionally feminine. A commonly cited example is Maria Sharapova, who was the highest-paid female athlete in the world for 11 years of her playing career, even though she went just 2-20 when facing Serena Williams. Today, we’re witnessing a similar dynamic in the name, image, and likeness (NIL) space.
Dr. Ajhanai (AJ) Keaton, an assistant professor at the University of Louisville who studies the intersection of race, gender, and organizations, likens this history to what we see in today’s NIL market for college athletes. For instance, Louisiana State gymnast Olivia Dunne and Miami basketball players Haley and Hanna Cavinder have become the poster stars for NIL earners from a following perspective, often eclipsing more dominant athletes like South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston, who was the women’s basketball national player of the year and a national champion in 2022. This is not to say that Dunne or the Cavinders aren’t elite athletes – after all, Dunne is an All-American and the Cavinders helped Miami reach the Elite Eight this past March in an exciting underdog run – but the reasons for their success in NIL are rarely questioned.
By contrast, Boston dominated on the court but was outside the top-10 in women’s basketball NIL deals, leading her college coach, Dawn Staley, to advocate for Boston’s earning potential in February 2022.
“When we think about Olivia Dunne, one thing that always comes to mind is her coaches didn’t have to argue that she should need more NIL deals,” said Keaton. “When Dawn Staley had to make repetitive declarations and bring attention to ‘why isn’t Alyiah Boston getting the attention she deserves?’”
Cashing in Amid Negativity
Although social media allows female athletes ownership of their voices, narratives, and brands, they are still pressured into traditional roles by societal, old media, and marketing standards. When McClearen was interviewing female UFC fighters for her book “Fighting Visibility,” which examines the social media content and promotional strategies of female UFC athletes, she noticed that all the athletes she talked with said that social media was an important part of their job. In her interviews, McClearen observed that “visibility is a double-edged sword, because it can give you access to certain things that can give you opportunities. … But at the same time you kind of have to deal with the dregs of humanity on the internet.”
Social media puts female athletes in a tough situation. Although online brand deals are lucrative for women who want to earn money at their peak athletic earning potential, maintaining a social media presence also subjects athletes to threats, criticism, and cyberbullying. This was certainly evident after this past season’s women’s basketball championship matchup between Iowa and LSU when Angel Reese went viral for taunting Iowa’s Caitlin Clark – to the point that the word “classless” was trending on Twitter in the days following the game. Many pointed out that Clark was also known for taunting her opponents, showing her emotions on the court, and chirping at refs, which called racial bias into question when Reese was criticized for similar actions.
For Keaton, these reactions weren’t particularly surprising. It’s typical for certain messaging to follow Black female athletes.“The tropes are, again, those stereotypes: loud, aggressive, selfish, arrogant,” she said. “Those are all stereotypes that are rooted in Black women’s intersecting marginalized gender and racial identities.”
White athletes like Clark and Ronda Rousey can get away with having a sense of bravado around their athleticism. Black athletes, like Angel Reese, tend to get branded negatively for their personalities, which can impact their bottom line.
However, according to Keaton, Reese, who currently sits at No. 2 in female college athlete NIL evaluation overall, is a fascinating case study on how to cash in on negative press by “not playing within the rules of the game.” Prior to the 2023 championship win, Reese’s estimated NIL evaluation sat around $371,000. After the win, that estimate skyrocketed to $1.3 million. And Reese accomplished this not by fitting into the media’s mold, but by being unapologetically herself.
Similarly, Dr. Shannon Scovel’s dissertation, which analyzed the social media content of 10 popular female college athletes, found that the athletes in her sample also lean into authenticity to navigate negativity in interesting ways. “In Dunne’s case, in particular, she’s very creative in how she responds to commenters that are both sexually subjective and threatening,” Scovel, who will start a job as an assistant professor of sport communication at the University of Tennessee in the fall, said. “So in a couple of instances like she got one commenter who wrote ‘10 out of 10 would kidnap,’ and she took that comment and superimposed it above her head in a TikTok video that showed her winking at the camera and locking all the doors in her house.”
Scovel adds that the NIL space isn’t foolproof, as female athletes often present themselves “in ways that align with what the algorithm rewards,” which often results in accusations of “self-sexualizing” by the media who cover them and the re-amplification of reductive stereotypes. However, what much of the media miss in this discourse is the fact that the same platforms that constrain female athletes in the NIL era offer these athletes a rare benefit: agency over their voice.
“She acknowledges that she sees them,” Scovel said of Dunne’s clapback content. “She attempts to reclaim them and show that she’s more powerful than the commenters. So that’s sort of her engagement with this very popular, palatable form of feminism.”
Not only that, but the so-called “sexy” content churned out by female athletes offers another avenue of empowerment. According to Scovel, TikTok trends can neutralize some of the prescribed sexuality of certain content. For example, athletes posting bikini videos is often coded as sexual, but even this content could just as easily be viewed as counter-cultural and empowering. Pairing these images with humorous captions or audio, as Boston and Dunne each did in Scovel’s analysis, gives these athletes some control over their narratives because added context “takes away some seriousness,” Scovel said. “But I think that really is a great representation of their brand – like they are strong, powered women, but they’re operating within the system that doesn’t see them that way.”
Similarly, Lovelace said the authenticity that WNBA athletes embrace in the digital space and sports media is a huge draw as well, particularly those who are LGBTQ. “A lot of them have in some ways taken heat from the press or taken heat from the WNBA fans about how they show up,” she said. “But one thing is, they’re still going to keep showing up, and they’re still going to keep fighting. … They're not gonna let anybody stop them.”
In other words, the female athletes who have been pushed to the shadows of media visibility to varying degrees are shining their own lights simply by being themselves, attracting audiences, and cashing in on the margins – including Amanda Nunes, who was unapologetically herself from the beginning of her career to the end.
“I love really being able to represent [the LGBT community], you know, as being myself,” she said of her storied career, which so fittingly ended during Pride Month. “Being with my family. Being happy.”
After a record-breaking March Madness in the United States and heading into what is sure to be a strong FIFA World Cup this summer, women throughout the world are using this growth to secure greater security and influence.
Explosive growth is exciting, but intentional growth could create the power, permanence, and protection that women’s sports deserves.
We explore what that growth could look like in our latest digital issue.