Jamison claims of his own personal preference: I personally prefer to watch the best in the world, if I’m going to watch professional athletes at all, and that almost always means men.
No offense taken there; as he points out, aside from a few interesting cases or sports, the top podium is held by men.
Meanwhile, the talented female ultrarunner, who complained about the media coverage which gave more attention to the male winner, very likely had a different preference for what to follow. And most likely that was a preference for women's ultra marathon winners. As is often the case (from my complex empirical assessment of talking to my friends), many women athletes like to follow women's sports. She may have incorrectly called this coverage bias towards the male winner 'unfair,' but since it has only been forty years since women gained access to the same athletic resources in school, the intellectual history of gendered athletic 'fairness' is rather short and subjective.
Now, I'm going to attempt to step back from this micro-level preference expression and think about macro-level trends in sports coverage and popularity. I should preface all this by exposing my dearth of knowledge of the TV sports networks; the very small amount of TV that I do end up watching (such a hipster) rarely includes sport. Except the world cup. And as a presupposition, I base this discussion on the fact that media coverage of professional sports highlights significantly more men's sports than women's. It's not a zero-sum game, and I don't point to much data, but the assumption seems fair.
The preference Jamison expresses towards following the fastest racers, winningest teams and top athletes in professional sports, (let's call this the bestness preference) seems that it could be an explanation for why women professional athletes don't get as much coverage. His logic is sound and its true that the best professional athletes and teams do seem to take up most of the front page sports section (or sports network?). At the professional level, its important to point out that sports coverage is a source of revenue, so as he says: if fans want to watch female runners or tennis players or golfers more, [they] will pay for the privilege. The reporting on professional sports obviously reflects what the media anticipates will make the most revenue. In other words, they respond to consumer demand. However, it may be a challenge to specify exactly what the majority of these consumers prefer.
Now I want to step out from Jamison's opinion and think more macro-level about why sports coverage focuses so much on men in the context of various sport-consuming preferences. Since his logic is sound, it seems possible that consumers of sports news have, on average, the same bestness preference as Jamison.
But, this notion wouldn't hold up, as Jamison readily admits, as an explanation for the massive coverage of March Madness, since professional basketball players in the NBA are better than college athletes. Perhaps here, the enticement for coverage here is more about unpredictability and the tournament thrill. But that could be found in so many other places, including women's professional sports (i.e. women's NCAA basketball tournament and who knew Japan would would win the women's world cup?!).
Is it some elusive combination of bestness and unpredictability that women's professional sports just haven't found a balance for yet? This seems unlikely. Perhaps the majority preference expression is just completely contrary to that of the talented female ultrarunner: a preference for men's sports. A social preference like this is much more a derivative of an old cultural valuation of men's sports over women's, and much less so based on the logic of a preference for bestness. So while an affinity like Jamison's is sound and not biased on an individual scale, it doesn't appear to be an explanation (though he never intended to do this) for why our media coverage focuses so significantly more on men's sports.
For me, this actually just brings up more questions, none of which I have an answer to.
Why don't many people have a preference for media coverage of female athletes? Why don't more women support female athletes? Do folks who don't like women's sports at all consider themselves to be pursuing only the best athletes? Is there any way to change the cultural lopsided valuation of athletes and are we even aware of it?
Hat tip: LANS