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ESPN’s Differential Treatment of the NCAA Tournaments

The March Madness tournaments are well on their way, and in both my bracket challenges, it’s still (almost) anyone’s game.  I’ve been following the games on my phone, live streaming them on my computer, and obsessively staring at my bracket.  Wait, that’s brackets.

As I suggested last week, more ESPN users fill out brackets for the men’s tournament than the women’s.  Christine Brennan, a USAToday sportswriter, wrote in a post last Wednesday:

On rare occasions this week, you will hear people using the plural of the word “tournament.”  This probably sounds like a mistake, but those folks actually know what they’re talking about.  There are two Division I tournaments going on at the same time, the men’s and the women’s.  This is a fact that many ignore.  But not everyone.

In order to be in the “not everyone” category, Sara and I created a women’s challenge through ESPN, Bloomer Girls Brackets (see how our 19 participants are doing!).  But through this, I’ve come to an unfortunate and frankly startling conclusion about ESPN: the differences in how the site treats the men’s and women’s tournaments amount to a tacit encouragement of the idea that the women’s tournament is a secondary event.  Before, I knew that many people view it as such, but I didn’t think that ESPN would actually encourage or perpetuate the idea.

See for yourself.  If you hover over the “NCAA BB” drop-down menu on the ESPN home page, here’s what comes up (red circles are mine):

ESPN's Drop-down Menu for NCAA Basketball

This is an example of male privilege at its finest.  Male privilege is the idea that the male experience is normal, neutral, the baseline understanding, and everything that deviates from the male experience must be qualified as such.  My favorite example of this (which is also an example of white privilege), is the brouhaha raised by white male senators during Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings about how her bias as a female and a Latina would affect her ability to be neutral on the bench.  Implicit in this “concern” is a view that the white male identity is the norm, and therefore contains no bias.

In the screen capture above, “normal” NCAA BB is the male tournament, and Women’s BB is a deviation from normal.  ESPN could have programmed its site to say “Men’s BB” and (right underneath it, not at the bottom) write “Women’s BB.”  But it did not.  And of course, when you click on “NCAA Tournament,” guess which tournament you’ll be redirected to?

The same is true of the Fantasy Games drop-down menu:

ESPN's Fantasy Games Drop-Down Menu

The “regular” Tournament Challenge is the men’s, while the women’s must be qualified as such.

Beyond this criticism, ESPN just makes it really difficult to enjoy the women’s tournament challenge.  For one, a user cannot switch between brackets in the two tournaments without having to navigate all over the site.  Below is the “My Groups” drop-down menu that appears when I’m on the women’s tournament page.

My Groups for the Women's Tournament Only

There’s my “Bloomer Girls Brackets” group, but what about the group I’m in for the men’s tournament?  To view that, I have to navigate through the different pages I’ve shown above.  This is so despite the fact that I use the same log in information for each.  Keeping them separate like this discourages active participation in both tournaments at once.

And lastly, the men’s bracket program is much more conducive to following along with and getting excited about the tournament.   Here’s a portion of my men’s bracket:

Part of My Men's Bracket

As you can see, I really need Kentucky to lose the bracket shows scores, so I can see that Xavier, who I have going to the Sweet Sixteen, just barely squeezed out the win in the first round.  It shows game schedules, so I can know just by looking here that Friday night I can watch the Xavier-Baylor game during dinner and then afterward tune in for the Kentucky-Indiana game at a bar.  Additionally, when a game is in progress, the bracket shows the score and how much time is left in the game, so if it’s coming down the wire, I’ll know and can turn on the game.  These things are what make the tournament fun and exciting; these things engage me in college sports (which I usually am not); these things make my bracket come alive.

Contrast that with the women’s bracket:

Part of My Women's Bracket

This bracket is completely devoid of those engaging features.  When I took this screen capture last night, there were games in progress.  But from looking at this, you’d have no idea.  Tonight, Kansas and Delaware play each other.  If Kansas takes the lead, I might be interested since I picked Delaware to win the whole thing.  But because there are no in-game updates included in the women’s bracket like there are in the men’s, if I check my bracket during the game I wouldn’t see that that was happening.  Sure, I could check the schedule on a different part of the ESPN website, but my point is that ESPN makes it much, much easier to engage in and get excited about the men’s tournament than it does about the women’s tournament.

ESPN doesn’t have to offer the same features for each tournament: it’s not like they’re regulated by Title IX or anything like that.  Indeed, they’ve probably made a decision that the women’s tournament brings in fewer users and therefore less advertising revenue and so it’s not worth the time and money to improve the women’s tournament interface.  But this ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy: ESPN thinks the women’s tournament is sub-par to the men’s, the progammers treat it as such on the website, users have a harder time participating in the women’s tournament, and so fewer users sign up.  By not making what seem like simple programming changes, ESPN is encouraging the view that the women’s tournament is a side event.  In turn, not only does ESPN do a disservice to women’s college basketball, but they are also likely depriving themselves of potential revenue that could be generated if they treated the women’s tournament as an equal.

6 comments on “ESPN’s Differential Treatment of the NCAA Tournaments

  1. If only my superhuman speed at navigating ESPN’s facacta drop-down menus could be applicable to anything in life…

  2. [...] at Bloomer Girls Blog, a site devoted to sports and gender, Lydia posted about ESPN’s online resources for the NCAA [...]

  3. Well, obviously, ESPN can’t update the Women’s scores live because it isn’t broadcasting those …. oh wait.

    For additional kicks, last weekend’s non-mens ESPN-broadcast games on Dish Network were mostly in SD, and not available in HD at all (unless you wanted to watch UConn). You think anyone is forced to watch the mens games in SD?

  4. [...] has provided the sports world with abundant opportunities for #genderfail, one of which Lydia at Bloomer Girls has detailed in her post about ESPN’s unequal online coverage of the two tournaments.  I [...]

  5. [...] year during March Madness, I wrote about ESPN’s Differential Treatment of the NCAA Tournaments.  I looked at how the language used on the site, the features provided for each bracket challenge, [...]

  6. [...] don’t care about women’s sports. We write all the time on this blog about women’s sports playing second fiddle to their male [...]

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