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Impact of Increased Media Coverage on Women’s Cycling: The Good, The Bad, and The Path Forward

By Megan Flottorp

It’s been an incredible race season so far, and as we gear up for some of the biggest events on the calendar, we wanted to take stock of the state of coverage of women’s racing, the impact it is having — in addition to what it is lacking and what we hope to see going forward.

Simply put, the surge in media coverage for women’s cycling is reshaping the sport, drawing larger audiences and igniting new enthusiasm among fans worldwide. This trend was most notably exemplified by the success of the last two years’ Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift, which attracted a huge number of viewers and captivated the attention of a global audience. As the races concluded, organisers reported record-breaking TV viewership figures, demonstrating a significant milestone in the sport’s history.

However, to maintain and build on this progress, it’s crucial to ensure we are telling the complete and nuanced story of women’s cycling. By doing so, we can foster a richer, more inclusive narrative that supports the sport’s continued growth and the remarkable athletes driving it.

2022 TdFF sets the tone

The event, which aired to an average of 2.25 million viewers in France and peaked at 5.1 million during its final stage, also saw extensive viewership across Europe, with Eurosport reporting a staggering 14 million viewers. Remarkably, in the Netherlands, 45% of the television audience tuned in to witness the spectacle. This wave of interest continued just days later with the Tour of Scandinavia, highlighting an expanding appetite for women’s cycling. The Scandinavian race expanded to six stages across three countries and drew an impressive 4.6 million viewers on Eurosport alone, with an estimated 16 million when including other platforms and delayed broadcasts. The stats for last year’s event were likewise compelling.

The expansive effect of media coverage

The rise in media attention for women’s cycling has dramatically shifted the landscape of the sport. The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) now requires a minimum of 45 minutes of live coverage for a race to qualify for Women’s WorldTour status, a standard that both the Tour de France Femmes and the Tour of Scandinavia have far surpassed, broadcasting more than twice the required amount each day. This substantial increase in coverage has had a direct positive impact on viewership numbers.

The adage “If you show it, they will watch it” holds true in this context. Since the UCI introduced its 45-minute rule, viewing figures for some of the largest women’s races have soared. For instance, the Tour of Flanders saw local Flemish viewership for the women’s race jump from 157,000 in 2019 to 764,000 in recent years. This increase followed strategic changes such as timing the women’s race to finish after the men’s event, capitalising on the growing interest in women’s cycling.

However, fan expectations have risen as the average quality and duration of race coverage have improved. Indeed, the disparity in coverage quality across different Women’s WorldTour races remains an issue, as seen with the Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta, where the opening team time trial was criticised for lacking essential graphics. Nonetheless, the race improved its coverage in subsequent stages, airing around 90 minutes of content per stage. This variation in quality underscores the importance of consistent, high-standard broadcasts to meet the expectations of a growing and increasingly engaged audience.

Exploring media narratives in women’s cycling: Issues with depth and complexity in coverage

Women's Peloton
The surge in media coverage for women’s cycling is reshaping the sport, drawing larger audiences and igniting new enthusiasm among fans worldwide. © Profimedia

It is also necessary to look at the level of quantity as it relates to quality. While the increased media coverage of women’s cycling has undeniably elevated the sport’s profile, it also reveals significant discrepancies in the depth and nature of the reporting compared to men’s sports. Analysing the content of this coverage unveils a tendency towards a simplistic focus on results and performance for women’s cycling, often lacking the rich, multifaceted analysis afforded to their male counterparts. This disparity not only underscores ongoing gender biases but also highlights areas for potential growth in how women’s sports are portrayed and valued.

1. Surface-level focus in women’s cycling coverage

Despite the growing media interest, coverage of women’s cycling frequently skews towards basic reporting of race results and athlete performances. A recent study by Change Our Game revealed the depth of this. For instance, while men’s cycling coverage often delves into detailed discussions on training regimens, team strategies, and individual athlete stories, women’s cycling is predominantly confined to highlighting scores and results. Focusing on immediate outcomes rather than in-depth narratives leaves a gap in the broader understanding and appreciation of the sport and its athletes.

2. Gender disparities in media narratives

The narratives surrounding women’s sports also differ significantly from those of men’s sports, reflecting long-standing gender biases. Women cyclists, for example, are often depicted with traits like being “quiet achievers” or “hard workers,” emphasising effort and perseverance over skill and performance. This can be seen as a continuation of historical trends where women’s sports are valued more for their participants’ dedication and integrity rather than their competitive prowess and achievements.

Moreover, women athletes are less likely to be portrayed as well-liked or influential figures compared to their male counterparts, who are often depicted as charismatic, albeit sometimes troubled or unsportsmanlike. This imbalance not only influences public perception but also impacts media interest and investment in women’s sports. For instance, narratives that emphasise personal struggles and redemption stories, common in men’s sports coverage, are less frequently applied to women.

3. Advocacy and representation in women’s cycling

Finally, while media coverage of men’s sports often includes discussions on advocacy, such as calls for better injury treatment or fairer pay, women’s sports coverage rarely ventures into these critical areas. This lack of advocacy-focused coverage in women’s cycling means that important issues, such as funding disparities or the need for better support systems for female athletes, receive less attention and, consequently, fewer resources for change.

This disparity is particularly evident in the context of sponsorship and investment. Men’s sports receive significantly more coverage related to financial backing and investment, which helps in building a sustainable economic foundation for these sports. On the other hand, women’s cycling is seldom discussed in these terms, perpetuating a cycle of underfunding and undervaluing.

The path forward: Enhancing media coverage for women’s cycling

So as women’s cycling continues to gain traction and break new ground, it is clear that increased media coverage, of the nuanced and thoughtful variety, is a crucial factor in the sport’s burgeoning success. To truly elevate the sport, it is imperative that media coverage evolves beyond just reporting results and delves into the deeper, more complex narratives that enrich our understanding and appreciation of these athletes and their endeavours.

Looking ahead, the 2024 Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift presents an exciting opportunity to further cement women’s cycling on the global stage. With comprehensive coverage planned by major networks such as Eurosport in Europe, NBC Sports in the USA, and SBS in Australia, fans will have recent access to the race and can hopefully learn more about their favourite athletes.

By continuing to expand and improve the quality of coverage, the media can play a pivotal role in ensuring that women’s cycling receives the recognition and respect it deserves.