Sports Illustrated Has a Problem Featuring Female Athletes on its Cover

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Sports Illustrated will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the magazine’s legendary swimsuit issue tomorrow. But with the release, and the accompanying Coffee Table Book of Commemorative Boobs Sports Illustrated released, we are reminded that without the iconic bathing suit cover, Sports Illustrated has an incredibly poor record featuring female athletes on its cover.

The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue features female athletes on the inside of the magazine, and also always includes a female editor in chief. It’s also become synonymous with the Sports Illustrated brand. But the fact remains that the cover remains one of the major ways that women can land a Sports Illustrated cover, and we’d be doing a disservice to the magazine and media industry by not discussing the lack of women on such a prominent magazine.

Less than 5 percent of non-swimsuit issue covers featured female athletes, a study by University of Louisville professors Jonetta Weber and Robert Carini published in the journal International Review for the Sociology of Sport revealed this past May. While there were 716 non-swimsuit issues of Sports Illustrated published between 2000 and 2011, only 18 times a woman was the “primary or sole image” on the cover.

“Beyond the limited number of covers, women’s participation in sport was often minimized by sharing covers with male counterparts, featuring anonymous women not related directly to sports participation, sexually objectifying female athletes, and promoting women in more socially acceptable gender-neutral or feminine sports,” Weber and Carini wrote in the study. As the Atlantic Magazine demonstrated, women often need to fit certain criteria to make the cover of the magazine.

The last female athlete on the cover of Sports Illustrated was on the July 23, 2012, which featured the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Team during the London Olympics. That’s a year and four months of all-male covers. And they were the only female athletes on the cover of the magazine all year. Just earlier this month, when Kate Upton was featured on the cover with Atlanta Braves baseball players BJ and Justin Upton. Upton, a model with two previous Sports Illustrated covers, media professionals took note. Media Watch reporter Paulsen tweeted “Glad to see Sports Illustrated continue its long tradition of featuring women on its cover. Real progressive stuff.”

The fact is, less than 5 percent of covers featuring women is an abysmal statistic. It’s not like there haven’t been major female sports narratives that could warrant a cover. Serena Williams, the marriage this month between United States Women’s National Team players Abby Wambach and Sarah Huffman, Brittney Griner’s athletic achievements and status as an ‘out’ athlete could have all warranted covers.

As one of the most popular sports outlets, Sports Illustrated has the opportunity to change the narrative of women in sports, who still face issues of lower pay, fewer advertising opportunities, lower ticket sales and fewer broadcast contracts. It’s unfortunate that as a leading publication with quality journalism, Sports Illustrated hasn’t improved its record.