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Why Do We Ignore Some Sports Where Female Athletes Dominate Until the Olympics?

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If you think about the female athletes who have dominated the news cycle in the past year—Rounda Rousey, the members of the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team, Serena Williams—you can't deny that there's no more exciting time to be a woman in sports. But as we head into 2016, the year of the Rio Olympics, it's hard not to wonder why certain female athletes are just now becoming known to the world. (Meet the Olympic hopefuls you need to be following on Instagram.)

Eighteen-year-old Simone Biles is a three-time world champion in gymnastics, but how often have you heard about or seen her? And, for that matter, when was the last time you watched gymnastics? The same could be asked of beach volleyball.

During the 2012 London Olympics, the live stream of Team USA winning gymnastics gold was among the most watched events, and among the top ten most-clicked athletes on NBCOlympics.com were gymnasts Gabby Douglas and McKayla Maroney and beach volleyball stars Misty May-Treanor and Jen Kessy.

The demand is there, but where are these athletes and their sports during a non-Olympic year? "We're stuck in a trap where we celebrate every two or four years because these women's sports do so well, but then it drops off," says Judith McDonnell, PhD, a professor of sociology and the Sports Studies coordinator at Bryant University.

Part of the problem could be attributed to the structure of the sports themselves. "They don't have a professional pipeline in same way that football, basketball and baseball do," says Marie Hardin, PhD, the dean of the College of Communications at Penn State University, whose research focuses on women in media, sports journalism, and Title IX.

But, unfortunately, the issue again comes back to gender and how we think about sports as a society.

"So much of why we don't see a sport take off in terms of popularity has to do with the fact that it's women playing the game—we still tend to define sports as masculine," Hardin says. "We embrace women's sports at the Olympics for two reasons: One, they're representing the U.S. and when women represent our country we're much more interested in getting behind them and being fans. Secondly, many of the sports that are popular in the Olympics have feminine elements, such as grace or flexibility, and we're more comfortable watching women do them."

Even when you look at women's sports that are more visible on a year-round basis, such as tennis, these issues remain. Take Serena Williams. During her epic year of victories on the court, coverage of Williams was split between actual discussion of her game and talk about her body image, which some called masculine.

There are of course exceptions to coverage of female athletes and it would unfair to say that there hasn't been growth over the years. espnW has upped the presence of women's sports online, on TV, and with its annual Women + Sports Summit since it was founded in 2010. And, as espnW founder Laura Gentile, says, change takes time: "If you look at the passage of Title IX in 1972, it's taken a few decades for multiple generations of people to be affected by it." (Gentile thinks we're living in a new age for female athletes.)

So what can you do to promote faster change and see more gymnastics in a non-Olympic year (which, let's be real, we all want)?

"Speak up if you're not seeing coverage you want to see," Hardin says. "Programmers and editors and producers are in the business to get eyeballs. If they know they're losing audiences because they're not providing enough women's sports they will respond."

You have your mission should you choose to accept it. We will!

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