Even if you don’t watch any sport, you’ve undoubtedly at least heard of the hit Netflix series “Drive to Survive.” It covers four entire seasons in Formula One and all of the different stories and dramas that unfold as the drivers battle for the championship or for good results. This sort of documentary/reality series truly shows why people love following sports — the excitement, the various kinds of dramas, the emotions that come with winning and losing. It can be said that sports are the greatest kinds of TV shows to ever exist. There’s always a development. There are many great characters and stories. What’s even more thrilling is that they’re all real and never end.
When you see Michael Jordan scoring against the Utah Jazz to win the NBA Championship, it gives you goosebumps, not only because it’s an incredible sports moment but also because its showcases the greatness of the human spirit — what we can overcome, how much we can achieve, if we just put our heads to the task and work hard for success. I’ve always believed that sports are the greatest way to showcase the human spirit and all that it’s capable of. Being an athlete requires a tremendous amount of stoicism, discipline, perseverance, and a desire to win, lead and achieve. It wants you to be able to get over yourself, your pain, your struggles, your emotions. It demands that you leave all that behind and just do your job, day after day, after wins, and after losses.
The life stories of famous athletes are the perfect example of how much the human spirit can achieve. How, when we want to, we can go above and beyond everything we’ve imagined. We can withstand criticism, failure, hard work, losses, struggles, setbacks — we can go through it all and still come out on the other side. And that’s precisely why we love following them.
During any sporting event, you can see people in the audience crying — grown men and women of different nationalities and from diverse backgrounds. Sports unite us as humans because no matter what language we speak, we all understand the language of love and sacrifice, so we all appreciate it.
If so, Why Do We Mainly Watch Men’s Sports?
With that said, the most coveted athlete stories are those of men — Michael Jordan, Pele, Roger Federer, Tiger Woods, Rafael Nadal, Mohammed Ali, Mike Tyson, Michael Phelps — the list can literally go on forever. We’ve all seen many documentaries about them, their wins and losses, and how they got to where they are now.
But we can hardly say the same about female athletes — how many films have you watched about Nadya Komanechi, Steffi Graf, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, Mia Hamm, or Florence Griffith Joyner. The answer is not many, and it’s likely that if you’re not a dedicated sports fan, you’ve never even heard of some of these exceptional athletes. And that needs to change.
Why We Should Tell the Stories of Female Athletes?
The answer is simple. Because they’re inspirational, raw, honest, touching — for all the same reasons, we tell the stories of male athletes. Because they show the endless potential of the human spirit.
Now, you might be asking, “Well, then what’s the difference? Why should we tell the stories when they have all the same qualities and aren’t showing anything new?”
Well, the truth is they do. They show a different side of sports that cannot be seen in the male field. If you watch the movie “Over the Limit” about Russian rhythmic gymnast Margarita Mamun, you will know that it’s nothing like what you might witness in a Mike Tyson biopic. There’s struggle and triumph in both but in a vastly different forms.
In “Over the Limit,” we see Mamun’s story — how she’s always in second place, never manages to win, is constantly on the strictest of diets, trains 6–7 hours a day, and cannot see her family. But we also see the way coaches treat female athletes in Russian rhythmic gymnastics — the insults, the constant yelling, the psychological attack on their looks, weight, and achievements. And in that setting, we see Mamun struggling to keep it together, even in the moments when she finds out her father is dying. It’s a beautiful story about withstanding and persevering, about delivering your finest moment at your darkest hour.
However, it’s not on Netflix. You won’t see it get an Oscar nomination. You haven’t read numerous articles about it. It’s highly likely that you’ve never even heard of it. Margarita Mamun is not the household name that Mike Tyson is.
Is it only because she is Russian and competes in a not-so-popular sport such as rhythmic gymnastics, or is it partially because no one ever made too much of an effort to market that movie, or her, or her sport? I will leave it to you to find the answer to that question, but to me, it’s evident.
We Love Sport Because of Its Stories
Because of “Drive to Survive,” many women and many more men started to watch Formula 1 and became invested in it. Is that because they love cars and mechanics? Almost surely no. It’s because they saw that under all the engines and the horsepower lies a human story — of facing challenges, wanting to win, dealing with internal drama.
You could achieve the same with any other sport. You just have to want to. Let’s take a recent example of the Beijing Olympics. In the figure skating event (a sport that’s predominantly watched by women), a shocking drama unfolded — a 15-year-old phenom was caught doping, the first female to jump five quadruple jumps got second place, and the winner was left all alone, while her whole team was trying to console the teammate who got the silver medal. This incredible human and sporting drama was unfolding right in front of the eyes of the commentators, who struggled to provide us with enough context to fully understand and grasp the emotions of the moment. And even though figure skating is no football or basketball, the entire world talked about the women’s event for the next few days. If Netflix had taken on figure skating, instead of Formula 1, as a sport to make documentaries on, they would have had a field day.
Figure skating is filled with everything you need for a good movie — great characters, compelling storylines, wins, losses, betrayals, broken friendships, competition, desire to succeed, desire for greatness. It has all the ingredients for making a blockbuster. It spans over decades, has its prominent figures aligned, and is constantly coming up with new and even more diverse character arcs. I’m confident that if they made a “Skate to Survive,” it would top the ratings for weeks.
But they won’t. And we need to ask ourselves why. Why is Netflix willing to invest in covering a male-dominated sport such as Formula 1 and not a female-dominated one such as figure skating? Is it because more men watch sports? Because as we’ve seen, when you give women a reason to watch, they will also do it — “Drive to Survive”’s ratings prove it. Is it because they believe female-dominated sports aren’t as interesting? It’s hard to guess the exact answer.
Why do Women’s Sports Need the Coverage?
Anyone who knows anything about any sport knows that athletes and teams make money primarily from sponsorships and advertisement deals. That kind of money finances big-time sports such as tennis, football, and basketball. And they get these funds because big companies are willing to invest in the UEFA Champions League, World Cup, and the NBA Finals. Why? Well, because people watch them, the whole point of advertising is for the audience to take notice of your brand.
On the other hand, sports like rhythmic gymnastics or figure skating get in the spotlight once every 4 years when the Olympics come around. Otherwise, except for Russia and Japan, they are all but forgotten. And so, the athletes competing in those events have less exposure and fewer brand deals, so they earn a lot less money. This means that they need more exposure for these athletes and their sporting events to become more successful. The good kind of exposure.
That’s why I believe companies like Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon should invest in capturing those sports and making them more popular. Not because the main “characters” are likely to be women, but because they have their own unique stories to tell. A story that deserves to be heard and seen. A story that’s just as compelling and moving. And most importantly, so that girls can find female role models on screen. So that they see that we are also capable of being superhuman.