Sports Illustrated Loves Models. Female Athletes? Not So Much

A recent study by the Department of Sociology at the University of Louisville asks a very good question: Where are all the women in Sports Illustrated? Unless they're models wearing bikinis, they're certainly not on the cover. Researchers found that of the 716 SI issues published between 2000 and 2011, a mere 35 of them had covers featuring female athletes. That's only 4.9%.

And it gets worse.

They write:

Of the 35 covers including a female, only 18 (or 2.5 percent of all covers) featured a female as the primary or sole image. Three covers included females, but only as insets (small boxed image), or as part of a collage background of both male and female athletes.

The stats are even more paltry for women of color — only 11 covers in the past decade have featured non-white female athletes.

In their count, sociologists Jonetta Weber and Robert Carini did not include the annual Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue because the women on the cover are generally not athletes. (That said, have you seen the flexibility and strength that Kate Upton uses when eating a sandwich?)

Things haven't always been this bad. Between 1954 and 1965, women were featured on 12.6% of SI covers, but that was before the magazine began focusing primarily on corporate sports like basketball, football and baseball.

Sadly, not all the blame can be put on Sports Illustrated. Consumer habits drive who gets featured on covers as much if not more than the preference of the magazine's editor. For a short while, there was even a SI for Women magazine, but it folded in 2002 after less than two years on the market. (Still, it seems weird that you'd need a "for women" distinction on a magazine about sports, a topic that's of interest to all genders.)

So what needs to change first — consumer demand or the media that not so subtly informs consumer demand? Here's an idea — change both.

Swimsuit Issue Aside, ‘Sports Illustrated’ Cover Is a Female-Free Zone [Pacific Standard]