Bogus trend story of the week: The New York Times' "Girls' Sports Pack Economic Punch."

Media criticism.
July 29 2009 6:01 PM

Bogus Trend Story of the Week: "Girls' Sports Pack Economic Punch"

The New York Times whiffs.

Girls Softball.
Girls playing softball

Just as you can't rescue a watery cream sauce by sprinkling a little corn starch into it at the last minute, you can't save a lame news story by adding a bogus-trend element. The adulteration only calls attention to itself.

Caught dusting her journalism with corn starch, flour, and a bit of arrowroot this morning (July 29) is Katie Thomas of the New York Times. Her sports section story, "Girls' Sports Pack Economic Punch," claims that a "peculiar trend has emerged" in the attendance patterns at girls' sporting events: Girls' events 1) "tend to attract more relatives" than boys' events, 2) "generate more revenue for tourism than similar events for boys," and 3) are attracting "increased attention from economic development officials."

How to prove this trend? Where are the hard numbers? Alas, the reporter confesses that there are none. She states that her sources in the kids' sports-industrial complex "do not keep statistics on the economic impact of girls' sporting events" and that reports that girl events are "often more lucrative than those for boys" are "anecdotal."

When the story does commit itself to the quantifiable, the numbers don't help. Mercer County, N.J., "hosted 24 youth sports tournaments last year," the Times reports, but no breakdown of how many events were for boys and how many were for girls is provided, nor is any estimate of the economic impact given.

Next, the story reports that a recent girls' fast-pitch softball tournament drew roughly 7,500 people to an $11.8 million softball complex in Chattanooga, Tenn. The story doesn't say that the 7,500 drawn represents just spectators or players plus spectators, but to be generous let's assume 7,500 unique spectators traveled some distance to view the tournament. According to the Times, 232 teams played in the Chattanooga series, which means if each team fielded 13 to a roster, 3,016 girls came to play. If these numbers are close, on average each player attracted 2.5 spectators—essentially their parents and half a sibling. Some turnout. Some economic impact.

A few paragraphs from the end, the story undermines its own premise. "Of course, boys' events can also help local economies," the Times reports, as if there was any doubt that boys' tournaments or boys' baseball camps or girls' sports tournaments—or even a Shriners convention—can add dollars to a town's economy.

Peel away from this piece the conceit that throngs are traveling distances to watch their daughters and nieces play ball, and what do you have left? Some girls play softball while some of their relatives watch.

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Thanks to the dozens who e-mailed or tweeted this story to my attention. The Times piece calls the girls' sport phenomenon a "peculiar trend." What's peculiar about it? Send your speculations via e-mail to slate.pressbox@gmail.com and monitor my Twitter feed for breaking bogus trends. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.