Posted by: Ethan | October 5, 2010

espnW: First Take

espnW logo

After some initial buzz, ESPN’s new venture into women’s athletics called espnW has gotten a bit more serious, having just wrapped up a retreat this past weekend to hammer out the mission and vision of the project. At this time, it is being talked up as a blog with “future digital content” (spring 2011).

Here are my initial questions, comments, and concerns about this venture:

  • First and foremost, I’m not understanding how a blog is going to “serve, inform, and inspire the female athlete and fan” vastly beyond the morass of online-only content that currently serves that market. I am not dissing blogs, and not saying there isn’t room for one more. What I am confused about, even after reading the opening remarks from the recent espnW retreat, is why ESPN is committing to the creation of a blog rather than bringing more gender equity to their current array of cable channels. Let’s recap what they are: ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN News, ESPN Classic, and ESPNU. Then there’s espn3.com, which serves as an overflow well for everything they can’t broadcast nationally on TV.
  • Additionally, I am troubled by Nicole M LaVoi’s comment that she would like “most of the information and content on the site to be developed, written and delivered by females. There should be at least (well really I want more!) as many females and females in positions of power on espnW, as I see males and male athletes on ESPN.” Why can’t men report on women’s sports? (Het hem.) If the root issue is “women’s sports doesn’t get enough press” it shouldn’t matter who covers them, but that they get covered.
  • Frank Zappa complained that the music industry was (and probably is) “run by the same old Milli Vanillis.” His chief argument was that if an executive got fired from say, Capitol Records, they’d end up at Sony. And anyone fired by Sony would go to Capitol. And so on. I mention this because, to be blunt, the names that were touted as part of the espnW retreat strike me as the “same old Milli Vanillis.” Julie Foudy was there. She does soccer coverage for ESPN. Kara Lawson was there. She does WNBA coverage for ESPN. I am aware that people can be “subject matter experts” and thus be invaluable to the planning and development process, but something about this process bugs me, and I am concerned that a) women’s athletics will be further marginalized, and b) ESPN isn’t going to stretch the boundaries of their comfort zone much with this initiative. I dare say the latter has been proven in the early going by refusing to consider how to make women’s sports a larger chunk of the TV programming pie rather than registering a domain name and lending your brand equity to a new web site.
  • Megan Hueter had this to say about espnW:

    espnW, expected to launch with a blog this fall and more digital content next spring, will target the 18-49-year-old woman who loves sports, which happens to comprise 50 million current and former athletes. If activated successfully, you can imagine the potential impact, not only in effectively serving a new audience, but also in acquiring new advertisers who want to reach this audience.

    However, it’s not going to come easy. These women are a very tricky age group. They have a lot going on in their lives – they’re in graduate school, cultivating professional careers, trying desperately to stay in shape, meeting their life partners, getting married and raising children. All of a sudden, their love for “sport” falls into many different types of areas – they might follow their college teams as an alum, watch men’s professional sports, play sports recreationally in the evenings, run 5K races and triathlons on the weekends, go to the gym every night, or coach kids.

    Okay, so if the target audience is super busy and doesn’t have time to follow sports, how does a blog help them do that? TV is an “instant” medium that lends itself to passive participation, such as walking on a treadmill at the gym and looking up at whatever is on the TV.

  • Not to be a shill for Fox Broadcasting (seriously, I have no affiliation with that or any other network), but they own the Big Ten Network, which has struck a happy medium, balancing men’s and women’s sports quite handily. Why can’t ESPN do that now?
  • Megan Hueter also proclaimed that espnW was going to be the model for showing that women can be successful athletes without having to resort to taking their clothes off. Oops.
  • What really bothers me about this initiative is that it seems to be trying to create a need rather than close a gap. espnW was dreamt up offline, and now needs to justify its existence. I keep coming back to what the root issue is, and have divined that the female sports fan is under-served by the ESPN family of cable channels. I wonder if perhaps the ESPN cable universe is gummed up with a variety of broadcasting contracts and thus the espnW site had to be made rather than untangle the web of which channel has to show what when. I like to pick on ESPN2 and their seemingly never ending poker reruns, which says to me that there is room for expansion of their current sports offerings.
  • I will also confess to annoyance that ESPN needs to single out an initiative as “women specific” whereas their existing channels are generic. ESPN Classic can and does show women’s sports from yesteryear. ESPNU can and does show women’s college sports. ESPN2 can and does show WNBA and women’s soccer games. Does all of this get shunted off to espnW? Is it packaged in parallel, in which case I ask again, why? Additionally, it reminds me of when the Chicago Tribune launched a section of the Sunday paper called “WomanNews”. Naturally, men complained that women had a designated section of the newspaper (and once again, was something that could have been glossed over at will and wasn’t interfering with the rest of the newspaper) which was met with the rejoinder, “men already have their own section of the paper, it’s called the sports section.” That’s how espnW comes off to me, today, this minute. “If we can’t join ’em, let’s beat it.”
  • I, too, want espnW and every other outlet aimed at the promotion and advancement of women’s athletics to succeed. I hope that my concerns about espnW are unfounded and the initiative is a smashing success. I do hope that my concerns are addressed, not by way of comments here or elsewhere, but in the finished product.

I will be monitoring the progress of espnW as it evolves and will report on it periodically.

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Responses

  1. Agree, completely. While I love the idea of a women’s specific entity (channel? whatever it becomes) as an effort to give more airtime to women’s sport, I’m afraid it’s really going to have the opposite effect:
    1) it carves deeper that line between women’s sports and ‘regular’ sports, where there should not be a line at all. Sports is sports!
    2) it too easily gives the excuse that since espnW can cover it, no one else has to, further exacerbating the first point.
    And I agree with your point about men covering women’s sports; trying to get a mostly- or all-female group at espnW is great for women’s sports journalists, but you are, in effect, telling men it’s none of their business. Or at least suggesting it, to all an audience already inclined to ignore you.

  2. Oh, thank God I’m not the only one. I have been watching this espnW talk trickle through my Twitter feed, and for the most part, I am skeptical. (For the other part, I was confused, because this seems very unnecessary.) Since I’m not even halfway through my first round of coffee, I’m not going to attempt to chime in intelligently. I’ll just point and say, “This!”

    espnW creates a very damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. As a member of the target audience, I don’t appreciate ESPN’s attempts to herd me or my friends.


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