Now that espnW is up and running, what is it, exactly?

I began hearing not long ago that espnW was coming online in December, and on the first Monday of the month the site indeed did go live.

I haven’t looked thoroughly at all of the launch material, but a few thoughts did cross my mind as I perused:

• There’s more men’s sports here than I imagined, and the site was promoted as appealing to women sports fans as well as those interested in women’s sports. Still, at the end of the first day, the Jets-Patriots game is getting top billing? I realize it’s a big game and there’s great interest in that matchup, but that’s a story that can be found anywhere else. It crowds out what I thought was supposed to be the emphasis here.

Which got me thinking about a couple of other possibilities that bear watching as the site develops:

• Can espnW sell a site devoted entirely to women’s sports? Or is it partially using this vehicle to push its men’s pro and college sports content onto a primarily female audience? Do we really need BCS, LeBron James and baseball winter meetings stories here? Women who are diehard sports fans know where to get this.

• The smartest, most relevant piece I’ve seen comes from former WNBA president Val Ackerman, who pens an intelligent, passionate treatise on the future of women’s sports that dearly needs to be amplified. A few snippets:

“In our post-Title IX world, the old stereotypes and barriers which historically distanced women and girls from sports are largely gone, but differences persist in the way American males and females participate in, consume and think about sports, which in turn affects health and fitness trends, media imagery and coverage, and strategies for companies trying to turn sports into profitable business ventures. The future of women’s sports will be shaped by the way these differences are addressed and by the effectiveness with which women’s sports proponents can meld the gains of the past 40 years with the needs, sensibilities and realities of today’s world.”

And:

“But although the battles for acceptance which marked the 1970s and ’80s have been largely won, they’ve been replaced by another challenge: how to convert the feel-good vibe of ‘with you in spirit’ into cold, hard revenue, so that women’s sports leagues can endure as viable businesses. The protections of Title IX, which helped make the pro outlets possible, do not reach beyond federally-funded educational institutions, so the future of the leagues will be wholly left to the realities of the marketplace. In the post-Title IX age, progress at the elite level will ride on the adeptness with which women’s sports leaders can marry what’s appealingly feminine with what’s impressively athletic, what’s edgy and controversial with what’s mainstream and wholesome — and in our culture of celebrity, whether women’s sports ‘products’ can be turned into compelling entertainment, the kind that busy fans (women and girls among them) will make time for and pay real money to see.”

Bravo! No whining about sexism or victimology or spouting the usual reflexive talking points on these subjects. Ackerman understands this isn’t an ideological battle, indeed that’s it not really a battle at all any longer. There are complicated, deeply human considerations that are still evolving about females and athletics — and evolving is the key word here — that defy the absolutist pronouncements of the sports-and-gender crowd.

Please don’t overlook Ackerman’s last point, and it’s one that I’ve been making for some time as well. Please listen to someone who’s been a pioneer in the business of women’s sports about what’s really important at the present time, and in the near future. The challenges are no longer cultural as much as they are cementing durable business models and winning fans for women’s sports.

This goes far beyond Title IX, so perhaps it’s understandable why the women’s leaders who take up most of the oxygen — here and here and here — don’t say anything remotely resembling this. Their inability, or unwillingness, to yammer about much else besides Title IX and trifling cultural obsessions reflects a women’s sports movement that needs new blood, and new ideas, to come to the forefront.

The sooner women’s sports stops being peddled primarily as a cause — and the people behind espnW understand this very well — the sooner they can become more viable in the mainstream of the sports world.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted December 6, 2010 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

    Wendy,

    Very compelling and, I think, accurate thoughts.

    I think the somewhat transformative figure with a potential to become even more of a gateway personality in this regard is Doris Burke, who glides fairly seamlessly between women’s and men’s basketball, college AND pro, and delivers analysis that plenty of men, myself included, respect – simply because it’s good analysis, not for any reasons pertaining to gender itself.

    I wonder what Ms. Burke thinks and feels about these issues, and I wonder if anyone at ESPN – including and especially ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer, someone who knows a thing or 257 about production values and creating a worthy entertainment package – has raised the points you and Val Ackerman make here.

    On a personal note, one of the things that draws me back to the NFL – though it’s hardly my favorite sport (I boycotted any TV consumption of the sport for one year and felt that was sufficient personal sacrifice; completely shutting it off feels a little empty on fall afternoons) – is the central presence it has established within the fabric of American life. Being played on Sunday is part of it, but the other part is that it is television-friendly and was nurtured by great broadcast voices: Gowdy, Scott, Summerall, Madden, Enberg, Olsen, Cosell, and the late Don Meredith.

    One of the things women’s sports lacks – not owing to anything inherent, but to its late evolution within American culture – is and has been the presence of that cherished broadcast voice which makes the sport a part of your life, not just something nice to watch or listen to in a crowded sports marketplace.

    Can women’s sports find a Red Barber or Mel Allen or Vin Scully – not a female one, but just a signature voice to attach itself to?

    Would ESPN – which does that NBA/college basketball crossover night with its announce crews once a year – be willing to put the NBA crew on a women’s game and have Pam Ward and Rebecca Lobo do an NBA game? Are broadcast outlets willing to mix and match talent, having Dan Shulman and Jay Bilas call the Women’s Final Four (not Bob Knight, of course; a sh— storm would ensue) and have Beth Mowins do a Big East Tournament afternoon quarterfinal session?

    Broadcasting quality, broadcasting identity, and broadcasting availability (not so much games being covered, but games receiving prime time slots with minimal competition to the fullest extent possible) keep coming back to me as issues closely related to the market-based improvement of women’s sports for an American sporting appetite.

    Thanks, and keep up the fantastic (and thought-provoking) work!

  2. Posted December 7, 2010 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    I do appreciate your thoughtful reply and especially the need for an iconic “voice” for women’s sports.

    I think some of the women you mentioned — and there are others — are gradually emerging toward the possibility of that. You echoed what I’ve always thought about Doris Burke. While I’m glad ESPN finally realized her talent — and it took years for her to get into the analyst’s chair at the Women’s Final Four because she didn’t have that “All-American” tag they’ve always liked — selfishly I wish she were doing more women’s/WNBA games. It’s nothing against anyone else, but she’s just that good.

    For the sheer volume and range of women’s basketball games she calls, it’s hard to top Debbie Antonelli, who’s mostly on FSN and CBS College Sports and doesn’t have the name recognition she deserves because her only ESPN work is during the NCAA tournament.

    As for other women’s sports, it’s going to require having more games aired for it to catch up with the talent working in basketball, but it’s encouraging, especially college softball. Mowins is really establishing herself there, among other sports, opportunities enabled by her full-fledged move to ESPN.

    I’ve maintained for a while now that we’re in the early phase of what I call women’ sports 3.0 — away from activism and toward a period in which business and marketing realities will take precedence. Media transformation is also part of that, and what you’ve addressed on the ESPN/TV side is sharp and necessary to keep in mind.

    I think these are as exciting and fun times to follow and observe women’s sports as they are to compete directly in them.

  3. Posted December 10, 2010 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    BRAVO on this fantastic article! You’ve hit it out of the park Ms Parker!

    I think the bottom line is really the point…. ESPN didn’t start ESPNW because they cared about women’s sports. They did a very exhaustive study on advertising to see if there was an “advertising market” for this kind of site. Yes it’s a business, I understand, but IT wasn’t started because it was the right thing to do or because someone in Bristol was so passionate about it that they demanded the site… it was started because it will generate revenue. It’s the same thing Nike does with their basketball shoes… they don’t make a product for women… they just “shrink it and pink it”…. meaning they take their men’s product and make it more appealing to women instead of designing something that actually meets the needs of women.

    I don’t want to insult the people involved with the site. They are very passionate women/athletes/role models and I am thrilled they are being given a forum to speak. The question that really needs to be addressed is… Will ESPN W actually cover women’s sports? Right now there is a great group of bloggers and athletes talking about womens sports… but no actual reporting and coverage is happening. This is where they could really make a difference. When ESPNW starts sending reporters to games… that’s when I’ll be a believer in the site. Right now it’s just content sharing with ESPN.com (which quite frankly has more women’s sports coverage than the W). Press row is nearly empty at the majority of women’s sporting events…. That’s what has to change!

    The day ESPN W launched, Texas A&M coach Gary Blair had these comments after 61-58 his loss to Duke..(a thrilling game which went down to the wire!)
    “This was as good of a ball game as Connecticut and Baylor played and when you got four teams like ourselves that are willing to risk and play each other on home and homes, that’s what you have in women’s basketball and we need more of this. This was a great television audience so hopefully they weren’t watching New England and the Jets, they were sitting and watching this game.”

    This is what ESPNW Should have led with the day they launched… Two top ranked women’s teams playing in prime time! They could have done something original instead it was more of the same. An opportunity missed!