National / Sports / February 2, 2011

ESPN goes for women

I’m a little late on this. And for that, I apologize. ESPN recently announced a new “online destination for female sports fans and athletes,” espnW.

Perhaps network executives were blushing over an upcoming tell-all book about the network titled, “These Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN.” The book, out in May, supposedly chronicles the company’s frat-house atmosphere—from executives having sex in closets to on-air personalities like Dana Jacobson shot-gunning Grey Goose on stage at a company banquet. Early returns on “These Guys Have All the Fun” have executives at ESPN in damage control, as they are already making attempts to discredit the author, Jim Miller (no relation to the esteemed former Chicago Bears quarterback).

Whatever the reason, the company felt compelled to launch a new website aimed at women. But ESPN has done this in exceeding quietude. If you go to ESPN.com, the only mention of the website is at the very bottom of the page, last in a streak of links to various pages that comprise the ESPN network.

But the very idea of a sports website—or media enterprise—devoted solely to women is a bit…creepy? I don’t know. Can men and women not appreciate sports on the same level? Can women not watch ESPN’s bro-advertising-fueled segments like the “Coors Light Cold Hard Facts,” when an anchor asks an expert a “six-pack of questions.” Man, advertisers. Keeping cleverness alive in the digital age.

The stories currently on the front of espnW: a puff-piece on a Dallas party-planner preparing for Super Bowl XLV, the best and worst Super Bowl commercials and a follow-up on the after-effects of the Ines Sainz-New York Jets scandal earlier this season. All in all, a bit condescending. Am I wrong?

The website itself is a bit drab, too. I’ve seen blog templates that utilize space and color better than espnW. It really does function as a blog, to some extent, with some clutter on the right sidebar: this week in women’s sports, games we’re following, etc.

Beyond what’s already there, though, espnW might pose some problems down the line. What if ESPN decides to bury their already subpar women’s sports coverage on espnW—a page they haven’t even made an effort to promote—rather than cover it on SportsCenter? What if ESPN decides to put all of its quality female on-air talent and writers on espnW? Will fewer people be exposed to smart writers like Amy Nelson and Amanda Rykoff?

Vice President of espnW Laura Gentile promised to the New York Times in October that coverage would not “condescend women” and would cover the Women’s National Basketball Association and women’s college basketball a “bit more.”

A recent study by the University of Southern California revealed that SportsCenter devoted just 1.4 percent of their airtime in 2009 to women’s sports. ESPN has since promised to raise this number to about 8 percent in 2011—which would represent a gigantic jump and a trend reversal. In 1999, SportsCenter actually covered women’s sports at a clip of 2.2 percent.

This has been done before, actually. In the late 1990s, “Sports Illustrated” debuted a new magazine, “Sports Illustrated for Women.” The magazine ended its run in 2002.

But the late 1990s represented a renaissance of sorts for women’s sports coverage. Much of this, however, was driven by the whole Brandi Chastain-ripping-off-her-shirt-in-a-blatant-advertising-grab-by-Nike thing at the 1999 World Cup.

Let’s hope ESPN isn’t praying for another Chastain moment to propel espnW. Knowing its history, they probably are.

Kevin Morris


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