For years, the sentiment has been voiced with regard to the achievements of women and minorities that a time will come when no one will notice each new step forward. When, for example, 50 percent of ESPN SportsCenter airtime and newspaper space is devoted to women's sports, the moment will pass unmentioned as women's sports reportage will have long since become the norm.
But, apparently, SportsCenter is never going to devote 50 percent of airtime to women's sports, with the news that the sports empire is choosing instead to develop what it is calling espnW, a brand marketed to female sports fans that will debut this spring on the Web and could eventually take its place on television beside ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes. The New York Times noted in its coverage late last week that women make up a quarter of ESPN's audience, but more relevant figures would include the 37 percent of NBA fans, the 43 percent of NFL fans, the 46 percent of MLB fans and the 47 percent of MLS fans who are women. Would the millions of female sports fans who enjoy the Cowboys, Yankees and Lakers flip on ESPN for scores and highlights of these sports, as well as the latest on women's professional tennis and Olympic figure skating, or would they tune in to a channel that only gives them half of the story?
ESPN says the web site/potential future channel will cover major men's sports, too, since they're aware (they say) that female sports fans are as defined by their love of sports as by their gender. Women's sports personalities such as Billie Jean King and softball player Jennie Finch have reacted positively to the idea, and it isn't hard to imagine many women thinking that half of the story is better than being given one-tenth of the space at a traditional sports outlet. (ESPN, in fact, devotes even less airtime to women's sports -- 8 percent of its programming in 2010 by the company's own reckoning, and just 1.4 percent of SportsCenter airtime in 2009, according to a study from the University of Southern California.)
But many women, particularly younger women, want their 50 percent of airtime on a "real" network, not LifetimeSports. Julie DiCaro, the author of a Chicago Cubs fan blog, "A League of Her Own," made just this point earlier this month in a pointed post titled "Why I Hate the Idea of espnW." "Women already HAVE an ESPN. It's called ESPN," DiCaro wrote, adding:
The idea that sports need to somehow be feminized to attract women is completely off-base. â¦ In addition to insulting 50 percent of the American population with this stupid idea, espnW gives ESPN the perfect excuse to relegate women's sports to a sub-channel. It's not like there was a lot of women's sports being shown on ESPN in the first place, but is there any doubt ESPN would put it anywhere OTHER than espnW if it has the option?
Laura Gentile, the vice president of espnW, told the Times, "The idea is potentially cultivating this fan base of women's sports fans, where 10 years from now, girls are growing up truly feeling like ESPN is made for them and ESPN is truly their brand." But news trickling out of a retreat coordinated by ESPN this month, at which a number of female sports personalities were pitched the idea, suggests that ESPN is going down what could be a very short road. Gentile described the retreat to USA Today as "where we talk about women finding self-esteem in sports and about getting a pedicure," raising the question of what it is, exactly, that women are looking for in a sports web site or TV channel.
If it's pedicures, ESPN would do well to recall Sports Illustrated for Women, opened by Time Inc. to much fanfare in the late 1990s and shuttered in 2002, or Conde Nast's Women's Sports and Fitness (1997-2000). "If this becomes Shape magazine with some box scores, it will fail," Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, told the Times. "And it should fail, because it's not about women's sports."