Friday, October 1, 2010

espnW seeks to draw in female sports fans

News broke today about ESPN launching a new brand identity within the ESPN family, one that would be aimed directly at women and dubbed "espnW". This idea has apparently been under development for several months, but has now begun to go live through Twitter (@espnW) and will eventually evolve into a blog, and who knows, may even eventually become its own ESPN network.

The news breaking on Twitter, not surprisingly, set off a string of jokes about the concept, which started out as witty but eventually - as Twitter joke memes often do - devolving into just rehashing stereotypes. Unfortunately - again, as Twitter often does - some of the people slinging jokes and/or insults then chose to directly tweet those directly to a female sportscaster. I'm really not sure at what point on the internet evolutionary scale people began feeling so comfortable about seeing celebrities and professionals on Twitter and Facebook that they decided it would be ok to insult them to their face, but it's not the first time this kind of thing has happened this summer.

At that stage, it became clear that people really weren't looking into what espnW was aiming to be or what it might offer. Sports fans have felt frustrated about ESPN in the past, some sports fans more than others if they feel their sport has been slighted by the network, and so the chance to poke a little fun at the concept proved too tempting. It's also clear that a number of people really didn't read the article before jumping on the joke bandwagon, so, like many Twitter memes, it ran away and became larger than it should have been.

I'll admit I even threw in my own joke because I saw the meme jokes going before I saw a link and read the article, and realized it was a real project not just a meme.  But on reviewing my own joke, it was the kind of joke that had a man made it, I probably would've bristled and had a few sharp cracks back.

That's a problem in sports: double standards. And the door can swing both ways.

Just a couple weeks ago, controversy swirled around a female sports reporter, Ines Sainz, and the NY Jets. Sources reported that Sainz got harassed, but she stated that she didn't feel that way.

But the discussion about Sainz leads to the larger questions about women and sports.

A few examples: female sports reporters - no matter what the sport - all too often fall into a stereotype of "there for looks, not for brains". Sports fans - male and female alike - will bemoan when a female sports reporter just isn't that deep. On-camera male reporters come in all shapes, sizes, colors, looks, and ages, but on-camera female reporters generally fall into two: young and gorgeous. Sure, that's partially a statement about what the media in general tries to feed the public as an ideal beauty, and the concept that attractive = more viewers = better ratings/more money. But why does this double standard continue to persist? It's even worse when a female reporter is clearly doing her best to attempt to create excitement or draw more in-depth responses out of a player they're interviewing, but they don't have the knowledge of the sport they're covering at their mental fingertips to be able to make adjustments to their interviews on the fly.

Asking an athlete who just had a triumphant moment "How do you feel right now?" is not exactly in-depth sports reporting.

The article in USAToday that discussed espnW noted that "Seven of the eight types of ESPN shows with the lowest percentages of women viewers are studio shows." This probably shouldn't be surprising, because most women sports fans aren't going to sit around and analyze stats and replays for an hour on end. Women and men don't approach everything the same; sports are no exception. There is a show on Versus network called "The Daily Line" which looks back at the day in sports in a more chatty, round-table format, but it's all too noticeable that much of the time, the show ends up with four guys sitting around the table shooting the sports breeze while the show's token woman is either off to the side by herself working on the computer, or, if she is at the table, has very little to add to the conversation.

If the point of having an attractive woman on a show is simply to add eye candy, then she's doing her job description. But if the point is to add female perspective, or to help add to the perception that yes, women can talk about sports "with the boys" - and just as importantly, talk intelligently about sports - then it's a failure.

There's nothing wrong with having women on a sports show be attractive, or wanting them to dress well. It's certainly not necessary to have a sports reporter dress in a way that is sexually suggestive - to be showing cleavage or to be wearing skin-tight clothing; it doesn't make her a better reporter.

That is where sports falls short: allowing women to only be accepted in the sports arena as either the "babe sports reporter", or to have them as a glorified sex object - cheerleaders and ice girls.

Women are smart. Women are strong. Women are beautiful. They come in all shapes and sizes and colors and ages. They're your sisters and mothers, and teachers and friends, nieces and daughters. Women should not have to be objectified in order to be worth watching, or worth writing about.  Women are competitive, they're successful, they set records.

Women's sports don't draw the numbers men's sports do, and that's part of what makes or breaks network decisions. In the 1970s, you'd be lucky to find women on TV in sports anywhere much beyond tennis, figure skating or gymnastics. But as women's sports programs have grown in leaps and bounds, and more and more women of all ages embrace sport around the world, they have struggled to make the leap to professional league sports. Sports may be the last bastion of equality.

Times have changed, however, and the most significant strides have come in the past dozen years or so. Today's youth grow up under far different perceptions than we did 30, 40, years ago. Women strive to be highly competitive; some of the top athletes in the world are women - in skiing, tennis, surfing, and more - but how many of their names come easily to mind when you think about sports figures? That's slowly changing.

Part of it is not even the emergence of women into more professional organized sports - it's the fact that women are simply becoming more athletic as a whole. Being athletic no longer leads to the immediate assumption that a woman is "butch" or "unfeminine". Staying fit and exercising are seen as vital components to a healthy lifestyle, so everybody does it. And when you as a person do something - be it male or female - it becomes naturally more appealing to see professional athletes do whatever sport it is you love.

Men and women are not different species, but as a female sports fan, you sometimes can't help but wonder if marketers think they are. Sports marketing tells men it's ok to be loud, obnoxious, proud fans of their sport. Marketing tells women... not a whole lot. Marketing can often miss the boat, too - assuming that simply because they design something that is pink or sparkly, that women will want to buy it, or buy into it.

Female hockey fans certainly made some noise this summer when the NHL introduced its latest products, the "champagne" line of clothing. Female hockey fans practically rioted, stating Look, just because we're women doesn't mean that we want our sports gear to be pink. Or sparkle, or glitter, or look silly. We want to wear our team colors, but we want gear that's designed for us, and fits our shapes. The NHL marketing department sat up and listened. After all, when women make up 35-40% of your demographic, and women in general have been proven to have the majority of spending control, you want to know what makes your consumers spend money.

ESPN is smart to want to reach out to women along these same lines. Perhaps the espnW concept will never draw enough numbers to make the parent company decide to make the leap from print to screen.

But it could, if given the chance.

Whether it is a blog or a whole branded section of the ESPN brand website, it will help provide a middle ground for female sports fans. Maybe female fans are more about the stories and the overall big picture, while male fans are busy crunching numbers and comparing stats. If it gives women the chance to see more women play more sports - and more men to see sports leveling the playing fields between them -  that's a good thing too.

Most importantly, the brand can help spread more light on women in sports in general, which is a good thing.

It will be interesting to see what espnW does to both embrace women's own inner athletes, while at the same time, celebrating women's place in sports, both on and off the circles of competition. They will have to walk a challenging line: to be appealing to women and girls as a source for women's sports coverage and encouraging them to find their own inner athlete, while remaining appealing and relevant on a level that women relate to, and more importantly, embrace.

One of the first things I hope to see is a look at women who work in sports professionally: interviews with women in broadcasting and reporting, show more of the depth and passion and excitement for sports that led these women to make the career decisions that sports was where they wanted to be. Put some depth to the faces that usually do all the interviewing.

We'll be watching the growth of espnW with interest.

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