Commentary

Letter of intent

With its 'W' initiative, ESPN tries to solve the equation of serving women sports fans

Originally Published: December 22, 2011
By Kelly McBride | Poynter Review Project

We watched with great interest this year as ESPN launched espnW, a brand designed to grow the female portion of ESPN's audience.

"W" is mostly a website at this point, grown out of a blog born in December 2010. The content focuses on three areas: women's sports, recreational athletes and more general content on men's professional sports customized for female fans. It's officially described as the "online destination for female sports fans and athletes."

From the outside, this new effort seems lukewarm. It lacks the pizzazz or fanfare of Grantland, the literary and pop culture site ESPN also launched this year. There are no cool, cryptic commercials or big-name writers drawing readers to the site. It is a low-risk dip of the toe by a media giant, when a bolder move could yield bigger results.

On top of that, ESPN is late to the game. Forty years after the passage of Title IX, the federal law that required schools to create equal sports opportunities for girls, the worldwide leader in sports has discovered that women might be interested? Yet the fact that no obvious competitors are trying to beat ESPN to this market suggests the entire sports media world is just as far behind the times.

Women make up just under half of ESPN's overall viewers, but they spend much less time actually watching sports on TV, said Kelly Johnson, ESPN director of media and promotion research. For example, the average man age 35-49 spends 227 hours a year watching sports on television. The average woman the same age spends just 92 hours a year watching sports on TV.

Yet the No. 3 television show this past January for women ages 18-49 was NBC's "Sunday Night Football," according to Nielsen, behind "Dancing With the Stars" and "Grey's Anatomy." Clearly there is a great opportunity for the network to grow its audience.

After talking to people inside ESPN, it's clear that the network's relationship with women is complex and fraught with peril. If you read any of the books about the network, including the most recent one, "Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN," or if you follow any of the many media critics who target ESPN, you might conclude that the only time ESPN managers concern themselves with women is when debauchery is somehow involved.

Actually, ESPN doesn't get credit for much of the hard work the network does behind the scenes to raise the profile of women in the sports world. The network has invested a lot of resources into researching the female audience, trying to figure out what female fans want and how to give it to them. The answer: It's complicated. Women have a different relationship to sports than men do, and there's no magic bullet.

Laura Gentile is the vice president for espnW. She worked in the president's office for several years before specifically taking on the task of growing a female audience two years ago.

"In my nine years [at ESPN|, we would never do anything serious," Gentile said about serving the women's audience. "We would just dabble."

Creating a concerted business strategy is now her job. But the research illuminates the hurdles the network faces.

"Girls and women don't feel like they have a platform that speaks to them," Gentile explained. "They recognize ESPN as a brand. It's their husband's brand and their boyfriend's brand and their brother's brand."

Gentile acknowledges that the website, which launched in May, is meant to be a steppingstone, a place where ESPN can experiment with what works. In fact, the network knows more about what won't work than what will. Although ESPN won't make espnW's traffic numbers public, Gentile said the number of visitors has been slowly growing, with two big spikes -- in July for the soccer Women's World Cup and in October for special content around ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue. Here's what ESPN's research shows:

• Women have a different relationship to sports than men do. For men, understanding and watching sports validates their status as men. For women, the reverse is true: In spite of how much they know, women must constantly prove they are real sports fans.

• Men and women differ in the sports information they like to consume. Men look for nitty-gritty statistics and past performance history. Women like basic statistics and personal narratives.

• Men are overjoyed when their teams win and devastated when they lose. Women are happy with wins and disappointed with losses, but move on quickly.

• Nearly half of all men between ages 18 and 34 consider themselves serious or super fans; yet only one in five women in that age range see themselves that way.

• Although women watch more TV, men watch three to four times the number of sports shows compared to women.

• Men and women are both big fans of the NFL. But women also really like figure skating and the Olympics. Men like NCAA football and the NBA more.

• Female fans don't necessarily want to watch women's sports. In fact, more men than women watch the WNBA and the women's college softball tournament.

This is merely a simplified sampling of facts gleaned from volumes of research ESPN has on the topic of fans and their habits. Developing an overall network strategy is challenging.

"We have to be authentic and so careful at the same time," said Johnson from the media research division. "Sometimes by creating the special property, some members of the female audience applaud it and say it is long overdue. And a number of women are offended, believing that we are ghettoizing them."

She added that the network can "develop programming that's more appealing and get rid of stuff that's repellent" to women.

What's repellent? Debate shows such as "Pardon the Interruption" and "Around the Horn." What's appealing? Narratives, such as those you might see in "Outside the Lines" or in the film series 30 for 30, an award-winning group of narrative documentaries well-received by male and female fans.

ESPN does have success stories.

Devoting equal resources to the men's and women's soccer World Cups produced great ratings among men and women. Going further back, the network pushed to alter the schedule of the women's NCAA basketball tournament, shifting days so the women's games could air in prime time without competing against the men's games. That happened in 2004 at the urging of Carol Stiff, vice president of programming and acquisitions. Since then, the ratings for the women's games have soared.

Some critics might dismiss ESPN as insincere when it comes to women, but after talking with the individuals behind the effort, we believe the network really does want to serve women better. We know that because ESPN doesn't do anything for altruistic reasons. It has to make financial sense.

"This is an underserved demographic. It's a new set of eyeballs," Stiff said. "It makes a lot of business sense. Women spend all the money in the household. Why wouldn't we go after that?"

It's clear that the risk of failure is high. ESPN is branded as a men's network, and, since we've been engaged in the Poynter Review Project, we've repeatedly remarked on its male-dominated shows and culture.. That's in spite of efforts to hire and promote women on air and behind the scenes.

Gentile, the VP for espnW, said she didn't even recognize the maleness of the culture until she started creating a business strategy to serve women.

"I don't know if I saw it, either," she said. "I'm a huge sports fan. I stayed home from school pretending to be sick to watch the NFL draft in 1980. I started here, and I fit right in. I was one of the guys, and I could talk sports with the best of them. It wasn't until I started working on this project that I could see it in the subtleties and the dynamics."

ESPN is a victim of its circumstances. The network has been phenomenally successful in three decades of covering male athletes and serving male fans. And now, if it wants to continue the trend of growing revenue and audience, it needs to rise above those circumstances.

As ESPN tackles this new effort, it does so without much accountability. People complain to the Poynter Review Project about hundreds of issues every week, but, in nine months, we can't recall a single person enraged about the network's offerings for women fans. Maybe expectations are low in the sports world. Maybe it's because no one cares. Either way, if ESPN is to make progress with women, its audience has to help hold the company accountable.

In 2012, we hope to see a higher profile for espnW. Maybe there'll be a cool commercial campaign around the 40th anniversary of Title IX. Maybe we'll see well-known writers dedicated to the site.

Gentile assured us that she has time to make W a success. We hope the network can lean into the effort, the way it has with Grantland. Women everywhere will respond, as will their husbands and boyfriends and brothers.