If You Build It, They Will Come - How To Make espnW a Success and Not a Joke


I spent my ride home from Old Orchard today engaged in one of my new favorite pastimes — alternately nodding my head in agreement with or shouting in anger at Mike McConnell on WGN Radio.  

Today involved mostly shouting.  The topic was ESPN’s proposed channel for women.  The new ESPN “sub-brand” plans to profit off of ESPN’s 25% female audience by giving the ladies the kind of programming that all of us womenz stereotypically like.  So, girls, you can expect the requisite spelling bee coverage and some cheerleading as well as figure skating and tennis.  This does not mean that ESPN is going to start showing more women’s college basketball games or softball games or WNBA games.  Because, apparently, ESPN, like Mel Gibson, already knows what women want.
If ESPN chooses to water down this channel by making it all about sunrise yoga and spelling, it will be a missed opportunity.  I agree with McConnell on this point: People just don’t watch women’s team sports.  I think it’s a shame, and I think there’s a reason for it beyond the notion that women’s team sports look “clumsy (his word).”
The geniuses behind sports programming have never really stopped to look at why women in general watch sports.  I mean, sure, we love the games just like the guys do.  We love the action.  We love a walk-off home run and we love a three-point shot at the buzzer.  But beyond that, we love the story behind the sports (and judging by how much backstory is revealed during every single Cubs game or PGA tournament, I think the guys do too).  
It’s not enough to, say, throw a WNBA game up on the screen and expect us to watch it.  That has nothing to do with the fact that it’s a women’s basketball game and not a men’s game.  I wouldn’t sit down and watch a random NBA game either.  I want to know why I’m watching this game.  Who’s on either team?  Where’s the undercurrent of drama?  
And you know what?  Now that I think about it, I probably would sit down and watch that random NBA game.  And you know why?  Because I probably already know about the drama and the backstory.  Because the media have been feeding it to me season upon season.  There are hours and hours and hours of television dedicated to men’s sports already on ESPN.  Commentators talk ad nauseam about whose dad is sick or who’s only two HRs away from 500 or who desperately wants to beat his former team.  The sports pages of our newspapers are filled with the drama of sports.  Men’s sports.  Unless it’s tennis, because the girls are hot.
espnW has an opportunity here, if they choose to make this project about really integrating women into the sports world instead of giving us what they think we already like.  They should make the channel about giving equal time to both men’s and women’s sports (because it’s not that we don’t like men’s sports).
Some programming I’d like to see (and would actually watch, because spelling bees and cheerleaders ain’t my thing):
  • An all-female SportsCenter (except for one token hot guy — preferably the attractiveness equivalent of the Old Spice guy — who is relegated to puff pieces)
  • An Around The Horn featuring only female sports writers from around the country
  • Women’s sporting competitions of all kinds from soccer to softball to swimming 
  • Reality-based programming in which professional athletes from different sports are highlighted and we are given a glimpse of their personal lives (This is one of the reasons I so eat up Olympics coverage). 
  • And figure skating (Sorry.  In this one area, I’m a total cliche.)
And no freaking wine cooler commercials (as one genius suggested on Mike McConnell’s show).  Come on, guys.  I know you can do better than that.

Filed under: News & Views, TV

Tags: ESPN, Sports, TV


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  • I'm sorry, I just don't see the draw of the proposed ESPNW or your version. If women like sports they are going to watch ESPN regardless of who is commentating and whether or not they are male or female. They have a female sports writer on Around the Horn all the time, I believe her name is Jackie and she works out of Boston. I think what ESPN really needs to do is diversify their coverage more. I do agree that they cover Basketball and Football too much. How hard is it to talk about other professional leagues out there, MLS, NHL and yes even womens softball or basketball (although personally I would probably change the channel during these segments.) I don't think this needs to be something gender related or something we need to make into a joke with a "token hot guy." And ESPN just because its new doesn't mean its better, just improve what you know already works.

  • In reply to Stylin19:

    I agree that what ESPN has proposed so far for espnW seems pretty half-assed (and some of what I proposed up north was written tongue-in-cheek).

    And, yes, as you pointed out, women are included on all or most of the programming (like Jackie MacMullen on ATH), but they're just thrown in as tokens. If ESPN is serious about developing programming for women, then they're going to have to try a little harder than merely offering up events already proven to attract women and sticking a woman on the sidelines of an NFL game.

    Women make up half of any station's available viewership. Why the media continue to ignore this fact is beyond me. This phenomenon comes up every other year or so when a movie geared towards women manages to make a ton of money at the box office. I'm not sure why media heads are so shocked to discover that women are interested in being entertained, whether at the movies or by watching sports.

    I think that ESPN has an opportunity here to broaden the horizons of its viewers (if they're willing to take a risk and try something new -- remember that a channel devoted solely to food and cooking was an anomaly before the Food Network was launched). Besides, much of a sport's success has to do with marketing and exposure. Remember, a few years ago no one was watching the Blackhawks, due in no small part to the fact that their marketing stunk.

  • In reply to Stylin19:

    "Women make up half of any station's available viewership. Why the media continue to ignore this fact is beyond me."
    And men make up the other half so should Lifetime or WE be making programming for men? Every product misses some demographic and hits others either on purpose or unexpectedly.
    I will agree that on some level a sports success has to do with marketing and exposure but ESPN has plenty of exposure, I think almost too much. They cover pro, college, and even some high school games. I also don't really want to see Tampax commercials or commercials about the latest yeast infection treatment coming on in the middle of Sportscenter.
    Ok, so if ESPN wants to develop programming for women and make it successful they have to appeal to the largest demographic of women as possible to bring in the most viewers. And correct me if I am wrong but I think the majority of women have mediocre to little interest in sports. And around half of the female population that does care about "sports" would be into something like softball or cheerleading competitions. I am not saying all women are like this but if I was working for ESPN in marketing and wanted to make this successful you have to market to a large audience of females. Which I think is what they are trying (but failing) to do.

  • In reply to Stylin19:

    I actually really like your idea. Is it ok for guys to watch the all female ATH? Jackie would kick ass there, and I'd expect to see Jemele Hill a lot too...

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