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espnW: Finally, a brand for female athletes

posted by mhueter, a Women Talk Sports blogger
today, October 4, 2010 at 11:54am EDT

About mhueter:

I'm one of the co-founders of WomenTalkSports.com. I'm also a full-time digital public relations professional at Catalyst Public Relations in New York. I played basketball my entire life, and am a pro...more

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espnWESPN, the worldwide leader in sports, recently announced a bubbling business from within called espnW, a brand completely driven for and by sports-minded women. Now, before you jump to conclusions based upon the espnW name, I simply ask that you first hear me out – because it’s critical to understand exactly why this new business is necessary for the success of female athletes. 

 

            This weekend, ESPN unveiled their new “w” brand at a retreat in San Diego, California. It took place in front of some of the biggest movers and shakers in women’s sports, including famous female athletes, coaches, journalists and sports marketing executives. At the event, not only did I have the chance to meet and talk to some of the women and men that I respect most in this world, but I also had the chance to share some of my opinions about what needs to happen to make the espnW business work. First, some context…

 

            Since the passage of Title IX in 1972, the United States has seen a 900 percent increase in girls playing high school sports and a 450 percent increase in women playing sports at the collegiate level.  This means that over the past 38 years, a female sport culture was born and lives today. Despite the incredible successes we’ve seen, a drop-off exists when it comes to the transition from a female athlete to a female sports fan. There are several reasons for this, but here are two major ones as to why that ESPN cares:

 

            1) Sports media rarely covers female athletes.

 

            Research has shown that female athletes are significantly under-represented with respect to the amount of national coverage they receive compared to men. I don’t think anyone would argue with me on this – turn on SportsCenter, open ESPN The Magazine or Sports Illustrated and tell me how many articles about female athletes you see. For whatever reason, female athletes are simply not on the radar. The only time women are covered fairly is in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition or ESPN Body, sending a clear message to women: it’s OK for you to play sports, but the only time you deserve national media attention is when you take off your clothes, show some skin, and act like a girl.

 

            2) Female sports fans are on the rise

 

            It’s also important to understand the core mission that ESPN has followed faithfully since its inception: “serve the sports fan.” However, the idea of a “sports fan” as a guy in front of his TV is changing - in fact, women (these are women who watch men’s sports) comprise almost 40% of their total viewing audience. ESPN’s internal research keeps telling them that this audience feels under-served – they don’t feel as if the ESPN brand speaks to them.

 

The Answer: espnW

 

            Enter: ESPN employee Laura Gentile. Back in 2007, emerging from within ESPN’s own culture as a rising business star, the former Duke field hockey player started raising the possibility of offering a female-specific sports outlet that seeks to address these gaps. The team started by targeting high school girls with ESPN’s Girl Magazine – a grassroots publication for high school athletes which is published three times per year, followed up by ESPN Rise Girl Edition online (still in Beta). The idea here is to reach a young audience early, and have them transition over time into espnW a female-specific business.

 

            espnW, expected to launch with a blog this fall and more digital content next spring, will target the 18-49-year-old woman who loves sports, which happens to comprise 50 million current and former athletes. If activated successfully, you can imagine the potential impact, not only in effectively serving a new audience, but also in acquiring new advertisers who want to reach this audience.

 

            However, it’s not going to come easy. These women are a very tricky age group. They have a lot going on in their lives – they’re in graduate school, cultivating professional careers, trying desperately to stay in shape, meeting their life partners, getting married and raising children. All of a sudden, their love for “sport” falls into many different types of areas – they might follow their college teams as an alum, watch men’s professional sports, play sports recreationally in the evenings, run 5K races and triathlons on the weekends, go to the gym every night, or coach kids.

 

            As you can see, trying to interject a new entertainment habit into an already-busy woman’s life is going to be quite challenging.  So challenging, in fact, that some outlets have tried and failed – for example, Sports Illustrated for Women attempted to tap into this market between 2000-2002, but folded quickly. Then-president Ann Moore cited the downturn in the advertising economy, saying, “SI Women needed a significant investment to reach its potential,” and “The investment climate was simply not on our side.”

 

            Fast-forward to 2010, in a different climate and backed with a major investment from ESPN, a Disney-owned company. In addition to the initial investment, the “w” brand secured founding sponsors Nike and Gatorade, as well as support from other brands like Under Armour, Roxy, Oakley and Lululemon, all eager to attach themselves to a “w” business. If money really is the key issue, with this level of up-front investment, on paper, it seems the espnW team can make this thing happen. But the truth is it’s not that easy – the espnW team is going to have to tread very, very carefully with the public. Here’s why:

 

            First, the idea of a “w” brand is very controversial for women who are already fans of men’s sports. For example, Chicago Cubs blogger cubbiejulie cited that she “hates” the idea of espnW because she believes it’s going to be a “girlier” version of ESPN, promoting things like “pink hats and bedazzled t-shirts.” As a sports-minded woman, she really has no need to go to a “w” network – she has everything she needs from what ESPN already offers.

 

            But it’s important to understand that espnW isn’t targeting Julie who already gets what she needs from ESPN. And I can assure you – the last thing the W team would consider promoting (or wearing, for that matter) are bedazzled t-shirts.

 

             Rather, from what I experienced this weekend, watching the unveiling of the new brand on the same stage as Billy Jean King (who received a standing ovation on opening night), as well as notables like Laila Ali, Julie Foudy, and Gretchen Bleiler, among countless other amazing women, I think it’s safe to say that, at the very heart of this new business is the mission to serve current and former female athletes… a uniquely different audience, one that’s been struggling for public attention for 38 years.

 

            ESPN is also opening itself up to criticism from its current diehard male fans - the whole idea of “espnW” seems outrageous (and quite funny) to men who already feel served by the brand… especially if it’s aimed at promoting professional female sports, which may or may not meet their needs for sports entertainment.

 

            But it’s really critical for these guys to understand that they’re not the target audience, either. And on the surface, although this may seem like an easy target for a quick joke, if they ever want their sisters, daughters or granddaughters to have the opportunity to experience financial success as professional athletes, they’ll need to support (or at least not mock) a major sports media company when they build opportunities for female athletes to get attention.    

 

            Last, I can say with confidence that espnW is a brand that the retreat attendees, including myself, celebrate and welcome with open arms. And I challenge you to join me. Because for once, there’s a possibility that female athletes will be able to showcase their athletic achievements to the world without needing to take their clothes off.

 

Let’s talk about it - Regardless of your point of view, I value your opinion on this topic and sincerely welcome the opportunity to talk about it. I invite you to either leave a comment or contact me directly on Twitter, @mhueter.

 

About Megan Hueter:

Megan Hueter is the cofounder of WomenTalkSports.com, which, until the advent of espnW, has remained the only sports blog network that specifically promotes female athletes. Megan is also a former athlete from Haddon Heights, New Jersey who played basketball The College of New Jersey. She works full time as a public relations professional in New York.

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There are 26 comments on this post. Join the discussion!

Diane says:

Can I just say YAY!!! I am almost as excited by this news as I was about the launch of Women Talk Sports and I secretly think this is as a result of my relentless emailing to ESPN. Thank you so much for pointing out that this is intended to serve the female athlete, present and former, and not necessarily to woo female fans of male sports. I don't quite fall into the target age demographic, but I am female and I am still an athlete and I may finally get the coverage of female athletes/sports I've had to struggle to find all these years. Way to go espnW.

Monday, October 4, 2010 at 1:56pm EDT

mhueter says:

Thanks Diane, so glad you found both us and espnW. Great to see your support. :)

Monday, October 4, 2010 at 2:01pm EDT

JulieRubes says:

Great breakdown of the process behind espnW. I have not spoken much on this via twitter or my site like others have. I don't think there is any harm in creating a new outlet for the coverage of women's sports. My one question is if the blog expands to a network, does that mean there will no longer be women's sporting events aired on the main ESPN networks? The ratings might be low, but I think it's about the principle of women's events getting similar treatment to the men's broadcasts and espnW serving as an additional outlet for athletes/events, not the only outlet.

Monday, October 4, 2010 at 2:05pm EDT

mhueter says:

I see your point, and it's a valid one. I'm sure they'd like to see this evolve into a TV network, but I don't think it's happening anytime soon. But when you think about the women's sports viewer - she can't (really) relate to what's currently offered on ESPN, at least this is what their research is telling them. So in that respect, it actually makes sense to create a separate channel, that speaks to a different network, right?

Monday, October 4, 2010 at 2:09pm EDT

JulieRubes says:

Sure, but the other ESPN networks air women's college games and WNBA games as part of their programming. I'm not good at expressing this, but what I'm trying to say, I hope any of these new creations can add to what's already here and not be the sole outlet.

Perhaps this question isn't up your alley, but for instance, will the women's basketball page of ESPN.com (slim as it is) go away or will it still exist? Might as well spread the content around to as many platforms as possible.

Monday, October 4, 2010 at 2:18pm EDT

mhueter says:

That's a really good question, I have no idea. But I'll try and find out.

Monday, October 4, 2010 at 2:20pm EDT

mhueter says:

That's a really good question, I have no idea. But I'll try and find out.

Monday, October 4, 2010 at 2:20pm EDT

tebcoast says:

It would also be awesome if ESPNW would cover the fastest growing contact sport in the world for women: roller derby. It is true that the history of roller derby has some camp, but currently the highest level teams are chock-full of nationally-ranked athletes, former speed-skaters, both ice and in-line, hockey-players, figure skaters, etc. It is one of the only outlets women have for competing in a team sports after high-school or college. The amount of athleticism needed to complete at the national level rivals that of many other sports, and the fact that the entire national infrastructure for this sport has been built by skaters for skaters in the last 6 years should be an inspiration. Currently national tournaments attracted hundreds of skaters and thousands of fans, with millions of dollars of economic impact on a city that hosts an event. Seattle's team sells 6000 (six thousand, not a typo) tickets per event. I would find it hard to take the mission of ESPNW seriously if it ignored women's roller derby.

Monday, October 4, 2010 at 2:54pm EDT

Portana says:

While I appreciate the effort of ESPN trying to reach more women and potentially highlighting more women's sports and athletes, I really do feel this is a step BACK for women in sports. If ESPNW focus solely on women's sports and takes it away from the main channels, I see that as segregating the sports and saying they are not good enough to be on the main ESPN channels.
In reading another article in USA Today on the ESPNW concept, the article mentioned programming with a focus on fitness. To me that is playing on a stereotype of women--our only interest in sport is to keep us thin and curvy.
I will be one of those who will not be looking in to ESPNW for any reason. I love sports for sports--not for being male or female--we are sports fans, not sports men or sports women.
I surely hope programming on the regular ESPN channels will not change with the advent of ESPNW, those of us in the 25% female viewership appreciate how shows are done on ESPN and ESPN2. Rachel Nichols is one of the best sports reporters out there, male or female and if all of a sudden she or any other of the sports center anchors are moved over to ESPNW exclusively, it would again be a travesty to all that they have worked for at the network.
I know I am jumping ahead and I know I am obviously not in ESPMW's target market as I watch Sports Center every day, but I just really feel potentially creating a channel for women and sports seems like a huge step back for how far women have progressed on the main channels.

Monday, October 4, 2010 at 3:31pm EDT

mhueter says:

I totally here you, Portana. Trust me. Your argument makes sense.

But here's where I'm coming from. There's a reason professional coed sports doesn't exist. Women simply can't compete when we get to a certain level. In order to grant opportunities to women in sport, we had to separate the genders. By separating them, it gave women a chance.

I agree that women deserve coverage on ESPN, ESPN2, etc., but they simply don't get it. The institution of "sport" is too crowded, too separate. That's why we need a new network, just for women.

As for your comment about fitness, you're right - there is a slight focus there. Why? Because fitness is very closely related to sport, and something that current and past female athletes participate in passionately, every day.

Also, I'm willing to bet that the USA Today writer made a conscious decision to use certain quotes instead of others, and phrase that story the way he wanted to phrase it. I have a feeling that had Christine Brennan write the article, we would have seen a much different story.

As for female sports reporters, I think they can stay on the EPSN networks. It would be irrelevant to move them completely over to espnW. In all my discussions, I haven't heard anything about plans for that.

Monday, October 4, 2010 at 3:56pm EDT

Portana says:

Hi Monica--
I see your side too. No arguments on that. Women sports are under-served on the main channels.
Given that the only official release of ESPNW I could find was from the USA article (which did have some bias bend to it) that I could find on the internet, ESPMW will need to do some media pronto to fight back the response that is out there. The USA Today article did not do ESPNW justice as to what good potential is there for Women's sports.

Monday, October 4, 2010 at 4:12pm EDT

nlo says:

Monica,
I think the points raised so far are significant, and need to be clarified right way. While the coverage of women's sport has dwindled on ESPN, there is a status affiliated with being on ESPN. If the NCAA Women's BB or softball NCAA tournaments were not on ESPN, then we would be taking gigantic steps backwards. I also have to disagree with the no co-ed sports comment. Track and Field, tennis (US Open and other majors) and a plethora of sports tend to be broadcast as "coed". Will this preclude their inclusion on ESPN W? Don't get me wrong I am in favor of the concept...but I was in favor of the SI for Women concept until I saw the actual product, which by the way failed because they did not appeal to the market. Women' Sport and Fitness magazine succeeded for years before the big publishers decided to jump in and carve up the market..thanks Conde Nast for that one! Give me a glimmer hope....

Monday, October 4, 2010 at 4:50pm EDT

mhueter says:

Hi guys - I'm actually "megan" - not Monica :)

I hear what you guys are saying. Good point on TandF - the reason they're broadcast at the same time is because they actually compete at the same time, in the same place. So the nature of the sport is different.

It will be interesting to see the product that they come out with. In the mean time, it's really important to continue healthy discussions like these.

Monday, October 4, 2010 at 4:54pm EDT

Diane says:

Weighing in..again. Everyone seems to have legitimate concerns looking at past performance by ESPN and others. My wish would be that we female athletes/supporters don't summarily dismiss this effort. It seems the intentions are good and with enough support the content and the way it's distributed can be influenced by our input. To my thinking ESPN and espnW would be foolish not to share some content if/when it makes it to the broadcasting stage. No venture, no matter how well intended, is perfect right out of the gate. We need to support the effort and the sponsors to show them that this is in fact important to us.

Monday, October 4, 2010 at 5:32pm EDT

mhueter says:

Diane - cheers to you. Love the attitude.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010 at 10:42am EDT

AnnofNorth says:

This is a good first step by ESPN. I find myself to be frequently frustrated when I attempt to find the outcome of specific women's sporting events. Women's Sports involve more than the Williams Sisters and Connecticut Women's Basketball. (Although I am a fan of both.) Thank you.

Sunday, October 17, 2010 at 2:10am EDT

Denise says:

This is pretty exciting. I was just thinking to myself the other day "wouldn't it be great if they made a brand that helped promote women's sports/supporters?" and it seems like this is it. I agree, women's sports is more than just female athletes looking good. We need a place where female athletes can get the attention they deserve, they're constantly under represented, and this is just what the doctor ordered. I'm all for ESPNW!

Thursday, October 21, 2010 at 9:14pm EDT

cvito says:

Meghan,

Any idea why there is no info on this on the main ESPN page yet? I've been looking for more information to share with my sport sociology students at Illinois. Intrigued and optimistic about the idea but definitely needing more information out there ASAP. Anything else you can share/find would be great.

Thanks,

Caitlin

Friday, October 22, 2010 at 4:32pm EDT

mhueter says:

Caitlin, unfortunately, I don't have that information yet. They're still working on developing content right now. I know they're looking to launch a blog late this fall, and then a full website in the spring. If I were a guessing person, I'd say you could probably expect to see some type of cross-promotion on the main espn site sometime in the spring. Love the idea of a sport sociology class, and glad you're sharing this. Are you a teacher?

Sunday, October 31, 2010 at 1:23pm EDT

cvito says:

Grad Student :) But lucky me, I get to lecture all by myself!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010 at 9:05pm EDT

sunshine says:

I think what you are doing is awesome!!!! I wish someone would have done this many years ago then maybe i would not have stopped playying my sport!!! However, i do believe it is going to be hard because even my own husband is a person that thinks women shouldnt be on tv playing sports. I disagree with him, I love sports, whether its women or men, i just love watching it and yelling at the tv like i think the team can hear me!!! I am one of those girls that go to a sportsbar and request for baseball on one tv and football on another but because im a woman i get no respect. Maybe this new thing will finally get woman respect with sports all together, i mean it has to start somewhere...Look at weight lifting, woman are now doing that and the men are accepting, its time to accept the sports also, so keep up the good work and the good sports!!!!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010 at 5:49pm EDT

Dr. Nicole M. LaVoi says:

I love this conversation about espnW. I think at this point it is safe to say we shouldn't make assumptions or criticize until we all see the final product. I am cautiously optimistic and if anyone can get this right, it is the espnW team. -nml

Wednesday, November 10, 2010 at 11:45am EST

mhueter says:

Agree Nicole! Glad the Tucker team is coming around :) The women running the program are female athletes, as well as sports fans, and they certainly "get it" on many, many levels.

Friday, November 12, 2010 at 9:20am EST

equiptforplay says:

Maybe ESPNW will start to cover the LPGA tour? It's just about impossible to find women's golf on TV and now that Cristie Kerr is #1 in the world and Paula Creamer is #7, maybe they'll realize that there's a large audience for this sport beyond all-PGA all the time on CBS and ABC.

That said, I'd like to encourage ESPNW to think about a broader demographic than 18-49 year old women! It's ridiculously narrow, seriously ageist and misses the segment of the female population that has the most leisure time and disposable income. If they want to know where the money is (maybe their advertisers might?) it's among women 45 . This is the demographic that's playing golf and tennis, skiing and hiking and biking with abandon, and spending big bucks on all the gear that goes along with these sports. Advertising revenues will drive the success of this new channel and they would be well served to direct the ad dollars more broadly to the viewers who have the time and inclination to 'consume' their sports and all of the rig that goes along with them.

I'm 59 and started my third business three years ago to design and manufacture women's golf shoes and golf gloves. Why? Because just like the lack of women's sports coverage on TV, there's a lack of beautiful, comfortable gear (that's not Pepto Bismal pink) for women who are serious golfers. Since this syndrome seems to apply to most women's sports, our plan is to develop products with a high-performance quotient that are not dumbed down for women - and that don't leave aesthetics in the dust. Style and performance actually can live side-by-side and no one has to take their clothes off to look good! If you are interested to see what we do and read our blogs, come visit our website at www.equiptforplay.com. We are athletic women designing for other athletic women athletes. Pure and simple.

Friday, November 12, 2010 at 5:59pm EST

equiptforplay says:

My editor went to sleep! Or is visiting The Department of Redundancy Department. Last line, skip the last 'athletes'!

Friday, November 12, 2010 at 6:02pm EST

mhueter says:

@equiptforplay - It's important to understand that espnW isn't just targeting consumers of women's sports - they're targeting female sports fans, too (i.e., NFL and NBA fans). I'm assuming this skews their data a bit younger. They did a lot of research on these markets. I assume they have secondary audiences as well, and won't forget about their older consumers who (as you mentioned) are very active with leisure time.

Also, I too agree there is an opportunity in covering women's golf. In fact, I personally believe that opportunity is even bigger on an international stage. Do you agree?

Very cool that you set up your own business for golf gear. I checked out your site - you have some great stuff. Maybe we can get more people to write about women's golf on WomenTalkSports and prove there is a platform opportunity for advertisers like yourself.

Saturday, November 13, 2010 at 1:46pm EST

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