ESPN set to shake up sports media world

Matt Cozzi

This winter, the No. 22 nationally ranked Iowa women’s basketball team will be televised 12 times during the regular season.

That number could increase in upcoming years considering last month’s groundbreaking news from ESPN.

This coming spring, ESPN plans to launch espnW, a sub-brand that will begin as a website and could end up becoming its own TV channel.

That “sub-brand,” of course, is women. Yes, ESPN actually attached the letter “W” to its name, as if we wouldn’t be able to figure it out. Essentially, the website is going to aim to serve females in sport, or so the current Web page says. The goal will be for espnW to be the main hub for all things that deal with women in sport.

But for espnW to even be labeled a “sub-brand” — and the idea that sports needs to be feminized somehow — is outrageous. The idea that women need a “pinkified” version of sports programming is insulting.

At this point, though, not too many people know about the moniker that is espnW. In fact, when I asked a couple players on the Iowa women’s basketball team, they had no idea about the website.

Sophomore Jaime Printy, reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year, said it would “give [women in sport] more exposure.”

Of course it would, but at what cost?

A big reason for this website, which will predominantly serve as a blog with video and audio features, is because ESPN feels like it needs to gain viewership from the sex that you almost never see on its current mainstream lineup.

It’s true; only two types of programming on the ABC/ESPN family of networks draws majority-female audiences, said USA Today’s Michael Hiestand: the National Spelling Bee on ABC (63 percent) and cheerleading shows on ESPN2 (52 percent).

“SportsCenter,” which millions flock to every morning and/or evening, featured women’s sports in only 1.4 percent of airtime in 2009, according to a study from the University of Southern California. In theory, then, that’s like one WNBA highlight in every 100 clips. In 2010, only 8 percent of ESPN’s sports programming is expected to cover women’s sports. That includes the aforementioned WNBA, among other sports programming.

Sure, Printy thinks it would be good for women’s basketball, et al. I probably would, too. But women already have an ESPN. It’s called ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPNU. Instead of showing the World Series of Poker several times per week, show head coach Lisa Bluder and the Hawkeye women or any other women’s athletics program.

Additionally, women don’t need to be secluded on their own network. It’s a myth that women don’t watch ESPN. According to the network itself, more than 4 million women watched the NFL on ESPN last year, on average.

ESPN Vice President Laura Gentile has other thoughts.

“Women see us as an admirable brand that has authority,” she told USA Today last month. “But they see us as their father’s brand, or husband’s brand, or boyfriend’s brand. They recognize it’s not theirs.”

ESPN is the “Worldwide Leader in Sports.” With the debut of espnW this spring, maybe we should change it to the Worldwide Leader in Men’s Sports, because it’s separating the sexes further with an entire women-only media outlet.

Perhaps this is ESPN’s attempt to make money in a market that is largely ignored. If the blog, etc., is successful, it will likely turn into some sort of TV presence.

If women and others don’t like espnW or the website becomes financially unsuccessful, it will be deemed a failure and crash and burn into media oblivion.

I hope it does.

Matt Cozzi is a columnist for the Daily Iowan at the University of Iowa.