espnW... uggh

As a sports fan and male feminist, I have been very interested in women's sports and the way they are covered. Sports entertainment has been largely male dominated until the introduction of Title IX gave women equal access to athletic scholarships. Since then, women's college basketball and softball have risen in popularity. Still coverage of women's sports still only amounts to less than 5% of all sports covered on American television, less during non-Olympic years. While I don't have official numbers, it is apparent also that the women athletes who receive the most attention do so not only for their athletic ability but also for their sex appeal. While some of these sex symbol female athletes also happen to be among the best at their sports, it is clear that many of them would just be exceptional athletes no men had ever heard of if it weren't for their physical appearance.

Well, just this week ESPN has announced its newest marketing campaign, espnW. This brand will aim to attract a larger female fan base to the largest American sports network. This is probably the last straw with me and ESPN. I had all but stopped watching it even while I was still living in the US. I still check website regularly, that is until learning more about the new campaign today. Here is why as a male feminist sports fan, espnW bothers me so much.

ESPN has had its fair share of problems with sexism, some of the cases highly publicized. Because I don't work there, I can't really say how well they have addressed these problems, but many of them have been quite disturbing. Furthermore, while ESPN has hired more women to cover men's sports, such as Suzy Kolber and Erin Andrews, many of the women they hire, serious sports journalists as they may be, are hired for their attractiveness as much as their sports knowledge, and both the aforementioned women have been the target of sexual harassment related to their employment. It is no surprise that any television network would hire attractive people to be on the air, but I find it interesting that ESPN regularly hires overweight, traditionally unattractive male sports personalities.

ESPN regularly irritates me, mostly because of its corporate nature and repetitive, often annoying and gimmicky programming. Still, I have put up with these nuisances. I even had a long subscription to their magazine until they came out with the laughably pretentious attempt to outdo the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue with their own "Body Issue." The cover (at least the one I was sent) featured one of the Williams sisters naked. While I admit the poses weren't overtly sexual, their sales went up because of the naked woman on the cover, and ESPN's excuses that they just wanted to show a variety of athlete's body types surely fooled no one. This was an attempt to gain readers, pure and simple. It worked. I applaud ESPN for featuring a pregnant woman on one of its covers. I wish it would do this more often, but profits are more important than integrity and quality in the journalism world. It is a shame because ESPN really does some high quality work.

Knowing ESPN is one of the few sports networks that gives women any attention at all, I was willing to give espnW a chance. My first reaction was negative. The sports world is very misogynistic in general; it doesn't take a feminist to see this. Just watch the Dallas Cowboys play on Sunday or listen to talk radio for 30 minutes. If you make it out without seeing/hearing women objectified or stereotyped at least once, I would be surprised. As a male sports fan who respects women, I find this disheartening. Because my options are so limited, I wanted ESPN to be progressive. I wanted to like espnW even though I was skeptical.

espnW is not overtly sexist from my limited observations. It employs respected women sportswriters. The colors are orange, not pink. It is not even immediately clear that the site is designed for women. Bravo! Many of the things that the editors and journalists are doing for the site are also innovative and encouraging. They want to spend more time looking at health and fitness, rather than just competitive sports. I am very much in favor of many of the things they are promoting. However, I can't shake the feeling that this is money driven.

ESPN can't possibly expand anymore into the male demographic unless they start showing competitive video gaming tournaments (which they sort of already do at least with the Madden games). It only seems natural that they would do more to target women. I won't fault them for that. Every major corporation wants to reach new consumers. At least they aren't exploiting children yet. I am not bothered that ESPN wants to profit and expand their market. I am bothered that they think the best way to do that is to create a separate network for women.

If I were a current female sports fan, I would be insulted. As a fan of women's college basketball, I am insulted a little. My first encounter with the new brand came when I was reading about the Baylor women's basketball team (currently ranked 1st and one of the only consistent bright spots in Baylor's athletic program). It insults me that ESPN thinks that if I am reading about women's college basketball, I am likely to be a woman. It insults me that they think women are interested in yoga rather than football, partly because I have a family full of women who are very passionate about the Green Bay Packers, and I like yoga. While I and my friends and family might not fit into the average market demographics, I find the idea of a "separate but equal" site for women to be insulting. The last thing America needs is another corporation telling us what each gender should find interesting. This is just another example of the retroactive Martian men and Venusian women crap that just needs to die a quick, bloody death.

If ESPN wants to attract more women viewers, there are some simple things it could do. First, put more women on the air and more diverse women as well, not just models. Second, promote women athletes without objectifying them. Third, fire men who harass women, or at the very least have them apologize, even if they are popular stars. Fourth, diversify programming - do we really need 5 hours of SportsCenter or constant replays of the World Series of Poker (which actually showcases some extraordinarily talented and intelligent women). I can't believe that the third rerun of some Limit Hold Em tournament would actually outdraw say a broadcast of the women's college volleyball championships. Fifth, cut down on sexist advertising. Sixth, form partnerships with primarily women centered media and advertise to women. Seventh, make a product that men would like to share with their wives, daughters, mothers, and sisters rather than one that keeps them isolated in a bedroom (the men I know whose wives are sports fans really enjoy sharing this part of their lives).

There are many other things ESPN could do, and they don't need my help to run their network. I am just bothered that they believe that women are so put off by their product that they needed a separate one. If that is the case, then there are serious problems with the original product that are not being addressed. Title IX has given me hope that the macho bastion of sports is moving to include women more. This is not just some fringe issue. Sports is at the heart of American culture and entertainment, and as long as it is a segregated world, that influence will affect millions of people profoundly.

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