espnW, ESPN’s Women’s Site, Explains wOBA

A year and a half ago, ESPN announced the launch of espnW, a digital brand aimed at women. The initial announcement in October 2010 was greeted by a great deal of skepticism in the blogosphere, from Tom Tango to Julie DiCaro. They feared that the site would patronize ESPN’s female viewers, especially after the ESPN VP in charge of espnW, Laura Gentle, suggested that the site might be about “women finding self-esteem in sports and about getting a pedicure.”

As DiCaro wrote, “Women already HAVE an ESPN. It’s called ESPN.” But espnW may not be as bad as its critics feared. I give you exhibit A: today’s sabermetrics primer, written by Amanda Rykoff (and already given the Tango seal of approval).

It’s a solid introduction to advanced baseball statistics pitched at an audience that knows the game but doesn’t know about saber. Rykoff gives brief explanations of OPS, wOBA, FIP, UZR, VORP, WAR, and BABIP; it’s virtually the same list that Bill Simmons, The Sports Guy, used two years ago with his sabermetrics primer. But more than anything, it gives an indication of whom ESPN hopes will read espnW. Simmons is essentially a male lifestyle writer who happens to love sports. With espnW, the network may be trying to build a female equivalent.

But ESPN has a bit of a credibility gap. Just a week ago, Sam Laird wrote an article at Mashable revealing that ESPN’s pulldown menu for viewers to register complaints contained the option to select “Commentator – dislike female commentators,” in addition to things like “ACC Blackout” and “Camera Angles.” A network vice president later apologized and explained, according to the Mashable article’s paraphrase:

The comment field for complaints about female reporters was a a relic from some 10 years ago, when the the network first began assigning female play-by-play announcers to cover college football games and received criticism from some fans.

ESPN has also earned a reputation as a tough place for women to work, as Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller wrote in their 2011 oral history of ESPN, “Those Guys Have All the Fun.” Numerous ESPN personalities have been suspected or suspended for sexual harassment, including Harold Reynolds, Mike Tirico, and, most famous of all, Chris Berman, of “You’re With Me, Leather” fame.

Even Simmons hasn’t been immune to criticism. Back in 2002, SportsCenter anchor Chris McKendry took Bill Simmons to task for one of his more sexist columns. (Don’t get me wrong: I don’t believe that Simmons hates women. He just traffics in tired stereotypes for jokes. And then he recycles those jokes for a decade.) A year before that column, McKendry described what it was like to work at ESPN: “ESPN represents the boiler room of the American male psyche.”

There isn’t a ton of original content on espnW yet. Much of the content on individual sports is cross-posted from other ESPN sites, supplemented with occasional articles written by espnW’s 20 contributors, all but one of whom are women. Other than today’s saber primer, the most recent baseball story written specifically for espnW was a November 3 profile of new Dodger trainer Sue Falsone by Stephania Bell, who regularly writes about injuries for ESPN.com. That makes it feel more like a portal for women than an entirely separate platform, like Bill Simmons’ Grantland, which consists mainly of exclusive content written by a dedicated staff of writers.

The initial anger over ESPN’s announcement of espnW also appears to have given way to something more akin to indifference. Kristi Dosh (my former coblogger at Chop-n-Change) was initially put off by the site, and collected a number of other negative first-take reactions. But she then interviewed ESPN’s Laura Gentile and changed her mind: as Kristi finally concluded, “espnW is not about creating a separate ESPN targeted only at females. It’s about serving the needs of female consumers not currently served by ESPN.”

At least, that was the idea. The jury’s still out on the product. And it’s really more of a “product” than anything else at this point. There are five “official partners,” including Nike, Gatorade, Oakley, and Proctor & Gamble. At the top of every page, there’s a Nike swoosh accompanied by text that says “Founding Partner.” If ESPN wants this to feel more like a news site than a crass marketing ploy, they might want to consider investing more of their own resources and fewer of Nike’s.

Kelly McBride, at the Poynter School of Journalism, examined espnW in depth on December 22, and concluded that the results so far were “lukewarm.” Her research demonstrated that women make up nearly half of ESPN’s audience, and that the third-most popular show in January among women was Sunday Night Football, though women watch far fewer hours of TV sports than men. This would explain why ESPN sniffed a marketing opportunity. But so far, ESPN has discovered that “there’s no magic bullet.” On the other hand, they have learned the following:

  • • 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.
  • • 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.

ESPN knows a lot about women sports fans, except how best to convert them into cash, and that’s a mission to which they will undoubtedly continue to devote themselves. McBride writes that she believes that “the network really does want to serve women better,” but also states the obvious about espnW: “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.”

Hopefully, a lot of Rykoff’s readers will come to Fangraphs the next time they want to view wOBA and WAR leaderboards, and ESPN will continue to treat the women in its audience as serious sports fans. One way to do that is just to staff up. Hire more writers, including male writers, because having no original baseball content in three and a half months is sort of embarrassing. Another is to better integrate espnW into ESPN.com: chances are, you’ve never been to espnW.com before today, and I hadn’t either.

But, as far as I’m concerned, one of the most important lessons to draw from ESPN’s findings is this: sports aren’t necessarily gender-segregated. There are a lot of guys who watch the WNBA. There are a ton of women who watch football. What ESPN needs is more good writing and good coverage, not just more demographic ticks on a checklist. Rykoff’s column is a good start. Now it’s up to the Worldwide Leader to put more money where their mouth is.




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Alex is a writer for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.


60 Responses to “espnW, ESPN’s Women’s Site, Explains wOBA”

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  1. sc2gg says:

    I learned about espnW about three days ago, when they had a feature up on the MLB front page about Brett Lawrie and his sister, The Fightin’ Lawries. I thought it was weird that a non-American, non-MLB centered article was being given so much press, but perhaps they were showing of espnW a bit, too.

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  2. Franco says:

    Even if they have a nice article, I still find the whole premise insulting. Do we need ESPN for black or one for gays?

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    • That’s really one of the most common criticisms of the very concept of having an ESPN “for women.” And they clearly haven’t quite answered the question of why it exists yet — it’s a pretty muddled site. It’s not ugly, it’s not embarrassing, and the stories are well-written, if there aren’t yet very many of them. But I don’t think they totally know what it is.

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      • sprot says:

        The entire thing is baffling.

        On one hand, defenders of ESPNW want to argue that the site isn’t patronizing and implicitly insulting to women by cordoning them off into their own cutesie little corner of the internet where they gossip and paint their toenails and, “oh, sports too!” It’s supposed to be more than that. I’m not 100% sure what “more than that” looks like, but whatever. It’s beside the point.

        The problem is that you send the message that ESPNW IS VERY MUCH that sort of cutesie little corner of the internet when you go around publishing a piece like that. Primers like that have been written literally dozens of other places (and have been written without suggesting that UZR created Moneyball) so what’s the implication? That women/readers of ESPNW don’t read ESPN or Fangraphs or team blogs? That they need the internet boiled down and hand-fed to them while they paint their nails?

        Until that disconnect is resolved – and I doubt it will be – it’s going to send confusing and bizarre messages to the readers. At least to me, anyway.

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    • Bip says:

      It’s more similar to ESPN LA or ESPN NY, like a specialization for a particular group of fans that have particular interests. However, it does suggest that women are a particular group of sports fans whereas men are just sports fans, which is not ideal.

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    • Marver says:

      If ESPNBlack or ESPNGay was profitable in its existence, I’d consider it far more insulting for people to decry that a product that people successfully support economically shouldn’t exist. So long as there exists a market for it, people who neither gain nor lose from its existence shouldn’t influence its existence. If ESPNW or ESPNBlack or ESPNGay flourishes, it’d be far more insulting for someone uninterested in the product to kill its existence.

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    • Preston says:

      I don’t think it’s a problem. There are magazines and tv networks targeted at women, blacks and gays. Different groups have different interests. It’s not pandering, it’s more capably servicing their interests. Now if this was a site run by men who were choosing the “girly” type articles, that would be pandering. If it’s women trying to create a site that more directly services their interests I don’t see anything wrong with it.

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    • Plank says:

      I feel the same way about the Oscars. Why have best female actress and best male actor? Isn’t that kind of a relic of a bygone era?

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  3. GotHeem says:

    How about ESPN actually publishes some article with good analysis done by female writers?

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    • 20389438 says:

      They need to get good female writers first. Jemele Hill doesn’t quite count.

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      • I’m not a huge fan of Hill, but they have clearly hired a lot more women writers in the last few years than they used to have. Stephania Bell is pretty good, and so is Johnette Howard; I don’t know Dana O’Neil and Ashley Fox, but I see that they’re columnists for the NFL and college basketball.

        I agree, getting good writers is the key.

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  4. Hal Jordan says:

    After reading both of the 2002 columns linked to, I have decided that Simmons was sexist but McKendry was sexist and hypocritical. Both lists were equally wrong imo.

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  5. Al says:

    I can’t believe you’re getting paid to write posts like this.

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  6. Marver says:

    Got to love the contradictions here: “[Time for ESPN] to put more money where their mouth is” preceded by the complaint that ” At the top of every page, there’s a Nike swoosh”. I get it: you want ESPN to sink money into an unproven idea while simultaneously mitigating the financial gains they can make with that idea through commercializing the website. All while ignoring that the page your article is written on has a Nike add directly next to the ‘Leave a Reply’ box.

    I also enjoyed your not-so-subtle advocation that ESPNW hire you: ” Hire more writers, including male writers, because having no original baseball content in three and a half months is sort of embarrassing.”

    There’s probably a good reason that ESPNW isn’t expanding in the way — speed and size — you’d like it to, and I would overwhelmingly place my eggs in the ‘not profitable enough’ basket. And if they do what you advocate by removing commercial sponsors and simultaneously expanding, it will only accelerate its demise.

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    • First, forgive me if I was misleading. I’m not asking ESPN to hire me, for espnW or anything else. I am a full-time student. I’m not looking for a job.

      Second, call me old-fashioned, but I think there’s a difference between an advertisement and a “partnership” — it makes me uncomfortable to see ESPN consider five of its advertisers as “partners.” It makes me think that Nike is directing the news coverage on espnW, which I think is inappropriate.

      Third, I’m sure that if espnW were more profitable, it would get more money. The point is, I’m not sure what it is right now, and I’m not sure ESPN knows either. It’s neither fish nor flesh; it’s “lukewarm.” Either kill it off or staff it up. Right now, there just isn’t much there.

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      • Paul says:

        So as someone who has done quite a bit of work on the issue of “Corporate Social Responsibility” when it was first really getting started, I am 99% certain that espnW is not intended to be profitable, and it’s existence is due almost entirely to it’s partners’ CSR initiatives.

        Many of these large public corporations require that their partners, contractors, etc. change their HR policies to reflect their CSR initiatives. They don’t do this because they are do-gooders. For example, when Corporation X decides to build a smelter on some remote island that they will pollute like you wouldn’t believe and expose workers to deplorable chemical toxicity risks, they can counter activist stockholder campaigns with all their CSR initiatives. They also create groups that confer “awards” on them. Believe it or not, awards that everybody in Corporate America knows full well are phony are highly sought after. I guess it must be PR. If you can put it on your website, an AP writer is willing to cut and paste a snippet close to deadline, or your lobbyist can read it into a congressional hearing record, I suppose that’s pretty valuable.

        I have seen so many examples of transparent CSR scams that there is really nothing that can convince me that this is not what this is, especially since we know it will never actually make money. Keep on a lookout for the publication of this “partnership” by these great American socially responsible corporations, and importantly, in what context.

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      • That’s a really interesting perspective on this, Paul, and one I absolutely hadn’t considered. You may well be right, though I still wonder what influence ESPN’s “partners” have on the process of selecting and editing the pieces that go up on the site.

        I just don’t understand why the site necessarily has to be unprofitable. It’s clear that women are a large sports audience. It seems like ESPN should be able to monetize them — if not through a specialty site targeted exclusively to women, then through the main site.

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      • Marver says:

        I wouldn’t say the idea is necessarily unprofitable, just that having an extensive staff at this juncture, in their current format, probably wouldn’t help. In all honesty, blending pop culture with sports, ala Grantland, would probably also be a profitable route for a women’s sports website.

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      • Paul says:

        The partners certainly would not edit content. In fact, what makes this all so unpalatable is that the content is completely irrelevant. It’s a site designed to “empower young women in sports,” or some such phraseology that a $400/hour DC lawyer will concern him/herself with. The key to remember in all this is that it apparently started in board rooms and was taken to a whole new level by lawyers. Just do a little quick research about how extensive CSR practices are at major law firms who are also heavily into lobbying.

        As far as ESPN monetizing female entertainment participation, how have they not already? Do you really think all those beer and pizza commercials that mock men as morons and posers are directed at you, with your male parts? Sure, they encourage peer pressure, but it’s also a nice gimmick to bring the ladies into the convo, yes? I’ve seen it in action I don’t know how many times.

        What I’m saying is the site can’t make money because it is obviously frivolous for the overwhelming king of sports entertainment to have to do, especially in light of the figures you cite in the article. Their model is and was working, and no doubt has been appealing to more and more women over time.

        Please don’t confuse some gimmick invented by lawyers and corporate pukes to something like OWN. The latter may or may not be a successful venture, but it was obviously a serious attempt by a woman who started with nothing and has dominated television entertainment for a generation.

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      • ben says:

        I think Paul is correct to point out that this is a case of CSR (one of the newest, most widespread, and perverted forms of use value). But I think Alex is right to question whether or not to call espnw “unprofitable.” CSRs are really abstract forms of profit generation. It’s why people will spend the extra 50 cents on organic fruit: not because it actually tastes better, but because (they think) they’re doing something good.

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      • ben says:

        “Do you really think all those beer and pizza commercials that mock men as morons and posers are directed at you, with your male parts? Sure, they encourage peer pressure, but it’s also a nice gimmick to bring the ladies into the convo, yes?”

        I completely disagree. I think those commercials are absolutely directed towards men, and if they’re anything they’re sexist towards women. Men are made to seem morons, but victimized morons – nothing more than tongue lashed, pussy whipped dupes subject to psycho bitches. But do you want sympathy? Want to know that you’re not alone? Everything will be ok. Drink beer x.

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      • Paul says:

        Ben: I prefer to call most CSR initiatives straight-up gimmicks intended to deceive, but I can accept “abstract forms of profit generation” also. I’m not so sure about the organic food take. I know a lot of people who eat organic because they truly believe it tastes better. Personally, I think you have to be vegetarian or close to it to notice the taste in most instances because most of our meat is so fatty and salty, but a lot of people who eat organic are heavily veggie eaters. I’m sure there are plenty of people who eat organic solely because they think are being socially responsible, but even then it’s a perceived direct benefit, not a clearly designed gimmick. They’re not duping themselves, and it’s at least arguable that there is a social benefit to buying organic. Perhaps espnW is really intended to do some good. It looks like a transparent CSR gimmick to me.

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      • hans says:

        Of course choosing organic has a social and more specifically economic benefit. I’m not sure there is even a mild argument against that assumption. Organic will generally be food grown within a certain shortened mileage of the place it is sold at. Keeping the money flow within the area retains wealth there as opposed to feeding wealth systems outside of the area.

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      • “Organic will generally be food grown within a certain shortened mileage of the place it is sold at.”

        There is simply no guarantee of that with an “organic” label.

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      • Paul says:

        The agronomist says Alex wins.

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      • Marver says:

        Hans — the local stimulus argument for organic farming is just a statistical trick. I’m actually a proponent of localized agriculture, and it’s a shame that the Federal Government subsidizes large-scale agriculture so much that the benefit organic farmers should have due to saved transportation expenditures is substantially mitigated. But the economic aspect of purchasing local (with a currency from a larger area) is largely a farce, unsupported by substantial statistical evidence.

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      • “it’s a shame that the Federal Government subsidizes large-scale agriculture so much that the benefit organic farmers should have due to saved transportation expenditures is substantially mitigated.”

        I agree.

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  7. Tyler says:

    Kind of a weird post for Fangraphs but I like the outside the box approach I guess.

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  8. Julie DiCaro says:

    Just throwing out there that the writers over at Aerys Sports have also done a bunch of posts on Sabremetrics. You can read them on our “Around The Horn” site:

    http://aeryssports.com/around-the-horn/alphabet-soup-getting-defensive/

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  9. Julie DiCaro says:

    Here are a bunch of Megan Wells’ posts on metrics:

    http://aeryssports.com/around-the-horn/author/girlnoir/

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    • Thanks, Julie. I looked for your original post on espnW but it looks like your October 2010 posts aren’t live any more, so I had to link via archive.org.

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      • Julie DiCaro says:

        I’ve moved over to Aerys Sports.

        Just a quick note: I love Amanda Rykoff, and I consider her a fantastic writer, a great baseball fan, and an all-around cool chick. My issue with espnW are things like that fact that there were no baseball posts for over 3 months (at least, this is what I’ve been told). Serious fans cover their teams and their sports all year ’round, no matter what their gender is.

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    • Julie DiCaro says:

      Oh and now I just saw you said the same thing about the last baseball post on espnW. Sorry. Derp.

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      • pjs24 says:

        Alex & Julie,

        One thing re: the no baseball for 3 months, Amanda herself has actually posted other baseball pieces recently.

        http://espn.go.com/espnw/more-sports/7484960/the-biggest-baseball-offseason-storylines

        http://espn.go.com/espnw/commentary/7451951/amanda-rykoff-says-goodbye-new-york-yankee-jorge-posada

        The only *issue*, for lack of a better word, I had with the piece was using Amanda’s piece as an entree into a completely different topic. I think suggesting the piece is an overarching indication of ESPN/espnW’s thought process and directives is off-base, too.

        This was something done by Amanda on her own to help novice baseball fans (novice in terms of stats, not necessarily in terms of baseball fandom) ease their way into the sometimes (OK, let’s be honest, always) icy pool that is the stats world, a process she somewhat recently went through herself as she learned more about next level stats.

        It is also in no way related to the Simmons primer. His was written two years ago and a lot of headway has been made with those stats as far as entering the mainstream so they are worth covering still. Just because most FG readers know them like the back of their hand doesn’t mean there isn’t still a large contingent of fans who haven’t quite jumped on board.

        In fact, it might behoove Simmons to cover a lot of them again on Grantland (and add some if he wants) partly because he could definitely use the refresher (baseball is far & away his weakest sport knowledge & comprehension-wise… it’s painful listening to he & Jack O discuss the game), but also because repeated exposure can be good, especially because he might be reaching new targets two years later.

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      • Thanks, pjs24. That’s bizarre that Rykoff was writing and her pieces didn’t make it to the espnW MLB page. Seems like someone’s asleep at the wheel.

        Believe me, I fully appreciate the value of a sabermetrics primer. I got brought on at Fangraphs because of a sabermetrics primer I wrote at Yahoo a couple of years ago. I’m not saying that Rykoff and Simmons’s posts were related in any sense other than the fact that they were very similar.

        And much as Simmons was trying to bring his audience along into baseball advanced stats, I think Rykoff was trying to do the same.

        Right now, espnW appears mostly to be about human interest stories, which is something that ESPN has apparently discovered women like: “Women like basic statistics and personal narratives.” Rykoff’s piece seems to be slightly different, which I think is a cool thing, and possibly a way forward for the site.

        But, again, it seems like they really haven’t figured out what they want it to be.

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  10. real sports says:

    “There are a lot of guys who watch the WNBA.”

    ……………………………lol

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  11. Bob says:

    I think if we all stop commenting and clicking on the Remington articles, he will eventually go away.

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  12. Guy Smiley says:

    We need a new site called FangraphsR for all of Remington’s stuff. As long as it isn’t anywhere near Fangraphs.com, I am happy.

    Crap, now you made me late for the Mystics/Liberty game (and yes, I had to look those team names up).

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  13. MikeS says:

    I don’t have any problem with ESPN patronizing or pandering to women. Why shouldn’t they treat women the same way they treat men?

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    • ben says:

      I think this is actually a really revealing comment. ESPN’s crass gender essentialisms go both ways. But they’re certainly not alone. Almost all media involved in sports play to a really debased form of masculine pandering. It gets pretty tiresome when all I want to do is just watch some friggin baseball.

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  14. John says:

    If I was a broad, I’d probably check out ESPNW after I was done vacuuming and baking and folding laundry.

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  15. Johnny Slick says:

    Regarding the ‘basic stats and personal stories” angle, this method has worked fantastically well with the Olympics in terms of not just getting women to watch the Summer Games in particular but lots of men who otherwise have no interest in watching dudes run around a circle for 10 minutes. *People*, not just women, want to have personal reasons for watching a given sports match. Not all of us played the game in high school or college (personally I played football, wrestling, and basketball for a year but by far my favorite sport is baseball, which I never played beyond the sandlot level).

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  16. Guy Smiley says:

    Alex – When did you start writing for Not Graphs? This is simply brilliant satire.

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  17. Remington, it’s okay to troll Simmons, gigantic target on his back and all, but don’t you dare touch my beloved Pos. I could go for an anti FJM post to stir up some more fervor though, you’re on a roll sir.

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    • I’m not really trolling Simmons. I think it’s a legitimate critique. I’ve been reading him for a decade, like most of us. And I used to love him.

      Unfortunately, it’s really hard for me to read him any more. “The Book of Basketball” had a lot of really good content that was completely ruined by the same jokes he’s been making about porn, gambling, and farts for over 10 years.

      On the other hand, writing really isn’t his primary medium any more, and you could say the same for virtually all the ESPN personalities who came from print. He’s the editor in chief of Grantland, which frequently has excellent content; he created 30 for 30, a series of universally acclaimed documentaries hailed as some of the best work ESPN has done in years; and he has one of the most popular podcasts in America. (I used to listen to that, too, before it got incredibly repetitive.)

      I love Joe Posnanski. I think he’s warm, smart, and insightful, and most of the time he finds just the right balance between sentiment and cold-eyed analysis.

      Simmons is capable of great work when he tackles something new. But he repeats himself a lot, and I don’t think it makes me a troll to say so. Criticism is legitimate, when it has a legitimate basis.

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