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.


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sc2gg
Guest
sc2gg
4 years 7 months ago

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.

Franco
Guest
Franco
4 years 7 months ago

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

Bip
Member
Member
Bip
4 years 7 months ago

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.

Marver
Guest
Marver
4 years 7 months ago

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.

Preston
Guest
Preston
4 years 7 months ago

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.

Plank
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Plank
4 years 7 months ago

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?

GotHeem
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GotHeem
4 years 7 months ago

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

20389438
Guest
20389438
4 years 7 months ago

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

Hal Jordan
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Hal Jordan
4 years 7 months ago

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.

20389438
Guest
20389438
4 years 7 months ago

It shouldn’t be shocking that Bill Simmons, who could be replaced by any drunk idiot at a bar, is sexist.

Al
Guest
Al
4 years 7 months ago

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

Bradley Woodrum
Member
Member
4 years 7 months ago

I can’t believe you don’t get paid to write comments like this.

Al
Guest
Al
4 years 7 months ago

I’d guess around $15 per post.

Marver
Guest
Marver
4 years 7 months ago

The only way Remington’s absolute certainty makes sense is if he earns $0.00

Al
Guest
Al
4 years 7 months ago

lol

Socal Baseball
Guest
Socal Baseball
4 years 7 months ago

Either way you are overpaid Alex. The Vernon Wells of Fangraph writers.

AJS
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AJS
4 years 7 months ago

If Alex Remington is being accurate that an FG writer (or even only he) gets paid less than $15 a post, this site should be embarrassed. The writers here turn out quality work, and deserve to be paid for it at going rates. It’s this sort of attitude — I’m doing it for the exposure — that has resulted in lower rates of pay for all journalists.

Marver
Guest
Marver
4 years 7 months ago

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.

Tyler
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Tyler
4 years 7 months ago

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

Julie DiCaro
Guest
Julie DiCaro
4 years 7 months ago

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/

Julie DiCaro
Guest
Julie DiCaro
4 years 7 months ago

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

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

Julie DiCaro
Guest
Julie DiCaro
4 years 7 months ago

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

Paul Sporer
Member
Member
4 years 7 months ago

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.

real sports
Guest
real sports
4 years 7 months ago

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

……………………………lol

sc2gg
Guest
4 years 7 months ago

It isn’t for the basketball, that’s for sure.

Bob
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Bob
4 years 7 months ago

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

ben
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ben
4 years 7 months ago

ok. you start.

Guy Smiley
Guest
Guy Smiley
4 years 7 months ago

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).

MikeS
Guest
MikeS
4 years 7 months ago

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?

ben
Guest
ben
4 years 7 months ago

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.

John
Guest
John
4 years 7 months ago

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

ben
Guest
ben
4 years 7 months ago

OMG. You are, like, so edgy.

Johnny Slick
Guest
Johnny Slick
4 years 7 months ago

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).

Guy Smiley
Guest
Guy Smiley
4 years 7 months ago

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

Fredchuckdave
Guest
4 years 7 months ago

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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