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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.