Approximately 31 years after the launch of ESPN in 1979, the leading sports network founded its first ever space dedicated to women’s sports with the start of ESPN W. My first thought was that maybe this was a Saturday Night Live skit or prank by The Onion. Why would the self-coined “Worldwide Leader in Sports” need to create a separate network for women’s sports?
By creating a unique network specifically for women’s sports, ESPN is essentially saying that women’s sports aren’t ‘real’ sports and therefore need to be relegated to a separate space for separate coverage. When I seek out sports headlines and score lines from an organization whose sole business is sports, I expect to be able to find ALL sports. Now, I am forced to seek out women’s sports on a different site from men’s, as if they were completely different realms of news.
One of the most problematic effects of pushing women’s sports away from ESPN’s main coverage is that, for a casual sports fan, women’s sports are intentionally relegated to obscurity. You would be hard pressed to find an American who is not familiar with ESPN.Yet, the absence of women’s sports on ESPN’s main pages means that casual fans are hardly made aware that women’s sports exist and are worthy of support. As the Atlantic article titled, Women’s Soccer is a Feminist Issue points out “The thinking goes that if women’s sports were worthy of more coverage, they would receive it. But… a lot of our perceptions of how interesting women’s sports are come from the media itself.” By thrusting women’s sports onto an isolated network, ESPN is promoting and perpetuating the belief that women’s sports are deserving of less respect and interest than the men’s side.
In addition to the blatant segregation of women’s and men’s sports, there is a vast difference in the actual coverage dedicated to each. This is NOT an example of separate but equal. The navigation bar for ESPN W only lists three sports – tennis, golf, basketball – and then lumps all college sports together. Depending on the year, it also sometimes dedicates a tab to soccer in the form of the women’s world cup. By comparison, the ESPN homepage has 12 distinct sports in its navigation bar – soccer, football, basketball, hockey, tennis, golf, cricket, rugby, horse racing, boxing, MMA, endurance sports – in addition to individual tabs for specific college sports. For a site devoted solely to the coverage of women’s sports, it is a slap in the face to not actually cover some of the most prolific women’s sports, i.e. women’s professional soccer, volleyball, and softball to name a few.
Despite my initial outrage at ESPN W, I have found myself consistently reading it over the past month. For a fanatic of women’s soccer, the women’s World Cup is the greatest sporting event to follow. Being a female soccer tournament, all of the coverage has been relegated to ESPN W, which exemplifies my love-hate relationship with ESPN W. Before and after every match, I want my fix of previews, analysis, discussion, and storylines and I have turned to the women’s sports network for my dose. To their credit, the coverage has been better than expected, with former USWNT players Julie Foudy and Kate Markgraf providing in-depth, timely analysis. Yet, my satisfaction with ESPN W during this World Cup is largely due to the fact that there is little to no coverage in the rest of the sports media.
Yet, even despite ESPN W’s redemption with its women’s world cup coverage, we are still left with the fact that outside of the World Cup, women’s soccer and many other sports are not given proper reporting coverage through the network. For the time being, my love-hate seesaw with ESPN W will continue.