ESPN W: A Love, Hate Dilemna

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. 

NWSL: More Support Equals More Money

I, along with many Americans, am still riding the high of watching the epic USA victory over Japan in this years Women’s World Cup final. Yet, I can’t help but be a little disappointed in hearing the same tired rhetoric from sports media. It seems that every time the USWNT is successful, the first thing to be written in response is that “hopefully” the success can translate into increased support for the women’s professional soccer leagues in the U.S. Right now the newest women’s professional league, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), is in the midst of its third season. The previous two iterations of women’s professional leagues folded after only three years. Instead of continually asking whether or not national team triumphs will lead to greater support for professional leagues, it is time for sports media to actually play a role in making them successful!

Sports writers all over this country have the power to change the narrative of women’s professional soccer. All that is required is the desire to actually report on the NWSL. It is crazy to expect the greater public audience to get excited about a sport that has zero coverage in mainstream media. Take ESPN as an example. On their homepage, they allow fans to customize their website by tagging different sports teams as favorites. By doing this, ESPN is able to provide fans with the scores and story lines for the specific teams that matter to them. However, when I went to add my favorite NWSL team to my customized homepage, the team did not show up as an option. In fact, not a single NWSL team came up in the search! ESPN FC, the soccer division of ESPN, reports match scores and tracks wins and losses for each team but that is all. Under every other NWSL tab-Home, News, Statistics, and Video-it says “No Recent Activity” and “End of Content”. The absence of any real information other than scores is disgraceful for a league that is in the middle of its season! The “Worldwide Leader in Sports” has completely failed to cover a professional sports league in America.

My question is how exactly do we expect the success of the USA in the Women’s World Cup to influence the NWSL fan base when the top sports news outlets barely acknowledge that a women’s professional league even exists in the U.S.?

It is about damn time that the U.S. sports news industry actually contributed to helping the NWSL gain recognition and support. Now is the perfect time for sports writers everywhere to use the momentum of this year’s extremely successful Women’s World Cup (the final was the highest viewed soccer game in American history) to start promoting the NWSL. With more coverage and exposure fans everywhere can begin or continue to support these incredible teams.

Sexiest Sports Reporters? How About Sexist Sports Reporters

While I was conducting research on the number of women working as play-by-play reporters for NFL games (the answer is zero), I came across the Bleacher Report headline below.

The 20 Sexiest Sports Reporters of 2012

Of course, 2012 wasn’t the only year that the Bleacher Report compiled a ranking such as this. See

As a female fan of both the NFL and sports in general, I know I should not be surprised by articles like this. The media continually reinforces the notion that women should be judged for their beauty and bodies before their talent or skill. While this is a trend across all media, sports coverage seems to amplify this tendency even more. One of the most well-known and widely circulated sports magazines in this country dedicates an entire issue every year to models in bikinis. Most of the women photographed for this issue are not even athletes! In her post titled, “Our Issue with Swimsuits (or lack thereof) In Sports Illustrated”, Lexie Kite outlines the problematic nature of this annual event.

While the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated is a deplorable excuse for sports reporting, I find the Bleacher Report article to be upsetting in a different way. The fact that female sports reporters are the target of the latest media objectification is especially regrettable. These women have worked hard to make careers in sports reporting, covering the games and stories that captivate so many American fans. They have undoubtedly overcome tremendous barriers to not only do their jobs, but perform at an extremely high level.

For this reason, it is disgraceful that a fellow sports news outlet feels the need to judge these women solely on their looks rather than on their talent or success. It is disappointing that despite all of the progress that female sports reporters have made in the last 40 or so years, we are continuing to objectify them and appreciate them only for their attractiveness to heterosexual men. The reality is that until we start to value the work that these women are doing professionally, instead of rating them based on their sex appeal, women will continue to be seen as foreigners in the realm of sports.