This month, ESPN.com celebrated the first birthday of espnW, a little corner of the mothership that — just playing the odds here — you’ve never visited, nor do you care about. You’re not missing a whole helluva lot, at least not yet. (The Onion’s preview from a year ago still holds up, if you’re wondering.) If the network decides to support it on the way to trying to reach a wider audience of women, it could bloom. In any case, it’s a glimpse into what the network is learning about women sports fans, and where it has yet to grow. The average man 35-49 watches 227 hours a year watching televised sports, while his female counterpart watches 92 hours a year. The network wants to grow that second number. We all may enjoy a better ESPN as a result.
A thorough Poynter Review piece broke down ESPN’s intentions and some of the data driving them. The unexpected upshot is that ESPN’s makes male fans seem borderline unbalanced compared with the women. Men are elated by wins and devastated by losses, while women take both relatively in stride. Only a fifth of women between 18 and 34 see themselves as huge sports fans, compared with half of men in the same demographic. Men feel validated as men by their fandom, while women must constantly prove theirs. And so on.
A media researcher at ESPN told Poynter that to entice more female fans the network could “get rid of stuff that’s repellent” to women, such as debate shows such as “Pardon the Interruption” and “Around the Horn.” More appealing, apparently, are shows with storylines, such as “Outside the Lines.”
That word, “repellent,” is a delightful firework in that quote. It’s decisive and it’s pissed. This, we can all hope, is where the Worldwide Leader will take a cue from the fairer sex. “PTI” has to rank among the cheapest cable shows to make per advertising dollar collected; when all you have to do is wind up two old men who like to yell at one another in their spare time anyway, and back them up with minimal highlights and graphics, the half-hour practically produces itself. It’s hard to unseat a show like that if anyone at all watches it. But I move we listen to women on this one. Like the other dude-on-dude programming on ESPN, “PTI” feeds an echo chamber of shouting that escalates into a form of enhanced interrogation. Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless are the poster asses for this sort of absent-minded braying, like the drunks at the bar who shout to be heard even when the music stops. They’re not the only offenders. It’s not universal but it is a network-wide problem, and because ESPN dominates the medium, its shouting can threaten to turn the whole dial into televised talk radio.
Maybe it’s a function transferring an alpha-masculine, locker-room culture onto the idiot box, or maybe it’s just what happens when hyperinflated personalities crowd into the same studio — the chuckleheads who shout into their lapel mikes on Fox’s “Sunday NFL Countdown” sound no more oblivious and screechy than every microsecond of “The View” I’ve accidentally stumbled across. So maybe it’s a cable problem more than an ESPN problem per se. But just as anchors such as Linda Cohn and Suzy Kolber may have a mild civilizing influence on a broadcast — in public, I expect, men are less comfortable yelling at one another when women are present — it doesn’t hurt the sporting culture at large to stop excluding women. On participation, football and baseball are nonstarters, and women’s basketball is a less-thrilling product than the men’s game, which is often predicated by impossible shit happening 11 and 12 feet off the floor. Poynter mentions soccer as a potentially high-audience sport where interest in the women’s game may rival the men’s, but surely that owes much to American women’s dominance. Outside of a few Olympic sports, equal air for equal play will always lag.
Fortunately fandom doesn’t need to be segregated. ESPN finds that women enjoy the NFL (less so, the NBA and college football, for whatever reason). That’s reflected, perhaps, in the decent amount of NFL discussions (“coverage” is too strong a word) over at espnW. Football on the whole may be a big enough property to develop programming around it specifically to appeal to women viewers — but it’s hard to imagine that it would justify its existence without a strong following by men, who are still the majority of the sportsviewing audience. Better idea: Incorporate the elements women respond to (reported storytelling, e.g.) and jettison the elements that repel them (Woody Paige howling at Bob Ryan bellowing at Woody Paige, e.g.). The result might expand the audience not only because it’s woman-friendly, but because it’s better television.