22 December 2010

espnW Fails to Achieve Poorly Defined Goals

ESPN has been gradually adding portals for new content aimed specifically toward some of the largest sports cities in America: ESPN Boston, ESPN Chicago, and ESPN New York, just to name a few. But the worldwide leader in sports' latest portal has female sports fans like me crying foul. The "espnW" site is supposed to be "a destination for women who are passionate sports fans and athletes." But just who are these women they're trying to reach?

On the surface, it sounds like a good idea. I love sports, but I'm not a big fan of the endless parade of scantily clad women that accompany American sports coverage, from the ads on ESPN to the annual swimsuit issue of SI. I generally like women's sports, too, and I'm glad there's now a place where I can read about the WNBA or NCAA women's sports, coverage of which is often difficult to find on ESPN's main page. I'm all for dedicating more staff time to coverage of women's sports, and I'm especially all for giving female sports journalists more jobs.

But that's not what espnW is. Instead of being a place where you get great sports journalism without the gratuitous boob photos, you instead get unsatisfying and poorly organized blog posts, some of which have only tangential relationships to sports. That's obviously not their goal; the press release trumpets the fact that "we are excited to create a specific community for women to talk sports and be inspired both as a fan and as a participant," according to Laura Gentile, the VP of espnW. Ms. Gentile followed this by telling USA Today that their October launch retreat, "where we talk about women finding self-esteem in sports and about getting a pedicure, is a reflection of what we want to do with the espnW brand — find a more holistic way of looking at sports."

Here's the thing, though: I enjoy a pedicure as much as the next woman, but I don't want to talk about it while I'm rooting on my teams. Sports fandom gives me emotional highs and lows, but it has nothing to do with my self esteem. And sure, I enjoy talking sports with other female fans, but there are already numerous great sports blogs out there with dedicated communities. And here's the key point: They're organized by sport.

EspnW, on the other hand, is organized chronologically. If I want to read the latest hot stove rumors on ESPN, I click on MLB at the top. On espnW? I'm still trying to find my first baseball article, and I've clicked through four pages of content. If espnW were my only sports portal, I wouldn't know Cliff Lee had signed with the Phillies, arguably one of the biggest sports stories in December. Instead of nice categories broken down by sport, the only navigation links to "Editor's Choice," "What We're Reading," and "Games We're Following."

I get that original reporting across "sports" is a pretty big undertaking. But that's seemingly what they're doing. In the comments of a critical New York Magazine article, espnW writer Sarah Spain argues that "espnW is meant to be supplemental to ESPN in the same way ESPNChicago is." Except ESPN Chicago is covering a manageable topic. Chicago is a place that has a handful of sports teams. Women is a demographic category that encompasses half the population.

Even the articles themselves are unsatisfying for most fans. Let's compare espnW's coverage of the Penn State women's volleyball team's NCAA championship victory to ESPN's. Both are linked to from the homepage of their respective sites. Both include the same video. That's pretty much the end of the similarities. ESPN's actually talks about the games. There's a report on the score of each set. There's a description of the action. There's historical context. On espnW, however, there's cliches, editorializing, and the cardinal sin of journalism: putting yourself in the story in the form of "When asked if..." This sports fan would much rather read ESPN's coverage.

The women behind espnW get that; they've said if you’re already satisfied with ESPN's coverage, then espnW isn't for you. But if espnW isn't for female sports fans, who is it for?

The confusing content sure doesn't give any clues. The only thing I can come up with is that they are hoping to convert non-sports-savvy women into sports fans. And here's where I think espnW's fatal flaw comes in. Women don't get converted into sports fans by reading a blog of disorganized, convoluted content. Neither do men. If making sports fans is truly ESPN's aim, then they should be creating ESPN for Beginners or ESPN Lite, not espnW.

But instead of segregating content for newbies, they're segregating content for women, and by so naming it, they're essentially saying women aren't welcome on ESPN. Doing so implicitly okays the boy's club nature of ESPN's comment boards and the prevalence of misogynistic ads. Ultimately, espnW says boys can continue degrading women on the main ESPN site, and female sports fans like me can choose to ignore it or go hang out on the "safe" “women’s” portal instead.

The idea that we're somehow different from male sports fans is something female fans have faced for years. Women's clothing in team stores comes in pink, while men's come in the team's colors. According to Yahoo's Buzz blog, "something that women have absolutely no interest in [is] the dreaded topic of fantasy baseball." Baseball Manager Lou Piniella claimed that a woman couldn't be a good baseball manager unless she had a male bench coach: "I would think she would need a good hardened professional baseball guy that would help her with the x’s and o’s during the ballgame. Someone who knew the intricacies in and out of the game."

The writers of espnW say they're rejecting the hegemonic idea that women are inherently incapable of knowing the intricacies of plays, understanding the allure of fantasy sports, and dressing in team colors. I'll give them credit for their non-pink color scheme and their female staff. But so far, the content hasn't convinced me that however well-meaning the site is, the idea that women should come to espnW for content instead of ESPN does more damage than good to real female sports fans like me.


Unknown said...

Very well written and interesting post. It is a shame that ESPN took what could have been a great idea and failed to execute so badly. I really hope that they rethink their approach so they can come closer to achieving their stated goals. As it is, I find the site unusable as a sports fan, though I am admittedly not their target audience.

JD Mathewson said...

I agree with Jeff. I can't tell what bothers me more--the layout, the color scheme or the patronizing approach. Probably more the last one but the first two just compound the error. It really looks like someone designed the site in two hours using a Wordpress template.

kdosh said...

I was in agreement with much of this when I first saw espnW. I've been trying to be more open-minded since interviewing Ms. Gentile myself (but I still find espnW mostly useless for me, as an individual). That pedicure quote was absolutely taken out of context though. You can read my piece after interviewing Ms. Gentile here (with an explanation of that pedicure quote): http://blogs.forbes.com/sportsmoney/2010/12/13/espnw-a-marketing-message-gone-wrong/.

Pete Forsyth said...

"Doing so implicitly okays the boy's club nature of ESPN's comment boards and the prevalence of misogynistic ads." Ah yeah, the same old "separate but equal" stuff that's going on all over the Internet. It would be nice if ESPN would take a stand here. Based on your analysis, I wonder if the only way to genuinely take a stand would be to just..make the main ESPN better.

As long as that doesn't mean I have to watch....pedicure commercials during football :)