Tuesday, June 2, 2009

ESPN Classy

Time for another round of "Smack" talk, again focusing on the world of sports. This time, we turn our attention to the interesting and ever-evolving arena of women's athletics, which grows more and more popular with each passing season. Please feel free to weigh in by posting a comment, and enjoy.
Within Reason: After being bombarded with softball on ESPN and ESPN2 for the last few days, I found myself wondering why there isn't an ESPNW(omen)? Then I thought, "Wow, self, that's potentially chauvinistic." Is it, though? There are other "women's programming" channels, and there are channels set up for men, as well...

Would ESPNW make sense?
Smack: Does ESPNW make sense… I guess I’m confused about the question. Make sense for who? For ESPN? No. There’s no way it would be a viable channel. Not enough ratings and therefore not enough advertising to keep it afloat. Now you’re going to use this as a reason why ESPN should therefore not be airing women’s softball in the first place. But you have to realize that there’s got to be a reason for ESPN to air it. No way they would do it unless (a) it made money, or (b) they are contractually obligated. Maybe the NCAA makes it a package deal with the men’s lacrosse championship. Maybe the NCAA pays them to air it. They wouldn’t do it if it lost money and they didn’t have to do it.Does it make sense for the consumer? I mean, yeah, sure… But it’s a moot point if it doesn’t make business sense for ESPN.

WR: I still think that ESPN is trying to expand its market base by airing the games. That's why they air the wide assortment of sports that they already do. You have real 'fringe sports' - like fishing, hunting, bowling, strongman, lumberjack....that's all an attempt to reach as many households as possible. I think that the softball - and the WNBA - are the same thing.Thing is, when ESPN airs their "sportsman" programming, it's allotted a certain time (weekend mornings on ESPN2), and branded as 'ESPN Outdoors'. That's as close to a separate network as you can get.
Would it make sense, then, to try to fulfill any contractual obligations to the NCAA (if there even are any), by doing the same with the women's sports? You've got to think that to anyone who really cares about watching, it's appointment viewing, meaning: These are not your normal target demographic viewers. They are seeking out your channel at a certain time for specific programming. Would it matter if it were aired on a Saturday night as opposed to primetime weeknights? Call it anything you want, ESPNW, WESPN, shESPN (like that).
I'm sure many people would think this is outright sexism, but if I'm looking to watch James Bond films, or anything starring Wesley Snipes and/or Dolph Lundgren, I'm tuning into Spike. If I want a movie about a suburban soccer mom who's married to an ex-cop with a shady history, who may or may not be sharing racy emails with an ex-flame, who suddenly disappears, I'm tuning into Lifetime.

I think the parallel exists.

S: What about Jennie Finch?I think she drew some new male viewers for softball. It might not be all female viewers that they’re drawing in. Maybe not all ESPNers react the same way you do to the seasonal bombardment of NCAA playoff softball. Even more so when you’re talking about beach volleyball and tennis.
WR: I see what you're saying - there is definitely a visual element involved in drawing male viewers to women's sports - but doesn't that kind of cheapen the situation from both sides? I understand that Anna Kournikova (career victories: 0), is popular for reasons other than her serve, and that if Michelle Wie were not an attractive young lady, the sports world would most likely have said "Well, I guess she's never going to get there" by now, but aren't we trying to get past the objectification of women? If women's sports are going to be marketed as "Check us out we're hot!", that makes my point even more valid. I want sports programming, not the equivalent of a Sears catalog in the hands of a 13 year old boy. I've even heard some argue that the racy marketing of, say, women's soccer is a 'foot in the door' measure. As in: "We'll play up our looks long enough for you to notice that we're playing soccer." That's like an actress saying, "I'll grab the nation's attention in Playboy, then I'll call Kenneth Brannaugh to see when he's planning on remaking 'Julius Caesar." Come on....

S: Well men’s sports go for sex appeal, too. Women love Tom Brady and Tedy Bruschi. It’s just that men’s sports have the added draw of superior athleticism (for the most part). I don’t really care if women’s sports get beyond the objectification. That’s their draw. I’m not even sold that that’s what the athletes themselves really want. The majority of men will concede that these women are legitimate athletes; Anna Kournikova might not win but at least she can hang. But if the athletes really wanted to get past the Maxim photo shoots and establish themselves based on performance alone then they’d stop doing the photo shoots; they’d stop playing tennis in skirts; Mia Hamm wouldn’t rip her shirt off on the field…

WR: That wasn't Mia Hamm. Anyway, look, I understand the differences between men's and women's sports, and for that matter, the leagues they play in (and how they wish to market themselves). I will add an aside that Tom Brady happens to be good looking, but would not be nearly as famous if he were not a champion. Peyton Manning is probably the most visible face of the NFL, and I'm not sure I'd call him handsome (no offense meant to Mr. Manning). I'll bet there are some really good looking MLB players that aren't very popular, probably true of all the sports. That's just not how men's sports are marketed, though - and just like we wouldn't expect women to go out and buy "3 Games to Glory: The Story of the 2001 Patriots" just to catch a glimpse of Tommy-boy, I'm sure there aren't too many frat boys out there breaking down tape of Kournikova's 2000 Wimbledon performance.
Here's my big thing: I just want to know whether or not, in 2009, I am out of place for even floating this idea. I'm not 'upset' that ESPN broadcasts women's sports, I just wonder if it makes sense. The plain fact is that they are probably losing more viewers than they are gaining with things the way they are now. I'm sure the vast majority of male viewers fall into my camp, which is the "Hmmm. What's on Discovery Channel...?" mindset. I just want to get a reason beyond "that's discrimination" or "that's sexist" or "women's sports are just as entertaining to watch" (which in some cases is true - tennis, beach volleyball - for the level of play, not the reasons you allude to). If, as it very well may be, there is a need to grow the women's sports culture in this society, then I would argue that there is not enough being done to make that happen. If the true reasoning behind these broadcasts is along the lines of "30 years ago there were hardly any women's HIGH SCHOOL sports. We need to catch up. This is for the betterment of society..." I would agree, but still criticize the methods being used - especially the sex appeal element.
S: I think I’ve lost the point…

WR: I was going to try to tie in sportsmanship, and whether that is where the boundary exists that prevents men from fully embracing women's sports. I think a lot of men are put off by the "Good try, you'll get it next time" high fives after strike outs, and the overly enthusiastic cheering from the sidelines. That said, there is a fine line - ask LeBron James about all of the negative feedback (and as of today, potential fine) he is getting from storming off the court after the Cavaliers season-ending loss.
Perhaps in order to find common ground, concessions will need to be made on both parts: Men will need to look for the elements of women's sports that are not present on the male side - and not simply see an inferior product, while women may need to recognize that a little bit more of an overt killer instinct is required in order to gain acceptance from the 'boys club' - no matter how well you can play.
S: Do you think female athletes are specifically concerned with acceptance into the boys club?
WR: Well, if we can agree that there is an inherent sort of male dominance of the sports world, then we could look at it as a sort of validation. Again, I'm not saying that this is absolutely necessary - but under the context of this conversation, it is. If we're talking about the greater role of female sports in our society, then acceptance would not necessarily be required for the validation. But if we want the 'sports world' to look upon women's sports as "equal", "legitimate", or whatever term you prefer - is it the sport that has to change, or the world?
S: I don’t know if men will ever watch a women’s sport and NOT think (with few exceptions), “Wow, she’s good for a girl.”
I guess my answer to your question would be both.

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