ESPN, You’re Doing It Wrong

By now you’ve probably heard news of ESPN’s upcoming brand and web property, ESPNW, “a whole new world for female athletes and sports fans.” As soon as I saw the following tweet from one of my favorite sports bloggers, Julie DiCaro of Chicago Now’s A League of Her Own, I knew that a storm was coming.

I’m already insulted by ESPNW. As if women don’t like the same sports men like. #BahFri Oct 01 02:03:30 via web

Julie’s tweet unleashed a furious stream of responses from other bloggers – both male and female – about how a separate TV network for female sports and opinions is completely ridiculous and unnecessary.

Then, ESPN’s own Sarah Spain came to the rescue to clarify the intent of the new femme-brand in a series of tweets, which I’ve compiled below:

Haven’t seen one clever joke about #ESPNW, just a bunch of rehashed stereotypes. Congrats on reaffirming need for a different pt of view.

Here’s my take on #ESPNW, for those interested–& those who are spouting incorrect info w/out having a bit of knowledge about its mission… Plenty of women can relate to ESPN & like it as it is–I am, for the most part, one of the them. But accepting that the avg woman isn’t going to like the same sports, shows, presentations, etc. isn’t a concession or a bad thing, it’s fact. Every other industry knows its market–sports does too. High % of men, smaller % of women. This just wants to look at that chunk of women & see if there are ways they’d rather get their sports. Not about pushing wmn’s sports, it’s about giving a platform 2 women’s voices/perspectives–a more balanced take. Just b/c the current norm is to gear sports programming towards a certain market, doesn’t mean that’s the ONLY way to package it. I LOVE ESPN as is, but I swear I’m 75% dude. Plenty of women like sports but want to feel more connected/feel like the coverage is geared to them & not just that they, too, can watch this program that mostly men like. Why not let it launch first & see what’s it about before mocking it. The immediate responses like “24 hr coverage of dishwashing championships” just shows that the idea of viewing sports from a women’s pt of view is still tough for people. Give it a shot & if you hate it then leave it. Easy as that.

I wholeheartedly agree with Sarah that there is a need for different voices and perspective and making it more balanced. But to me, “balanced” and “different perspectives” doesn’t mean that it needs its own brand or blog for women to connect with ESPN.

ESPN does not need to appeal to more female sports fans by allowing them to discuss the number of sacks that the Giants recorded against the Bears on Sunday Night Football and pedicures in the same forum. Lest you think I’m being sarcastic, ESPN’s VP Laura Gentile said, in her own words, of the ESPNW brainstorming retreat:

“the 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.”

Separate is Not Equal

OK, maybe they’re not trying to appeal to those of us who discuss football stats. After all, the target audience is women who don’t currently watch ESPN programming and read their blogs and articles. One audience I read that they want to target is female athletes who may not be currently participating in sports but want to stay connected to it and don’t feel like ESPN currently represents what they need. So I asked my girlfriend, a former college soccer player at Notre Dame (consistently one of the top women’s soccer programs in the country) who still plays and coaches, what she would want from ESPN. She watches soccer on TV and enjoys watching other sports occasionally, but doesn’t turn on ESPN in the morning like I do, or have a college football game on in the background because, well, there’s football on. She seems to me the type of sports fan ESPNW is going after. And what does she want to see in order to feel more connected to sports through ESPN? More women represented in existing programs. More women’s voices and opinions – whether current or female athletes or sportswriters or sportscasters. Not just talking about the WNBA or WPS or women’s college sports. They don’t have to be beautiful. But their opinions and perspectives need to be heard alongside men’s. They shouldn’t only be journalists covering human interest stories or sideline reporters asking the coach what his second half adjustments are. She would want more women within the mainstream media – not in their own space. This is what she believes will inspire women to become active in sports and stay active, whether athletically or as mentors and coaches.

Granted, she’s a sample size of one and ESPN clearly did extensive research on their target audiences. But her answers confirmed my own beliefs about why an ESPNW brand is not needed. In order for women feel included, ESPN needs to make the brand more all-inclusive, integrating a strong, smart female presence into their existing, popular online and television properties. Otherwise, they just reinforce stereotypes that their network is primarily for men and their opinions, and the perspectives of women can be heard among each other, not mass audiences. Then they admit that their primarily male-audience will not want to see women behind the sports desk analyzing a QB’s mechanics, so they can afford to just keep them on the sidelines and in the locker rooms. They are not doing anything to make women feel a part of the ESPN brand.

How does that help decrease the demographic gap? It doesn’t. Men don’t need a separate Zappos site to go to in order to connect with the brand simply because Zappos’ audience is primarily women (62% to 38%, according to Quantcast.) Women don’t want to be separate. They want to be included. They want to be heard. They want to be equal.

Listening and Learning

Furthermore, I believe that ESPN went about this in completely the wrong way. In this age of social media I am actually shocked at how out of touch ESPN is. Social media is not just integrating a message board into an app, or setting up Twitter accounts for every division of the company. Social media creates opportunities for a brand’s audience to interact with them in an authentic way, in the spaces where the users socialize, inspiring them to establish authentic connections with the brand that drive them to talk about it, generating more buzz and therefore more traffic and revenue. Social media also allows brands to listen to what their customers and even critics are saying about them and can allow that to help shape their strategy and business plans.

If a company is still brainstorming and deciding what its new brand’s purpose is, it does not behoove them to start talking about it on Twitter, unless they want input that they can utilize to help shape it. Sarah is right in a way to say “let’s see what it is before criticizing it.” But ESPN opened the doors itself with very little information about who this is for and what the purpose is, which then caused discussion and speculation. Perhaps they wanted to create buzz early on, but you can’t expect only positive buzz and not expect or address other points of view — even sarcastic, critical points of view. You don’t only tweet limited information and retweet people praising something that doesn’t yet exist, and then criticize and laugh at those who critique what they believe it to be. The fact that the person behind ESPNW’s Twitter account retweeted Sarah’s “bunch of rehashed stereotypes” tweet with a “hee hee” comment just reinforces the bad taste in my mouth already. That just alienates an audience they have already fully captured and could use as brand advocates. Instead, by not immediately addressing misconceptions, they’ve lost people. Already, I feel excluded – they’ve told me it’s not for me, the avid sports fan who watches ESPN because that’s where I get most of my sports news. Unfortunately, ESPN launched with ideas but without a strong marketing and communications plan. And in business, that’s the first step toward failure.

Getting Down To Business: Women Be Shopping

Speaking of business, now is the time to get down to it. As Sarah Spain recognized, ESPN is a business. The goal of a business is to make money. When a business launches a new brand via a new web property, its goal is to drive traffic to those properties and to make money from that traffic. ESPN makes money on this traffic from advertisers, and if they can drive significant ad impressions (i.e. page views) they can make more money from more advertisers.

By appealing to more women, ESPN creates a win-win. They can widen the diversity of brands willing to advertise with them and thus collect more advertising revenue. From the advertiser’s perspective, women are a gold mine. Women purchase at a much higher rate than men, and also spend more both online and offline. Yes, I’m admitting to a stereotype I hate — women are shoppers. Women are also influential online brand advocates – just look at how many advertisers want to appeal to “mommy bloggers.” ESPN wants to reach the 18-35 female market – not necessarily mommy bloggers – but nevertheless, an extremely influential demographic of online users.

Because opinion is just opinion unless supported by data, I dug up some statistics about the power of the female buyer. The She-Conomy blog presents the following numbers based on research credited to Mindshare/Ogilvy & Mather:

Women account for 85% of all consumer purchases including everything from autos to health care.

Women represent the majority of the online market
• 22% shop online at least once a day
• 92% pass along information about deals or finds to others
• 171: average number of contacts in their e-mail or mobile lists
• 76% want to be part of a special or select panel
• 58% would toss a TV if they had to get rid of one digital device (only 11% would ditch their laptops)
• 51% are moms

And since we’re talking about sports, women account for:

47.2 % of major league soccer fans

46.5% of MLB fans

43.2% of NFL fans

40.8% of fans at NHL games

37% of NBA fans

Women purchase 46% of official NFL merchandise

Women spent 80% of all sport apparel dollars and controlled 60% of all money spent on men’s clothing

Women comprise about one-third (34%) of the adult audience for ESPN sport event programs

Bottom line? ESPN doesn’t need to segregate their female audience to increase the percentage of those who connect with the brand. They just need to make the existing brand more inclusive.

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5 Responses to ESPN, You’re Doing It Wrong

  1. Pingback: ESPN Targets Women with New espnW « Media Pieces

  2. Pingback: ESPN Announces the Launch of ESPNW, But Will It Help Women in Sports? – Zelda Lily, Feminism in a Bra

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  4. Peter says:

    ESPN doesn’t seem to really care what would make their viewers happy. All they seem to care about is what makes the advertisers happy.

    They’re in the business of selling eyeballs to advertisers.

    It’s a good thing ESPN can be replaced by UGC, user-generated content.

    By you. And me. ; )

  5. phoenix says:

    If Oprah announced she was launching a sports network, I wonder how the blogs and tweety pages would react. Rather than a “oh yeah, let’s market to chicks too” move, would The World’s Most Influential Woman bring a different angle, a different light to it?

    I think perception has a lot to do with this. All kinds of womens’ sports really get second fiddle treatment on the major sports networks unless there’s absolutely NOTHING else – not even a poker tournament going on. “What? No poker? Ah well, what about a dog show? No? How about Extreme Fishing… oh, the Fishing Network got that one? Hell, put the girls’ softball league on…”

    What strikes me as awful here, if anything is, is ESPN’s name. If this were launched by a group of women, or some kind of grass-roots gang, I bet it would come off a lot different.

    Of course, that’s just me talkin’…

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