Oh ESPN The Magazine…You Never Cease to Amaze Me.

19 11 2010

I’ve written previously about portrayals of female athletes  in sport media (here & here) and particularly on the pattern of female athletes on the covers of ESPN The Magazine. and Sports Illustrated.

Yesterday a colleague forwarded me the new cover of ESPN The Magazine “the movie issue” as she thought I’d like to see it. On the cover appeared to be a Sharon Stone look alike from the famous interview scene in Basic Instinct. I thought it strange ESPN would have a movie issue, and didn’t really realize it was Olympic medalist Lindsey Vonn until today! At the risk of asking for more criticism and being hung out to dry by those who will disagree when I write about Lindsey Vonn, I have to address (again) why this cover is just plain problematic. To see video of Vonn’s shoot and why she decided to do the piece, click here.

Reason 1: Females athletes are under represented in the media. Less than 5% of all sport media is dedicated to female athletes. A new report states that number is generous as coverage of females athletes on major networks has declined to an all time low of 1.6%!!!

Reason 2: When female athletes are given media coverage it is usually in ways that highlight their sexuality, rather than athletic competence. (latest ESPN cover as Exhibit A, B, C, D,…..). ESPN The Magazine is the worst culprit of this pattern. In five years (2004- March 2009) females athletes have appeared on 5 of 168 ESPN covers (3.6%…less than the average) and when they do….well see for yourself.

I joke in class with my students that whenever female athletes are on the cover of ESPN they are in white (except for Danica Patrick because she is usually always in black for some reason as part of the media’s construction of her as a badass, sexy vixen…even when she’s “refueling” and promoting Got Milk?). White in U.S. culture connotes purity, chastity, cleanliness, and innocence but when coupled with sexy images of female athletes it has a much different meaning I’m still trying to figure out. This pattern is not coincidental and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Reason 3: When female athletes are consistently portrayed like sexy vixens it become increasingly difficult for most everyone to take them seriously AS ATHLETES. This does little to promote women’s sports.

Reason 4: It sends the wrong message to girls and young women, and heck any female!, that it is more important what your body looks like and how it can be used and gazed upon as a sexual object, than what your body can do athletically. An entire body of literature provides many reasons why the continual sexualization of females is harmful to girls.

This ESPN cover and the countless other images are not proof of female enlightenment, it is as Susan J. Douglas argues in her book it is unfortunately an example of how far we have to go until females are free of sexist practices packaged as post feminist empowerment that undermines female achievement and serves to keep women a sexualized objects, rather than promote them as equal members of society.





One Yeah! Three Nays for Girls & Women in Sport

11 10 2010

In the Yeah! column, a video featuring two girls who play on boys’ football teams.

In the Nay column, Mechelle Voepel’s column on the first-ever FIBA conference and the five “key topics” discussed by attendees (including lowering the rim, and regulating uniforms), to which I say quoting Voepel, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

The second Nay has to do with a basketball coach who wants to “fight the lesbian lifestyle” by creating a team with all heterosexual players. Huh?  Unfortunately, gender stereotypes still haunt women’s sport as this ESPN column outlines.

The third Nay, is the 2010 ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue cover of Diana Taurasi. This blogger on SheWired summed up my thoughts, “This is not the Diana Taurasi I remember!” I will keep contending that seeing female athletes posed like this (given females only receive 6-8% of all sport media coverage), does nothing positive to promote women’s sports or female athletes. If it does, WNBA season ticket sales should be dramatically increasing as I type.

Thanks to the people that have sent me tidbits, some of which are included here.





espnW: Thoughts Part II

7 10 2010

Some additional thoughts to add to my previous blog on espnW.

I want to clarify a few points. I stated that I wanted mostly females journalists, bloggers, videographers and those who do content to be female on the espnW website. I did not say only females, I said a majority. Here is why: We lack females in positions of power in all roles in sport. What better way to provide visible role models for girls and other females who aspire to a similar career pathway in sport (whether it be athlete, journalist, coach, subject matter expert, editor, photographer) that to feature them on espnW!  Research indicates girls are desperate for female role models and identify with same-sex role models more effectively (click here for some good information on how girls construct leadership). If you want to see the research on the lack of females in positions of power in sport click here , here, or here.

For those who respond to the birth of espnW by commenting “Zzzzzzzzzzzz”—don’t worry, espnW isn’t for you!! You are not the target market. Fans of men’s sport have a place to go for high quality, up to date sport news…it is called ESPN.com, all the ESPN TV channels and ESPN The Magazine. Fans (both male and female fans alike) of women’s sport and female athletes have not had a similar outlet to consume their sports and athletes they love and desperately want to follow, and now I hope we will.  For fans of men’s sport and male athletes: How would you feel is all the products associated with ESPN, which have largely covered men’s sports, disappeared tomorrow? What would you do? Well imagine that scenario and you will have an approximation of how fans of women’s sport have historically felt.

Stay tuned, the battle and debate over the contested terrain of sport media and females getting a decent share is just beginning.

For those who think espnW will be a bore, you don’t have to visit espnW…but you might want to when you have a daughter.





Post espnW Retreat Thoughts

5 10 2010

Having returned from the espnW retreat at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, CA I have been thinking about many things. If you don’t know, ESPN is expanding its brand to include espnW  “to serve, inform and inspire the female athlete and fan.” The digital launch will occur March 2011 and the target audience of espnW is women 18+. The retreat brought together key stakeholders in women’s sport, and it was quite a group! I felt very fortunate to be a part of the event, as it was a first-class endeavor from start to finish. You can see pictures on the espnW Facebook page. Laura Gentile, Vice President of espnW, has put together a dedicated team. Her opening night remarks can be found here, that will tell you a bit more about espnW since there is quite a bit of misinformation swirling out in cyberspace.

Billie Jean King at opening keynote @ espnW Retreat

Legend Billie Jean King spoke both at the opening ceremonies and during a breakfast conversation with Julie Foudy and Sage Steele. She was clearly fired-up about the endless potential of espnW. During her remarks she said,  “its OK to want something…don’t settle for the crumbs, want the whole cake!”  Well, I want the whole cake when it comes to espnW! At one of the sessions we were asked, “What would espnW.com look like to you?” I’ve been thinking about this ever since.

I think the answers would vary because not all women are the same, but for me here is what the whole cake looks like. I want to see only information, opinions, stats, blogs, videos, commentary, and expertise about women’s sport and female athletes–Period. I also want most of the information and content on the site to be developed, written and delivered by females. There should be at least (well really I want more!) as many females and females in positions of power on espnW, as I see males and male athletes on ESPN.

I’m also clear about what I don’t want to see on espnW: dumbed-down sport, a version of Self Magazine + Sport, male sports, or male athletes. If I want information about men’s sport I already know where I can go to get that information. If I want information about nutrition, motherhood, fitness, and well-being, I already know where I can go to get that information. Give me aggregated, high quality, legitimate, serious information ABOUT WOMEN’S SPORT AND FEMALE ATHLETES, I don’t know where to find this information (unless I visit 20 different websites).

espnW is uniquely positioned to give female fans and athletes, and post Title IX females in general, what we’ve been so desperate for–a legitimate place to read about women’s sports and female athletes. According to researchers, female athletes only get 1.6% of all sports coverage on major networks, a figure that has declined from 6.3% since 2004. Data over the last 25 years shows female athletes only get 6-8% of coverage for sport print media. Research on the coverage of female athletes and social media lags behind, but based on the data it runs the gamut from unfiltered sexism to empowerment.

espnW has done consumer insight and market analysis research and their blue chip take home is  that females are a different breed of sport fans. Women are busy, multidimensional, and primarily are still responsible for domestic and childcare duties. Many women have less time for sport consumption than their male counterparts, and when they do, the consumption probably looks different.  I don’t disagree with this assessment but the few studies which have sampled female fans find their motive to attend sporting events is nearly identical to male sport fans—they like sports! espnW kept stressing females and female sport fans specifically want to be (inter)connected, and experience a community more than do male fans. A colleague of mine once said, “Male sport fans attend to be seen, while female sport fans go to see others.” This wisdom may translate to social media, but the challenge of how that looks digitally is now in the hands of espnW, because only the ESPN brand is big enough and has sufficient resources to actually do this right. That is a BIG responsibility because it will meet resistance, from both males and females (as Megan Hueter of Women Talk Sports pointed out in her blog).

Given the record numbers of females participating in sport, it hasn’t translated into record numbers of females as sport fans (although the data show that trend is on the rise).  I disagree with the espnW promo literature that states “once an athlete, always a fan” because if that were the case we would have a lot more female sport fans of both men’s and women’s sports.

I would love to see research on the pathway(s) for females to become sport fans. How do we get female sport fans to consume the sports they once played? That pathway and socialization process is clearly in place for males. I ask a similar question when I ask, “How do we get former female athletes to coach the sports they once played?”  The answer is complicated and one I’m still trying to figure out, but I think some of the strategies to increase the number of female coaches translate–ask and invite female to be fans, promote early involvement/hook ’em early, reduce the time commitment it takes to consume sport, and make it easy. I heard echoes of these themes in how the espnW digital presence will be constructed. I also think there would many MORE female fans if we could see legitimate coverage of women’s sport and female athletes….(enter espnW).

However, I fear than until we change the current structure of gender roles in the family and workplace, it will continue to be difficult for some (perhaps the majority of) women to be the kind of sport fans, consumers, coaches, and administrators they desire to be.

I am wishing espnW and their brand team the best, a lot is riding on its success.

photo from espnW Facebook page.





Coming soon…comments on espnW retreat!

4 10 2010

Sue Hovey, vice president and executive editor at ESPN The Magazine and who runs The Magazine’s Body Issue; Olympian High Jumper Amy Acuff; Olympian Sprinter Lolo Jones panel participants on "Sex, Bodies and Beauty: Perceptions of Women in Sports"

Due to the fact we were scheduled every minute of the espnW retreat and then I got the flu almost immediately following the last event, I haven’t had time to post my thoughts on the event. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, colleague and Co-Founder of Women Talk Sports Megan Hueter summarized her thoughts posted in a blog hosted by Blogs With Balls post titled “espnW: A brand for female athletes.”





espnW, cheerleading, violence, Nike, Title IX…so many things to share!

22 07 2010

Sorry if I’ve been blogging less lately, there are to many things going on to take the time to blog! That said, I wanted to share with you some information you might find interesting.

1. A key Title IX ruling was recently passed down that has implications for girls and women in sport. In essence the judge ruled that cheerleading can not count towards compliance with Title IX.

2. Look for more changes regarding the way in which the NCAA calculates and oversees their Academic Progress Rates (APR). New data analysis reveals that current standards may be weaker than originally intended.

3. On the youth sport news front, The UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre commissioned and released a new report on PROTECTING CHILDREN FROM VIOLENCE IN SPORT: A review with a focus on industrialized countries. The report focuses on the fact that “it has become evident that sport is not always a safe space for children, and that the same types of violence and abuse sometimes found in families and communities can also occur in sport and play programmes. Child athletes are rarely consulted about their sporting experiences, and awareness of and education on child protection issues among sport teachers, coaches and other stakeholders is too often lacking. Overall, appropriate structures and policies need to be developed for preventing, reporting and responding appropriately to violence in children’s sport” (p.vii)

New espnW logo

4. I have two related bits I’ve recently been involved with regarding big sport brands wanting to create social change. What they also have in common is both initiatives have women in charge. You can imagine I’m a bit skeptical on both, but I’m currently cautiously optimistic on both fronts.

The first is the new ESPN  initiative to capture more female consumers–it is called espnW. (the “W” stands for Women). Its launch has gotten a little media buzz. I will keep you posted as I’ve been in communication with the folks at ESPN who are spearheading this new initiative. They are lead by a very sharp woman and her small staff and I believe the resources ESPN has dedicated demonstrates a desire to get this right (unlike Sports Illustrated for Women, which was a miserable failure). So far the process seems on target as they are asking key stakeholders to join the conversation and provide insight.   Added NOTE (7/28/10): Read the MinnPost article titled “Media critic and women’s sports advocate Mary Jo Kane is about to step into the belly of the ESPN beast”

The second initiative is a project of the Nike Social Innovation team, also lead by two sharp women. Nike wants to use current sport science research to help leverage their resources and brand to promote and sustain physical activity in the US and UK. I was asked to be part of a multidisciplinary think tank facilitated by ShiftN (a really cool company) earlier in the month where we examined a research-based systems model of the correlates, barriers and potential outcomes of physical activity.

I am excited and honored to be a part of both these initiatives, however I am both happy and concerned that women are at the helm of these new, risky initiatives. I’ve written in an earlier post about the research on the glass cliff and I wonder if this is what is operating in the background in these instances where two big brands are taking risks.

While the glass ceiling is metaphor commonly used to describe the often subtle and unseen social-structural gendered barriers that prevent women from reaching the highest echelons of corporate leadership.

The glass cliff is a similar metaphor used to describe the phenomenon of women’s appointments to precarious leadership positions. The glass cliff illuminates the stress experienced by women who have made it through the glass ceiling (i.e., Head Coaches, CEOs, Presidents of WNBA teams) and find themselves in a more vulnerable and precarious position than their male counterparts. Women on the glass cliff often fight an uphill battle for success, without the support, information and resources needed to effectively execute the job.

Researchers have recently uncovered that when organizations are in crisis and have a high risk for failure, women are more often appointed to positions of leadership. Two explanations are offered: 1) women are perceived as particularly well-suited to manage the crisis, or 2) women are appointed to glass cliff positions because those who appoint them want to protect men (or expose women).

I hope I’m wrong, because the women I’ve met and talked to in charge of these initiatives are movers and shakers I want to see succeed in their visions.





The (Men’s) Bracket

17 03 2010

In my last blog, I surmised that when the bracket for the Men’s NCAA basketball tournament was released, it would not be labeled as “The Men’s” NCAA Tournament Bracket 2010, unlike the women’s bracket.  Sure enough…I was right. To see “the bracket” click here.