Earlier this week, ESPN made history.
“SportsCenter” anchors Hannah Storm and Linda Cohn signed off the show at noon, handing it over to Chris McHendry and Sage Steele. It was the first time in the 30-year history of the network that its signature show was anchored by two pairs of women, back-to-back. “Never in my 18 years here have there been back-to-back sets of women anchors hosting SportsCenter,” Cohn said.
Now it appears the “Worldwide Leader in Sports” has something else in mind for its female viewership: a brand of their own.
ESPN is planning to soft-launch “espnW” as a “sub-brand” — first as blog, then with dedicated programming and – eventually, perhaps — its own channel, alongside ESPN2, U, Classic and News.
"Women see us as an admirable brand that has authority,” ESPN vice president Laura Gentile told USA Today. “But they see us as their father's brand, or husband's brand, or boyfriend's brand. They recognize it's not theirs."
It’s now. Women account for less than 25 percent of ESPN’s overall viewership. And just two of the network’s shows draw a majority-female audience — and one doesn’t even technically air on the cable channel: “The National Spelling Bee” skews 63 percent female (it airs on ABC); and ESPN’s cheerleading coverage (52 percent).
Gentile is holding court at a retreat this week in Torrey Pines, California with marketers and assorted female athletes – including Jennie Finch, Laila Ali, and Marion Jones — to “toss around ideas for espnW.” (On the agenda: golf, yoga, surf camp and "conversational workshops" about women in sports, among other activities.)
And the “sub-brand” already has a social media presence – on Twitter.
A representative for ESPN stressed that "espnw will launch as a digital brand — mobile, online and social media."
The reactions to ESPN’s plans, at least as far as Twitter is concerned, have been mixed – and that’s being rather generous to ESPN.
“It’s unfortunate that when predominantly male television channels or websites do something like this, it’s for the purpose of making money, or it’s advertising-driven,” Jessica Wakeman, a staff writer for women’s pop culture blog The Frisky, told TheWrap. “If they were truly inclusive of women, they would try to integrate women into their programming, rather than secluding them off in a ‘pink ghetto.’”
“That’s the frustrating part,” Wakeman said. “It’s the ghetto-ization, or pinkification or something that was created for men.
“It’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it says that there is enough interest out there for women’s sports programming to have their own blog – that can speak to some of the issues that aren’t addressed on ESPN regularly. But it’s opening up a Pandora’s Box of programming for female athletes, like make-over shows or something, that male athletes would never be subject to.”