Saturday, November 05, 2011

Blogs Take Manhattan: The Women Talk Sports panel, and women in sports media

Back in September, I headed to New York for another Blogs With Balls conference. The two I’d attended before, in Vegas and Chicago, were amazing experiences, and this one was no different; it was a great time, an excellent chance to get some intelligent perspective on where blogging’s going and a chance to hang out with some awesome people. I was just going through my files and realized I had a lot of notes from the BWB4 panels that I’d never posted, so here they are. First up, the first panel, Women Talk Sports. Note on the notes: these are in chronological order (as much as possible), but I couldn’t write down every comment from every panelist, so this is more of a "Highlights" piece than a full transcript.

Panelists: Sarah Braesch , BlogHer/Draft Day Suit, Richard Deitsch, Sports Illustrated, Jemele Hill, ESPN, Tina Cervasio, MSG, Jane McManus. Moderator: Megan Hueter , Women Talk Sports.

The panel started with a discussion of why women’s sports aren’t shown more prominently on television, and Deitsch had some interesting comments about that.

"A lot of it has to do with economics and dollars," he said. "A lot of women’s sports don’t really rate on television."

The Olympics are an exception, but Deitsch thinks that has more to do with the flags involved than the genders of the athletes.

"Olympics, nationalism trumps gender," he said.

Another example where people tuned in en masse to watch a women’s sport was the Women’s World Cup this year, which put up huge TV ratings. Deitsch said a lot of that was just thanks to the U.S. team doing well, though.

"The [final] game against Japan drew 14 million viewers," he said. "Nationalism often trumps everything else."

Other, more regular efforts like the WNBA haven’t really pulled in the numbers, though, and Deitsch said it’s a surprising demographic that isn’t tuning in.

"In general, the sport has not been able to draw, interestingly, enough women on television," he said. "Until advertisers get some sort of scale and mass, women’s sports, at least on television, will remain a niche."

Deitsch also applied the scale and mass concept to Sports Illustrated for Women, which had a short-lived run in the early 2000s. He said the scale they acheived was actually reasonably impressive by today’s standards, but not as much by the standards of the publishing industry at the time, which played a role in the publication’s cancellation.

"[At Time Inc], a lot of the time when we do something it has to be on a scale," Deitsch said. "Initially, SI for Women did really good. … [We had circulation of] 200,000; it was a big number, but in that universe back then, it wasn’t such a big number."

Deitsch said it’s difficult to have a sports magazine for women that doesn’t stray across the sports/lifestyle divide.

"It’s been successful to do the latter because service magazines, fitness magazines make money," he said. "So far, there has not been a biz model to have a successful magazine like Sports Illustrated."

Deitsch said one interesting idea is ESPN’s new ESPNw, a web-based publication that focuses both on women’s sports and on women’s perspectives on men’s sports.

"I do have hope for ESPNw," he said. "I think you have to really commit to making that an interesting publication. … I think ESPN should send its best writers to cover women’s sports and not sort of ghettoize it."

Hill, who works for ESPN and has written for ESPNw, said she doesn’t think it’s a drastic contrast from writing regular pieces for ESPN.

"It wasn’t any different and that was the good thing about it," she said. "I didn’t change anything about it. I just wrote how I would normally write."

Hill said she’s been impressed with what ESPNw has done so far, and she doesn’t see it as a secluded area.
"The writing has been really smart, it’s been aggressive," she said. "Any of the writers we have for ESPNw could easily blend into the regular pallet of"

McManus had some interesting comments on ESPNw and how it fits into the picture of women’s sports and female sports fans in general, . To start with, she said that men are the main audience for women’s sports; meanwhile, plenty of women are sports fans, but more of them tend to watch men’s sports.

"When you’re talking about women’s sports, the audience on TV is predominantly male," she said.

Men are still the larger part of the men’s sports audience, but the numbers of women tuning in are growing all the time, McManus said (something Forbes has since backed up). Programming and advertising executives do cater to the larger demographic by focusing on men, but perhaps they go too far doing so and don’t recognize that they could do more to appeal to existing female fans and draw new ones.

"There’s a tremendous audience of women sports fans that is really underserved," McManus said.

As female sports fans don’t necessarily watch women’s sports, McManus said that presents a difficult conundrum for women-focused sites like ESPNw.

"I think that’s something w has really had to wrestle with," she said. "Are we going for women, or are we going for women’s sports?"

She said they’ve tried to have the best of both worlds thus far, and it’s worked pretty well.

"I think what they’re doing is providing a platform for women’s voices," she said. "There are several male writers on the site who cover women’s sports and that’s how it should be."

Cervasio had an interesting perspective on some of the issues discussed, as she’s worked on broadcasts of both the NBA’s New York Knicks and the WNBA’s New York Liberty. She said broadcasting men’s and women’s sports isn’t as different as you might think.

"I approach my preparation exactly the same way," she said. "To me, it’s a basketball game."

She added that the audiences are quite different, though, especially in the stadium. The Knicks obviously draw larger crowds, but many of those crowds are made up of suits there for corporate functions, while the Liberty’s audience is mostly intense basketball fans.

"Liberty fans as compared to Knicks fans, they are so educated and so hardcore," Cervasio said. "At a Liberty game, it’s packed with diehard fans."

Braesch said WNBA games tend to be more family-friendly thanks to the lower prices.

"There’s definitely a lot more families there," she said. "I take my daughter to [Washington] Mystics games when I can. I think it’s good for her to see women’s professional sports."

Braesch said many men’s sports have huge female fanbases, too, though.

"When I go to Redskins games, about half the people are women," she said. "Women are watching sports, they’re just underrepresented by advertising."

McManus said that perception is starting to change, partly thanks to social media’s ability to illustrate publicly that many women are knowledgeable, hardcore sports fans, not just watching with the men in their lives.

"I think one of the biggest changes is Twitter," McManus said. "People can see how many women are watching games and tweeting about it. … Before, it was sort of assumed that they’re the girlfriends who are out getting nachos. These fans become visible. It’s not assumed that they’re in the shadow any more."

McManus cited the growing popularity of breast cancer awareness promotions, which have sprung up in just about every league (including the CFL this year), as evidence that leagues and teams are starting to realize the importance of their female fans.

Hill said it’s still an uphill battle in many areas, though, including gaining respect as a knowledgeable female writer—which can be tough to earn both from fans and from your own outlet.

"I think a lot of media outlets don’t know what the statistics are with female sports fans," she said.
"There’s a perception that if a guy sees a woman talking about the NFL, they won’t take her as seriously. … I don’t think we’re completely past that, but I think we in the industry give that way too much currency."

McManus said commenters in particular can be more vitriolic towards women and often use gender as a criticism, something that’s been seen since BWB4 with the response to Albany Times-Union columnist’s Jennifer Gish’s piece on the Bills.

"When your pic is up next to your byline, it’s not just ‘you’re an idiot’, it’s ‘you’re a female idiot,’" McManus said. "You have to have a thick skin because you’re going to get that."

She saw that herself last year when she wrote that the New York Jets were interested in taking a running back in the 2010 NFL draft.

"I heard, ‘This is why women shouldn’t talk about the NFL,’" McManus said.

Of course, she was proven right when they took Joe McKnight in the fourth round.

Deitsch said commenting attacks aren’t restricted to female writers, but they do tend to be more personal and more offensive when aimed at women.

"I think all of us have felt the wrath of anonymity," Deitsch said. "You guys get it a lot worse."

The conversation then moved to women on sports television, and Deitsch dropped an excellent one-liner on the ESPN types in the room for their questionable decision to ignore the ethics violations Craig James has been accused of.

"If your network wants to replace Craig James with any woman in this room, I'll get behind that," Deitsch said, receiving plenty of applause.

The subject came up of women in sports media being hired for looks, and Cervazio argued that some may be, but knowledge is more important to long-term career success.

"How long do they stay in the business?" she asked. "Knowledgeable people last."

Braesch said she thinks there are more opportunities for women in sports media than ever today.

"I think, really, in the last five years, it’s getting a lot better," she said. "The pool is a lot bigger, and there are more doors open to women."

There are opportunities for women in sports, too. One woman who’s having a lot of success is Indy/NASCAR driver Danica Patrick. Some think she only gets attention for her looks, but McManus disputes that.

"She’s won, so she’s not just a marketing tool," McManus said. "She does get a lot of attention because of her beauty, but she’s a real comp."

Patrick has frequently used her looks to her advantage, with GoDaddy ads and Maxim photoshoots, but McManus thinks the latter in particular was a smart decision.

"That was a really good marketing move for her," McManus said.

Hueter said Patrick’s key value is as a trailblazer.

"She’s paving the way for other women in her sport."

Phil Van der Vossen from Gunaxin asked an excellent question as to why we don’t see more women calling games as opposed to sideline reporting. Cervasio said one key problem is that calling games on any major network requires experience and practice, and that’s not easy to get.

"That’s what I’ve run into is just not boom, being ready to go on there," she said.

She does think there are more opportunities for women to gain that experience these days, though, as the proliferation of TV networks and smaller-level sporting events means there are more places where people can learn on the job.

"There’s so many college networks now," she said. "Hopefully more women will be able to do that younger."

The panelists concluded with a discussion of fantasy sports, and they agreed that far more women play fantasy sports than popular perception might have you believe. In fact, Hueter said fantasy football in particular is a terrific way to get women into sports.

"Fantasy football is a really great entry point for women," she said.

Things certainly aren’t easy for women in the sports world, and some of the still-prevalent sexism out there against female fans, athletes and media types disgusts me. We live in a world where one of the UFC’s key faces can essentially get away with calling a female journalist "cunty" (he later apologized, but got only a talking-to from the UFC), where some idiots (like some of Dan Steinberg’s commenters) still think it’s okay to rail against women in locker rooms, and where the Masters can bar a female journalist from a locker room. Meanwhile, there still isn’t much attention paid to either women’s sports (except stupid crap like the Lingerie Football League, one of the things that grinds my gears the most) or female fans of men’s sports.

There is some progress being made, though, and having an entire panel at a key sports blogging event devoted to the topic of women in sports is a good sign from my standpoint. The panelists had some outstanding things to say, and they made great points about the issues surrounding women in sports. There are certainly some positive developments happening on many fronts, and hopefully those will continue.

For more BWB4 coverage, I already recapped the Rising Stars panel thanks to Josh Elliot’s surprising comments on ESPN, and should have pieces up on the rest of the conference this week. There are also great thoughts on the conference from the likes of Shotgun Spratling and Moderately Cerebral Bias that you should check out.

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