It’s not a bad time to be launching a sports website geared to women. This has been a year, after all, rung in by Tiger Woods’s umpteen strumpets, carried through the spring and summer by Ben Roethlisberger’s bathroom bouncers, and culminating with Brett Favre’s alleged correspondences, all of which have left the nerves of female fans more frayed than the seams on Ines Sainz’s back pockets. (Those pockets sure were tough to avoid — for a few weeks it was impossible to so much as Google a Jets score without encountering photos of Sainz rendered in resolutions much sharper than any of the attendant commentary.) For lady sports lovers, each fresh scandal was another reminder of our fraught relationship with the chauvinistic world we’ve chosen to immerse ourselves in, and only sharpened our appetite for coverage that could articulate our ambivalence.
And yet the arrival of espnW, an “online destination for female sports fans and athletes,” has not been greeted warmly by some of those same fans. Chicago sports blogger Julie DiCaro captured the prevailing sentiment, writing that the venture was based on “the same idea that has caused sports marketing geniuses to try to sell baseball to women … by creating sparkly pink hats.” A withering put-down, if you know the code: To serious female sports followers, the bedazzled pink baseball cap is a totem of all the ways we’ve been misunderstood and pandered to. Marketers’ insistence that these initiatives are designed to draw in new female fans just leave the current female faithful wondering if they matter at all.
As sports fans, our love has always carried costs. Some are gender-neutral: our sanity, for example. But unlike our male counterparts, we’ve also had to make little but meaningful compromises with ourselves about what we can tolerate. We accept the minor estrangement of being regarded with confusion by our girlfriends and suspicion by the guys. (“How did you get so into sports?” is a question that has never once in history been uttered to a man.) We’ll skim over police records and focus instead on home runs — but when the crimes come against women, it gets harder to look away. It was no big deal to have the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue sent to us as subscribers once a year, but now we are force-fed that same cheesecake imagery with our sports roundups daily. Still, we don’t want to feel like scolds. Complaining about those misogynistic Super Bowl ads will only get us disinvited from next year’s party.
Ideally, the something-for-everyone long tail of the Internet would include places for us to find smart, funny sports coverage that’s obscured neither by gratuitous shots of cleavage nor fluffy slideshows of the cutest sports bras we can wear to control our own. And maybe espnW will evolve into that place. But the first impressions the website’s been making have not been encouraging. By telling USA Today that espnW would be a site “where we talk about women finding self-esteem in sports and about getting a pedicure,” ESPN Vice-President Laura Gentile raised the eyebrows of female fans wary of the same old marketing ploys. An early planning retreat for espnW seemed a parody of itself, with the New York Times reporting that scheduled events included “sunrise yoga and a private Jewel concert.” Even when espnW executives did present a more sports-related vision for the site, explaining that they sought the type of storytelling that is a staple of Olympics coverage, it called to mind the troubling fact that the multi-medal performance of two of Vancouver’s top female athletes, skiers Lindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso, was widely covered as a catfight.
In its first week since launching, espnW has mostly played it safe, with reliable here’s-what’s-happening roundups constituting most of the site’s content. These are fun reads: concise, clever, and not condescending. The features have been more mixed. A post–book signing Q&A with Bill Simmons describes the “smattering of girls” in attendance as “appreciat[ing] Simmons’ love of trashy reality television” (surely they appreciate more?), and several of the first-person essays about boot camp workouts and triathalon training seem like something out of a fitness magazine. One essay exploring the way bad boy athletes are forgiven by fans glossed quickly over situations like Roethlisberger and Favre, and I wish that it hadn’t.
But it could be worse, as the NFL amply demonstrated with the September launch of its own “new destination for female fans.” Alas: Women.nfl.com turned out to be little more than a splashy online store with girl-cut jerseys modeled by NFL wives promising to “show women how to dress up their team apparel for a night on the town, a day at the gym, casual Friday at the office or a Sunday at the stadium.” One page showcases a “Field Flirt Jersey.” Yep, you guessed it: It’s bedazzled.