>ESPNW and the Gendered Political Economy of Sport

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For minorities, women in particular, the stakes in the political economy of sport are considerably complicated.–Linda K. Fuller, Sport, Rhetoric, and Gender

On December 06, 2010 mass sports media mogul ESPN launched a “sister” site dubbed espnW.com. Its mission is to reportedly to “Serve, inform, and inspire female athletes and fans” (Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport 2010). Yet, significantly, it is not, unlike it’s big brother, a TV syndicated outlet; espnW remains in its preliminary stages an alternative internet platform to engage the female sports fan. This seems problematic, particularly given that it is also noted that espnW will also highlight both women and men’s sports for the presumed female sport fan (Tucker 2010). The last significant caveat to espnW is its co-sponsorship by Gatorade and Nike, two giant sports merchandise moguls, the latter specifically of which has made quite a name and profit for itself through its landmark “Title IX” ads like 1995’s “If You Let Me Play” and “girl power” rhetoric.

Given the problematic history of women athlete’s exclusion from sports mass media (Creedon; Hall; Messner; Lenskyj; Birrell and Cole; Wenner; Fuller; Hundley and Billings), I am cautious about the intentions behind the function of espnW.com in a post-capitalist society plagued by the historical exclusion of women from mainstream organized sport. Is it not possible that espnW is just another alternative, lower-funded website in which to broadcast less mainstream male sports under the rhetoric of female sports fan appeasement? How do we know espnW content is geared toward females, or, for that matter, that female fans will actually have significant impact in steering espnW content to their interests? While it is encouraging that the majority of the epsnW “team” are women (White women, in fact), I am not sure this is not another tactical move to steer women administrators of media sport into a tenuous niche market under the post Title IX rhetoric of “girl power” in sports.

Furthermore, given that research into the targeted niche market of “female sports fans” was likely driven by a collaboration between the market interests of ESPN, Gatorade, and Nike, I’m not positive that empowering sports content of espnW (presumably written by women for women) is not being superseded by the ESPN-Gatorade-Nike partnership’s economic imperative to marketize sports goods and subsequently commodify women’s participation in and consumption of mass mediated sport forms; this is perhaps suggested by the privileged rotating space Nike and Gatorade occupy in the top right corner of espnW.com’s homepage. Nike’s sponsorship seems more “salient” on the site, with a highlighted hyperlink titled “What are you doing to make yourself”—the page, of course, links to a Nike website where you can personalize your Nike workout gear around your sport activity interests, what feminist sports scholars Cheryl Cole and Hribar call the Nike’s post-Fordist commodification of feminism (1995). The implication is, of course, that making yourself involves buying Nike apparel to make of yourself an empowered athlete: women’s sports brought to you by Nike . . . for Nike.

I am also troubled by what might appear another, more hidden agenda with espnW.com. Drawing from Bourdieu’s theory of sport as a social field in which the logic of social distance can be assessed (“Program for a Sociology of Sport”), is it not possible that espnW.com is a strategic move on the part of ESPN to further marginalize women’s sports from mass mediated sport markets? I am troubled by the fact that espnW is not in its current stage intended as a TV syndicated media; I am also curious (developmental stage aside) as to the “blog” format of the site that seems curiously informal and undeveloped compared to brother ESPN.com. Also noted are the first three hyperlinks at the bottom of the page, all dedicated to driving niche market consumptive behavior: “Advertise on EspnW,” “Sales Media Kit,” and “Interest Ads” While understandably this could be a strategic move to generate revenue to keep the pilot site afloat, I smell power discrepancies which suggest that ESPN and Nike might be using women’s increasing interaction with web 2.0 social networking and media to commodify sport; this, rather than, say, using TV sports media to support women’s sport and correct the heretofore damaging ideologies or, in fact, the historically underrepresented coverage of women athletes.

If espnW.com remains an “off shoot” sister link of it’s big brother, espn.com, and if it also intends to choke content space on the “girl power” sports website for male sports, does it not run the risk of perpetuating what sports media scholars call the “symbolic annihilation” of women in sport? I have a sneaky suspicion that espnW will both benefit ESPN and Nike’s female markets at the economic level while simultaneously perpetuating the status quo of women’s sports as at best inferior and peripheral to, or, at worst absent from mainstream mass mediated organized sport. Explicitly marking the site through the subordinate gendered term “W,” espnW is a fascinating if not problematic realization of the complex interrelations between sport, economics, culture, and gender that continue to confound scholars and make profitable institutions capitalizing on the salient and gendered nature of sport in modern American culture.


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