Networks discovering lure of women’s sports

Oct 29, 2001  •  Post A Comment

More people than ever are watching women’s sports on television, but the multimillion dollar question is: Can networks make it pay?
Oxygen Sports is making a small bet that it can. The new women’s network is devoting about 9 percent of its $85 million annual program budget to offer a 5 p.m.-to-7 p.m. ET Saturday and Sunday block of women’s sports. It is focusing on participatory sports that Lydia Stephans, president and executive producer of Oxygen Sports, calls “programming for the Title IX generation and beyond”-meaning women who came of age after 1972, when it became illegal for schools and colleges to discriminate against girls and women in federally funded education, including athletics programs.
Oxygen isn’t alone. ESPN has signed an 11-year commitment to broadcast all 63 games of the women’s NCAA basketball championships beginning in 2003. In all, the network will devote more than 840 hours of programming this year to 20 different women’s sports, including basketball, golf, tennis, soccer, gymnastics, figure skating, softball, skiing, bowling, billiards and track and field.
Edward Erhardt, president of ESPN-ABC Sports Sales, said selling advertisers on women’s sports is increasingly easy because the network can demonstrate that targeted sports programming reaches the 18- to 29-year-old, high-achieving working woman. “That audience is attractive but hard to reach, but we think we can coalesce them around sports programming, and that will help advertisers.”
The female audience for women’s sports is clearly growing. The Women’s Sports Foundation estimates that the number of 18- to 34-year-old women who watch sports has increased by about 40 percent in the past 25 years. But the networks continue to rely on male viewership of female events. According to ESPN, more than 70 percent of the viewing audience of its Ladies Professional Golf Association programming is male, and more than two-thirds of those watching the Women’s NCAA Basketball Tournament are men.
Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women’s Sports Foundation, does not agree with the contention that women simply aren’t supportive of female athletes. She blames inconsistent programming and unattractive scheduling for skimpy female numbers. “The World Cup was promoted and the ratings were there. If the TV stations want this female audience, there isn’t any question in my mind that they can go get them. But they have to market to her and they have to make sure that the product is in place for her.”
Lifetime thinks it has found part of the answer-appeal to women’s interest in the softer side of sports. Tim Brooks, senior VP of research at Lifetime, said, “Our viewers are interested in a personal connection. They want our coverage in the world of sports. As opposed to just watching the game, they want to learn more about the players and their lives.”
As a result, Lifetime has launched “Players Journal,” an on-air newsmagazine that focuses on the lives of the WNBA players, and “Straight from the Heart”-a story-driven report on NFL players and their families. About 40 percent of NFL viewers are women, and Lifetime hopes to capitalize on that, Mr. Brooks said.
Kelly Laferriere, director of programming and acquisitions for ESPN, said her network has a similar-but unisex-approach. “The way we program our networks is for sports fans. We try to create stars and tell stories about athletes. General themes that exist whether you’re programming for men or women-rivalries, winning records, losing records, coaches. We grab the most pertinent and timely sports stories. It doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female.”
One of ESPN’s long-term strategies is to build stars starting at the college level and stay with them as they move into the pros. That has worked well with the men of the NCAA. Now Ms. Laferriere is aiming to make the same thing happen with the women’s NCAA basketball players as they move on to the WNBA. “Our goal is to make that transition,” she said.
Oxygen’s Ms. Stephans, a former Olympic speed skater who worked for ABC Sports in a variety of roles for 12 years, applauds the notion of thorough coverage of women’s sports. But she believes that ultimately lots of attitudes will have to change before coverage of women’s sports will have parity with men’s. “Having been an athlete at an elite level gives me credibility,” she said. “I’m not just talking as a programming executive. I’m talking as an athlete.”
Ms. Stephans believes that sportscasters have to be more sensitive to their audiences. If they call male athletes by their last names, they should also refer to female athletes by their last names. And unless they are offering a fashion report on both male and female outfits, they shouldn’t be talking about what the women are wearing. “It’s condescending, and it perpetuates the problem of how society sees female athletes,” she said.
Ms. Stephans sees big potential for programming around women’s sports and says the rollout of the digital tier will make those opportunities more obvious. “It’s not a saturated marketplace in any sense,” she said. “I think there’s a potential audience all the way down the line for more tennis, golf, soccer, collegiate sports-even down to the high school level. Women will watch.”#