Guest Commentary: Women’s sports struggling to reverse a losing streak

Nov 11, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Sportsville USA-In yet another stunner, Women’s Sports lost a critical matchup with the American consumer when AOL Time Warner released up-and-coming player Sports Illustrated Women from its roster. The defeat extended Women’s Sports 21st century losing streak to a level previously unthinkable.
AOL Time Warner opted not to extend the contract of SI Women, noting that its performance on the field (circulation 400,000) did not warrant the opening of the team checkbook. AOL Time Warner team captain Ann Moore said the player “needed a significant investment to reach its potential.”
SI Women joins Conde Nast Sports for Women on publishing’s waiver wire. But women’s sports are struggling on both sides of the ball, with the electronic media unit also in the midst of a terrible slump.
Oxygen, after touting its plan to breathe new life into women’s televised sports, announced in April that it was benching that part of its sports roster. “We’ve had cutbacks based on our evolving sports strategy in sports,” said spokesman Mike Wade, “We are going to be doing fewer events but more high-profile events.” This change in the playbook came on the heels of rival Lifetime Television’s decision to cease fielding a year-round sports lineup.
There were high hopes for Women’s Sports’ rookie of the year, the Women’s United Soccer Association. But those hopes were dashed when the soccer hopeful play-faked its way from Turner Sports to Pax for Season 2 this past summer. The result: invisible ratings and a drop in attendance.
“We’re just taking it one day at a time,” said I.M. Fann, longtime supporter of Women’s Sports. Added veteran Women’s Sports operative Jen Der Equity, “All we can do is go out there and play our game.” …
If women’s sports media were in fact a game, this might be how the sports pages would report on the event. Women’s sports, touted by sponsors, networks and sports marketers as the place to be in the mid-’90s, is having a hard time being found in the 21st century.
The reason is simple and it’s as cliched as any postgame sports interview: economics.
In the worst ad recession ever, sponsors, networks and advertisers are less inclined to invest in unproven commodities. And in a world where Nielsen rules, the bulk of women’s sports properties remain unproven.
The Women’s NCAA College Basketball Tournament on ESPN stands out as the most viable property in women’s sports. It captures the fever of “March Madness,” features a game that is accessible to most and has the added attraction of the alumni factor. The championship game has become ESPN’s highest-rated college basketball telecast-in men’s or women’s sports.
For the past two years, CBS has presented the women’s final of the U.S. Tennis Open in prime time. The result: more eyeballs actually watching CBS on a Saturday night.
Neither development happened overnight. It took years to market these events as prime-time players. Credit ESPN and CBS for nurturing and developing the properties.
But the future of women’s sports on broadcast or basic cable is not exactly a bet you would take at any self-respecting Las Vegas sports book. The NBA has already moved the bulk of its games to cable in its most recent TV agreement. The recent record rating lows for the World Series do not bode well for broadcast baseball. Writes Bob Raissman in New York’s Daily News, if “ratings continue running down the drain … baseball will become an all-cable sport, with the World Series perhaps the only element to be seen on network TV.”
As more major sports programming migrates from broadcast to basic cable (in most cases ESPN) there is a good chance that some women’s sports properties will be displaced. This is not good news when you consider that in 1989, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation, women’s sports constituted 5 percent of TV coverage and a decade later that number had increased to only 8.7 percent.
So was the advent of the Title IX generation just a fad? Was it another byproduct of the go-go ’90s? Do women not watch other women play sports?
The reality is women’s sports are a generational phenomenon. If you are a 50-year-old woman who did not grow up with sports, or if you are a 50-year-old man who thought sports were not for girls, you are less inclined to watch. But if you are 25 and grew up playing soccer with boys and girls you may be more inclined to watch.
Still, you have to have a place to watch. There has to be a place to nurture women’s sports. Where is it?
Digital cable may be the destination for women’s sports to thrive and survive. Look to the north and our Canadian cousins, where for the past year WTSN, a digital women’s sports network from TSN-The Sports Network, has been on. In its first ratings book it ranked 34th out of 55 digital services. Not great, but it indicates there is an audience that’s willing to pay for such a service.
On this side of the border, the fledgling National College Sports Network recently announced as part of its digital plans an “unprecedented commitment” for women’s collegiate sports. Said Kelly Dunne, the channel’s VP of creative services, “With over 150,000 women competing in college athletics at more than 1,200 universities, there is a wide-open broadcasting opportunity to promote the passion, intensity and athleticism of women student-athletes on a national scale.”
So is there a digital women’s sports channel in the offing? Not likely in this investment environment/economic downturn. Down the road, with 500 channels to fill? Maybe.
However, an incubation block on an existing service could be a start. A place where fans could always find something.
ESPN and ESPN2 come close with their Monday night figure skating, women’s pro bowling and cheerleading packages, but that serves more as soft-sell counterprogramming for another TV partner, a little entity called the NFL, than a true women’s block.
So it’s been a bit of a knockdown for women’s sports in recent times. And this economy is showing no signs of getting off the canvas to help. What women’s sports needs is a media company-like Canada NetStar Communications-that wants to build for the long term. The picture does not look too bright right now, but as they say in sports bars, “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings.”
Brian Donlon is VP and general manager of iVillage Television and from 1996 through 1999 was VP and executive producer of Lifetime Sports.