While we’ve always promoted BwB as being “gender-blind,” we recognize that different audiences have different voices and preferences. This past week, the announcement that ESPN was launching a female-focused platform was met with much debate in the online sports community. To our surprise, much of the response took a negative tone, seemed misinformed, and was spearheaded by a host women sports bloggers.

BwB3 attendee and professional colleague Megan Hueter was in San Diego this past weekend where the WWL gathered “some of the biggest movers and shakers in women’s sports” to launch espnW.  As the cofounder of WomenTalkSports.com, Megan has long been a proponent for advancing the female athlete and sports community.

She also left San Diego as one of the biggest advocates for espnW.

Here is her take…

espnW: A brand for female athletes

ESPN, the worldwide leader in sports, recently announced a bubbling business from within called espnW, a brand completely driven for and by sports-minded women. Now, before you jump to conclusions based upon the espnW name, I simply ask that you first hear me out – because it’s critical to understand exactly why this new business is necessary for the success of female athletes.

This weekend, ESPN unveiled their new “w” brand at a retreat in San Diego, California. It took place in front of some of the biggest movers and shakers in women’s sports, including famous female athletes, coaches, journalists and sports marketing executives. At the event, not only did I have the chance to meet and talk to some of the women and men that I respect most in this world, but I also had the chance to share some of my opinions about what needs to happen to make the espnW business work. First, some context…

Since the passage of Title IX in 1972, the United States has seen a 900 percent increase in girls playing high school sports and a 450 percent increase in women playing sports at the collegiate level.  This means that over the past 38 years, a female sport culture was born and lives today. Despite the incredible successes we’ve seen, a drop-off exists when it comes to the transition from a female athlete to a female sports fan. There are several reasons for this, but here are two major ones as to why that ESPN cares:

1) Sports media rarely covers female athletes.

Research has shown that female athletes are significantly under-represented with respect to the amount of national coverage they receive compared to men. I don’t think anyone would argue with me on this – turn on SportsCenter, open ESPN The Magazine or Sports Illustrated and tell me how many articles about female athletes you see. For whatever reason, female athletes are simply not on the radar. The only time women are covered fairly is in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition or ESPN Body, sending a clear message to women: it’s OK for you to play sports, but the only time you deserve national media attention is when you take off your clothes, show some skin, and act like a girl.

2) Female sports fans are on the rise

It’s also important to understand the core mission that ESPN has followed faithfully since its inception: “serve the sports fan.” However, the idea of a “sports fan” as a guy in front of his TV is changing – in fact, women (these are women who watch men’s sports) comprise almost 40% of their total viewing audience. ESPN’s internal research keeps telling them that this audience feels under-served – they don’t feel as if the ESPN brand speaks to them.

The Answer: espnW

Enter: ESPN employee Laura Gentile. Back in 2007, emerging from within ESPN’s own culture as a rising business star, the former Duke field hockey player started raising the possibility of offering a female-specific sports outlet that seeks to address these gaps. The team started by targeting high school girls with ESPN’s Girl Magazine – a grassroots publication for high school athletes which is published three times per year, followed up by ESPN Rise Girl Edition online (still in Beta). The idea here is to reach a young audience early, and have them transition over time into espnW a female-specific business.

espnW, expected to launch with a blog this fall and more digital content next spring, will target the 18-49-year-old woman who loves sports, which happens to comprise 50 million current and former athletes. If activated successfully, you can imagine the potential impact, not only in effectively serving a new audience, but also in acquiring new advertisers who want to reach this audience.

However, it’s not going to come easy. These women are a very tricky age group. They have a lot going on in their lives – they’re in graduate school, cultivating professional careers, trying desperately to stay in shape, meeting their life partners, getting married and raising children. All of a sudden, their love for “sport” falls into many different types of areas – they might follow their college teams as an alum, watch men’s professional sports, play sports recreationally in the evenings, run 5K races and triathlons on the weekends, go to the gym every night, or coach kids.

As you can see, trying to interject a new entertainment habit into an already-busy woman’s life is going to be quite challenging.  So challenging, in fact, that some outlets have tried and failed – for example, Sports Illustrated for Women attempted to tap into this market between 2000-2002, but folded quickly. Then-president Ann Moore cited the downturn in the advertising economy, saying, “SI Women needed a significant investment to reach its potential,” and “The investment climate was simply not on our side.”

Fast-forward to 2010, in a different climate and backed with a major investment from ESPN, a Disney-owned company. In addition to the initial investment, the “w” brand secured founding sponsors Nike and Gatorade, as well as support from other brands like Under Armour, Roxy, Oakley and Lululemon, all eager to attach themselves to a “w” business. If money really is the key issue, with this level of up-front investment, on paper, it seems the espnW team can make this thing happen. But the truth is it’s not that easy – the espnW team is going to have to tread very, very carefully with the public. Here’s why:

First, the idea of a “w” brand is very controversial for women who are already fans of men’s sports. For example, Chicago Cubs blogger cubbiejulie cited that she “hates” the idea of espnW because she believes it’s going to be a “girlier” version of ESPN, promoting things like “pink hats and bedazzled t-shirts.” As a sports-minded woman, she really has no need to go to a “w” network – she has everything she needs from what ESPN already offers.

But it’s important to understand that espnW isn’t targeting Julie who already gets what she needs from ESPN. And I can assure you – the last thing the W team would consider promoting (or wearing, for that matter) are bedazzled t-shirts.

Rather, from what I experienced this weekend, watching the unveiling of the new brand on the same stage as Billy Jean King (who received a standing ovation on opening night), as well as notables like Laila Ali, Julie Foudy, and Gretchen Bleiler, among countless other amazing women, I think it’s safe to say that, at the very heart of this new business is the mission to serve current and former female athletes… a uniquely different audience, one that’s been struggling for public attention for 38 years.

ESPN is also opening itself up to criticism from its current diehard male fans – the whole idea of “espnW” seems outrageous (and quite funny) to men who already feel served by the brand… especially if it’s aimed at promoting professional female sports, which may or may not meet their needs for sports entertainment.

But it’s really critical for these guys to understand that they’re not the target audience, either. And on the surface, although this may seem like an easy target for a quick joke, if they ever want their sisters, daughters or granddaughters to have the opportunity to experience financial success as professional athletes, they’ll need to support (or at least not mock) a major sports media company when they build opportunities for female athletes to get attention.

Last, I can say with confidence that espnW is a brand that the retreat attendees, including myself, celebrate and welcome with open arms. And I challenge you to join me. Because for once, there’s a possibility that female athletes will be able to showcase their athletic achievements to the world without needing to take their clothes off.

Let’s talk about it – Regardless of your point of view, I value your opinion on this topic and sincerely welcome the opportunity to talk about it. I invite you to either leave a comment or contact me directly on Twitter, @mhueter.

About Megan Hueter:

Megan Hueter is the cofounder of WomenTalkSports.com, which, until the advent of espnW, has remained the only sports blog network that specifically promotes female athletes. Megan is also a former athlete from Haddon Heights, New Jersey who played basketball The College of New Jersey. She works full time as a public relations professional in New York.