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Hoping for a bit more from The Mothership’s latest initiative

What does the Worldwide Leader in Sports think women want to see in game coverage?

Judging by Monday’s launch of espnW, the sports media giant’s self-proclaimed “online destination for female sports fans and athletes,” its not timely scores or up-to-date analysis. As of about 8 a.m. Tuesday, the lead story on the site was a preview piece about the Monday Night Football matchup between the New York Jets and the New England Patriots.(look to the lower right, and you’ll see a link acknowledging the Pats’ 45-3 blowout of the Jets)

Click a link on espnW.com for The Mothership site, and you are greeted with a video clip of the SportsCenter highlight of the night, recapping the Patriots’ beatdown of a win, along with a column from Jackie MacMullen, an interview with Pats QB Tom Brady, and links to coverage on ESPN Boston and ESPN New York.

So far, the message sent isn’t a great one. In an increasingly 24/7 world of online sports media, leading your new online brand for female fans with a long-outdated preview story hours after the game ended only echoes the problems that made the site necessary in the first place.

“If they were truly inclusive of women, they would try to integrate them into their programming, rather than secluding them off in a ‘pink ghetto,’” Jessica Wakeman, a staff writer for the pop-culture blog, The Frisky, told the entertainment and media website, The Wrap, back in October. “It’s the ghetto-ization, or pinkification of something that was created for men.”

But that would seem the central challenge of a site like espnW: How do you redefine the coverage of sports for women, when so much big sports media coverage reflects and glorifies the sensibilities of men?

From the model-pretty female sideline reporters in tight clothing to the super-macho truck ads in commercial breaks and “hottie of the week” items in sports blogs, huge chunks of the sports media experience are focused on targeting what academic media critics might call “the male gaze.”

So, the first question facing the architects of espnW was probably a simple one: What does a website focused on a woman’s view of pro sports really look like?

Unfair as it may be to answer that question with a survey of the first day’s offerings, espnW so far is offering: a look at 10 things to watch for during the Jets/Pats game, a preview of the faceoff in women’s basketball between Texas A&M and Duke, a link to a Sunday story on ESPN.com about Notre Dame’s win of the women’s college cup in soccer, and a column from former Olympian Summer Sanders on the power of sports to thrill us all.

A column from former WNBA president Val Ackerman talks about how more women are involved personally in sports by working out or increased opportunities for team sports in school, without talking much about how that translates to professional sports and sports coverage.

Pretty thin gruel for a site that was announced months ago, honed with ideas developed during an October retreat with stars such as Shannon Miller, Laila Ali and Marion Jones offering feedback.

It is probably too much to ask that the media conglomerate which created LeBron James’ “The Decision” offer a women-centered sports site pushing the powers that be in professional athletics to squirm a bit.

I wonder, for instance, why there are so few women in the broadcast booth during professional football games, for instance? Or how to feel when a female sports media personality known for her sex appeal gets harassed by athletes at a practice (like Ines Sainz) or hit on by stars via phone (like Jenn Sterger)?

How does a female sports fan respond to all the sexism embedded in some professional sports’ presentations? Does it matter that even the most accomplished female athletes seem encouraged to sell themselves as sex objects to get ahead?

What about some female athletes who have been accused of emerging as stars mostly for their beauty and sex appeal of male fans? If a name like Kournikova or Patrick floats up in these conversations, are the criticisms fair?

I admit, such confrontation may not be what female sports fans want in their version of ESPN. According to data ESPN released a while ago, the programming which draws majority-female audiences is the National Spelling Bee (actually airing on sister network ABC), ESPN2’s cheerleading shows and ESPN2’s Wimbeldon coverage.

But this media critic’s hope is that espnW might become an incubator for the kind of “female gaze” at the sports world that encourages the guys to see what they do in new, more inclusive ways.

It may have started as an attempt to sell ESPN’s brand to an audience far from its core, but espnW could accomplish a lot more. If it’s willing to aim a bit higher.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed, at blogs.tampabay.com/media.  
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