Women’s hoops still stepsisters in ESPN family

By Charles Hallman
Staff Writer

ESPN last week held its 24-hour college hoops marathon: 22 live games played all across the U.S. However, just one women’s game was included — UConn vs. Baylor.

“We’ve had one [women’s] game per year for three years,” admitted ESPN Vice President of Programming and Acquisitions Carol Stiff during a phone interview last week. “Last year we had an afternoon game.”

You tell me that the four-letter network couldn’t find but one women’s game.

Does women’s basketball deserve coverage equal to that of their male hoopsters? Couldn’t at least five of the 22 games have been women?

To us women’s hoops followers, of whom I am proudly one, the answer is yes! But there’s a better question to ask: Is the overall coverage equitable?

Approximately 250 women’s college basketball games this season will be seen on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPN3.com and its Full Court pay-per-view packages, including all 63 NCAA Division I tournament games in March, bragged Stiff. The UConn-Baylor match-up leaves us with 249 to go.

“My goal is to have as many women’s basketball games as available and in prime time, where we think they will rate very well and the most people can see them,” explained Stiff. “You will see more women’s basketball on our family of networks.”

My question is why the ESPN family is treating women’s hoops like stepsisters as opposed to prime treatment of men’s basketball, which you see on one of their channels virtually every day of the week.

Without picking on them, the number of nationally televised women’s basketball games in the six major conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and the SEC) have increased by 70 percent over the past five years. Not counting post-season games, there were 107 games shown during the 2005-06 season, and 182 contests are on this season’s slate.

Accordingly, ESPNU has increased its women’s games from 12 in 2005-06 to 47 this season (a whopping +292 percent growth), with College Sports Television/CBS College Sports showing the second-best growth (from 13 to 24 — 85 percent).

“The Big East Conference deal brought many games onto [ESPN], and I think over time we will see more and more as the game grows,” continued Stiff, adding that her network’s ACC/SEC deal, which is to be begin next year, will increase women’s hoops that much further.

“We have so many different conferences on our networks that we didn’t have several years ago. I think it’s important for women’s basketball that we showcase it in areas where viewers will be watching,” said Stiff.

But how much are women’s hoops seen in the ESPN prime-time slot, such as the network’s popular Big Monday? According to Stiff, 10 games are planned for January and February, and eight games are scheduled during mid-February, including two prime-time contests.

“This is a business we are trying to run here,” noted Stiff, alluding to which sport brings in not only viewers but also advertisers. Women’s basketball coverage is better than four years ago, she pointed out, from one game to “a heck of a lot of doubleheaders, especially in February as we go into Selection Monday and the [NCAA] tournament [in March].”

Another bone of contention for this columnist is ESPN’s oft-annoying “Bottom Line,” the endless stream of scores and other sporting tidbits constantly at the bottom of your television screen — your screen size determining how much action you will see without the constant distraction.

In a purely unscientific analysis, using my eyes only, I tracked the Bottom Line for men’s and women’s basketball scores for one 15-minute period. I saw as many as 24 men’s basketball games results, either final or in-progress scores, with the lowest number of games at 13. Meanwhile, the highest women’s scores were 14, and the lowest were five.

“We look at that every year,” claimed Stiff. “I know that when we do have women’s basketball games on, we do [give] more than the top 25 [teams].” Yet her network consistently gives more than the top 25 men’s teams’ results.

“We will look at [the rotation] and push to get that agenda item higher up on some of our people’s radar,” she promised.

However, until women’s hoops fans and gender equity proponents constantly call and write ESPN and others to complain, “that agenda item” will remain submerged under the radar.

“Thank you for your energy and passion for the sport — I can feel it over the phone,” Stiff told me. “We need to run a business here [at ESPN] first and foremost, and I think we are doing a nice job in the evolution of the [women’s] game and putting more and more games on each year.

“ESPN’s commitment [to women’s basketball] is very strong,” she stated.

Next: a Q&A with Big Ten Network’s Marc Silverman
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.

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