An aspect of the ESPN Films slate that's always stood out is the network's willingness to tackle less well-known stories. While some of their documentaries have provided illuminating new looks at massively-covered subjects (Muhammad and Larry, Without Bias, The U, You Don't Know Bo), many of the best have brought wider attention to stories that once looked like less-natural documentary subjects: a few examples there include Once Brothers, The Two Escobars, The Band That Wouldn't Die and Small Potatoes. ESPN's newly-announced "Nine For IX" initative, a series of nine documentaries from the 30 For 30 producers that will start airing this July and focus on women in sports, would seem to fall into that latter category.
These stories largely aren't all over the mainstream sports radar, but they're fascinating subjects, and they carry the potential for tremendous films. What may make this move even more of a gamble than doing one-off documentaries on relatively-obscure subjects like the USFL or the Colts' band is the common theme running through them, though. While these films focus on wildly contrasting subjects and themes, they're all about women in sports, an area that historically hasn't received much media attention or much viewer interest. Can ESPN change that? No one knows for sure, but they should be commended for giving it a try.
It's notable that this is not some minor, feel-good project for the Worldwide Leader. They're investing significant time and resources in these films, and perhaps most interestingly, they'll be airing them in a solid timeslot, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on ESPN. Yes, that's in the summer when they have less live sports rights (and when most channels aren't showing as much top-tier content), but it's still remarkable to see a block of prime-time ESPN programming devoted to telling stories about women in sports. The network's been improving its focus on telling women's stories, promoting female talent and attracting female viewers and readers, most notably through the resources it's devoted to the espnW site, but this represents an interesting increased-stakes gamble for them.
While espnW features some great content and compelling stories, it's not something that's heavily promoted on ESPN's main page (there's an espnW link at the right of the main page, between Fantasy and Radio, but it's easy to miss that), and it's not necessarily easy for the general sports audience to stumble across. Also, on the web, there isn't much fear of having viewers tune out. If they don't like the espnW content, they'll ignore it and stick to the ESPN home page. Putting women's sports stories front and center on the main channel during prime time is a more audacious move. It's a much higher-profile slot, which could result in more people paying attention to stories of women in sport going forward, but might also result in some turning on ESPN, saying 'Ugh, not for me,' and quickly changing the channel.
These are stories that sports fans, male or female, should give a chance, though. From the saga of Pat Summitt's battle with early-onset Alzheimer's (Pat XO, which interestingly enough, has Robin Roberts as a producer: Roberts is in the news this week for returning to Good Morning America following a health battle of her own) to Katarina Witt's ties to the East German secret police (The Diplomat) to free-diver Audrey Mestre's tragic death (No Limits) to the U.S. team's 1999 Women's World Cup triumph (The '99ers), there's plenty in here that should make for compelling films. Another fascinating entry on this list is Let Them Wear Towels, focusing on the history of female reporters in male locker rooms (and key incidents such as the Lisa Olson and Melissa Ludtke cases). Everything here is a sports story worth telling, and just because they haven't all received massive media coverage over the years doesn't make them any less worthy.
Is this going to be a success for ESPN that prompts further investment in telling stories about women in sport, or a once-off series that's quickly forgotten? Well, that will probably largely depend on what audience these films find. If they don't draw well, it will be easy for executives both at the Worldwide Leader and at their competitors to trot out the old "People don't care about women in sport" line and go back to devoting less attention to these stories. The landscape of female sports fans seems to be continually growing, though, and there's also a sense in some quarters that male sports fans may be more open to these kinds of stories than they have been in the past. If people tune in, this could be a huge step forward that shows people will watch quality stories about women in sport. It's a gamble for ESPN, and it definitely carries risks, but if it pays off, that might dramatically change how much coverage women's sports stories receive.