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SportsColumnistsNeil Best

ESPN celebrates Title IX's 40th anniversary

Ohio State's Samantha Prahalis drives past Nebraska's Emily

Ohio State's Samantha Prahalis drives past Nebraska's Emily Cady, right, in the first half in Lincoln, Neb. (Feb. 26, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

ESPN will televise all 63 games of the women's NCAA Tournament, beginning Saturday.

On one hand, that hardly rates as news anymore; this is the 10th year it has done so. On the other, the fact that it seems like old news is itself a sign of remarkable progress.

Not that long ago, it would have been inconceivable. That was before Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972, ensuring both sexes equal access to programs, including athletics, at institutions getting federal aid.

As a reminder of how far we have come -- and to celebrate Title IX's 40th anniversary June 23 -- ESPN is planning a broad array of coverage, beginning with the website espnW later this month.

It also will include an issue of ESPN the Magazine dedicated to women's sports, television coverage that includes a countdown of the top 40 female athletes of the past 40 years, and nine documentaries by and about women.

John Skipper, who is 10 weeks into his term as ESPN president, said the idea grew from the staff and was embraced as a companywide initiative titled "The Power of IX."

Skipper, 56, recalled growing up in Lexington, N.C., when girls sports mostly were nonexistent, then watching his sons play on the same fields and with equal footing with strong girls teams at Wilton (Conn.) High, a school that produced Kristine Lilly, a former national women's soccer team fixture.

"Think about that," he said. "That's a fairly spectacular advancement.''

Skipper noted the benefits that sports can offer to females' health and well-being -- and society in general -- and said ESPN is "happy to be out in front in an advocacy position relative to women's sports.''

But he does have a business to run. So whatever the participatory good news, 40 years after Title IX, women must be able to justify their media presence beyond community service do-goodism.

There is no better example of them doing so than the NCAAs, the most popular annual women's team event on the sports calendar.

Skipper said that in business terms, women's sports have earned their visibility. "We do very well, thank you, with the women's basketball tournament,'' he said, then noted other successes, such as last year's soccer World Cup.

"It justifies its place,'' he said. "You've heard me preach the doctrine of live sports. We'd much rather have a live women's game on than be in studio or running some kind of taped product.''

ESPN estimates that 30 percent of its viewership is female. Still, Skipper said, the correlation between women playing sports and watching sports is "still somewhat developmental.''

"Women still care much more about their own participation and the benefits for health than they do about idolizing other people,'' he said. "Men are much more used to having teams and having favorite players. But I do think playing sports does provide a gateway into being spectators."

If so, ESPN will be happy to welcome them in, as well as their male friends. Saturday is as good a place to start as any.

"We love the women's tournament,'' Skipper said. "By the way, it's probably for lots and lots of male sports fans one of the more natural entry points to women's sports.

"If you're a Notre Dame fan, you're pulling for the Notre Dame team. If you're a Stanford fan, you're pulling for Stanford. And the fact there are women in those uniforms probably is not the most important factor.''

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