Donna de Varona is one of the most influential people in women’s sports history: an Olympic gold medal swimmer who became a pioneering sports broadcaster, first president of The Women’s Sports Foundation and chairwoman of the 1999 Women’s World Cup soccer tournament – among other things.
So it was with evident pride Thursday that she surveyed the scene at a swanky Tribeca event space for espnW’s IMPACT25 Gala, which honored prominent women’s sports figures of 2015.
“It’s wonderful to be in a room like this, because when I started out in the [television] business in New York [in the 1970s], you never had a room like this for women,” she said. “I used to be the only woman in the room, and I’d have to beg to get in.
“So it’s a wonderful thing to see what has happened for women’s sports. Because it’s not about women’s sports only, it’s about being included in a culture that’s so important in the world, because the Olympics offer a gathering place like no other and it’s a multi-billion dollar business, and we belong in it, as leaders and as participants.”
De Varona, 68, said one of the changes she has seen over the decades is in how men view women’s sports.
“I find that younger men love women’s sports,” she said. “They don’t feel less-than because a woman is strong. They like it. And it’s a question of creating the vehicle that’s entertaining so men can watch in the first place. It’s so hard to find your space on network television or in the sports pages.”
De Varona hopes the media momentum generated by the United States’ victory in the 2015 World Cup lasts longer than she believes that of the 1999 Cup did.
“It should have continued, but the men that made the decisions about what goes on network television were the same guys I grew up with at ABC and they said, ‘Oh, it’s a one-off,’” she said. “Well, I’m sorry, it could have been a bigger business and better, but it was short-sighted. I’ve been making that argument for a long time.
“There’s a hunger for pure sports in America. Fans are so tired of the spoiled pros who get in trouble. We’re a sporting nation; we love pure, great competition, and that’s what women’s sports is.”
Laura Gentile, the ESPN senior vice president behind espnW – which launched as a blog in 2010 and as a website the following April – agreed with de Varona that men’s view of women’s sports has evolved, to a point.
“It seems that way,” she said. “I use my own personal anecdote about growing up and playing touch football with the boys for hours and playing street hockey for hours and I kind of got some funny looks like, oh, she’s really into it.
“Then you got the ‘she’s a tomboy’ thing. I don’t think girls have that at all now. They just grow up playing sports. I think that’s a wonderful example of progress.”
(Those childhood touch football games were played in Lake Grove. Gentile attended Sachem High School and went on to be a field hockey All-American at Duke.)
Gentile said awareness of espnW in the general sports community is “getting there.”
“I wish it was greater, and it certainly takes time, but it really feels, especially in the last 12 to 18 months, like there’s some real momentum and acknowledgement and more importantly, we just keep expanding,” she said. “We keep adding more products and more events. Our site, in my opinion, keeps getting stronger, so it’s all heading in the right direction.”
“Part of it is continuing to grow our audience,” she said. “We definitely want to reach more and more fans and more and more women and keep them engaged in our content, and we are expanding on the event front, so we’ve done our espnW Women in Sports Summit now for six years.
“We’re now going to expand to a one-day version of the summit in Chicago, and we’re going to look at expanding events in key markets and ideally continue to bring together really smart thinkers to continue to think about where we go next, and how we create more change and more opportunity for women.
“You’re starting to see more and more women in decision-making roles, as referees and coaches, so we are on the verge. We just have to keep pushing. And convening helps to get a lot of smart thinkers working together and knowing each other and it’s a nice combination.”