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ESPN's Title IX 40th Anniversary Gift: A Channel of Their Own

6/23/2012 9:12 AM

Mia Hamm was voted the top female athlete of the past 40 years by a panel of ESPN and EspnW experts, beating out Martina Navratilova for the honor.

One can certainly argue the merits of both — the greatest goal scorer and the leader of the women’s team that most captivated the American imagination, the 1999 World Cup winners, or the tennis titan in the sport where women have made their greatest strides toward equality with men. Either way, there’s no denying the impact of what informed the list: the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the legislation that opened up athletic opportunities for females.

Shorthand for the landmark 1972 legislation, Title IX mandates gender equity in any educational program — not only, but in its highest-profile manifestation, sports — that receive federal funding.

Its impact has been transformational for American society and culture. Whereas only one of 25 girls, some 294,000, played high school sports in 1972, the ratio had risen to one in three for a total of 3.17 million in 2011. That tally doesn’t speak to the scholastic, familial and community support groups surrounding those participants, or the increased number of distaff athletes at the collegiate level. And many of the athletes who benefited from Title IX subsequently graduated into professional ranks.  Unintended consequences have resulted in the rollback or elimination of men’s teams, and more guys coaching women’s teams.

The countdown of the “Top 40 Female Athletes of Past 40 Years” on flagship show SportsCenter was just one facet of a multiplatform initiative, “The Power of IX,” in which ESPN and EspnW.com, the worldwide leader’s digital distaff destination that built an attendant microsite, celebrated the legislation’s milestone. The activities, which also saw ESPN The Magazine take a deep dive into the future of women’s sports, crescendos on the June 23 anniversary date, when ESPN, ESPN2, ABC, ESPNU, ESPN Classic and ESPN3 will showcase a variety of live event and women’s archival programming (view the schedule here).

The legislation’s legacy will live on. In the spring and summer of 2013, ESPN Films will launch, “9 for IX,” a series of documentaries.

More importantly, broadband service ESPN3 today launched a dedicated women’s channel. Via an ESPN3 player on espnW.com, the multiscreen service on EspnW.com plans to present 170 hours of live women’s events through July 31, with a roster encompassing WNBA and USA Basketball, Wimbledon action, USA Softball, golf and volleyball (check out a schedule here). More than half of the events available through the EspnW channel are exclusive to ESPN3.

While it’s not quite a linear landing spot — maybe that comes down the road as part of the worldwide leader’s ever-expanding global reach — it’s a nice vehicle to keep abreast of female athletic action. Business benefits aside, the dedicated channel also is a gift from Bristol that will serve to motivate and inspire those whose athletic exploits will play on it down the road.

Insiders suggest there will be more WNBA games and matches from the U.S. Open on deck for later this summer. Come fall, one would expect to find plenty of the collegiate fare that ESPN has gained the rights to through its myriad conference contracts.

Generally speaking, ESPN’s linear audience composition ranges from 70% to 75% male, versus 25% to 30% female. For some sports, women are out in more force. They account for 37% of the programmer’s audience for college softball, 35% of its NCAA women’s basketball tournament crowd and 34% of those who watch its NASCAR Sprint Cup coverage. The count hits 41% when it comes to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which may not exactly be a sport, but it’s certainly highly competitive.

Women are too intelligent, their interests and responsibilities too diversem to consume the countless hours — as many of us guys do — when it comes to anything that spells sports. Still, their interest in watching and participation in athletics and games continue to grow, in no small part owing to the legislation sponsored by Sen. Birch Bayh and Rep. Edith Green that President Richard Nixon signed into law 40 years ago today.

So, as Title IX officially reaches middle age, this is my birthday wish on behalf of — and to — those whose playing days are still in front of them and for those who now cherish those memories: Remain, forever young.

September