Q&A: Futrell award-winner, espnW founder Laura Gentile
Duke alumna and founder of espnW Laura C. Gentile is the 2016 recipient of the Futrell Award for Outstanding Achievement in Communications and Journalism. Gentile served as a two-time team captain and received All-American and All-ACC honors in field hockey before graduating in 1994 with a double major in English and political science.
In an edited transcript of a recent telephone interview with Julia Donheiser, Gentile discussed her vision for espnW, the process of building a new branch of sports journalism and its impact on women.
What was your inspiration for espnW?
It was a combination of business opportunity and a passion and understanding for what women as athletes face and for what we go through.
Part of it was purely a business thought and reality. The women’s audience struck me as a golden opportunity. We already reached millions of women, but [ESPN] wasn’t completely thinking about their needs day in and day out and thinking about them as a key target audience. We thought, clearly there is a business opportunity here because women are underserved and ESPN can serve them in a way that nobody else can.
The other part, mainly because of my athletic background, was innately knowing that women’s sports and female athletes are under the radar. Every once in a while a female athlete breaks through, but for the thousands of women who are participating — whether it’s professional or college — their stories often aren’t told and they don’t get the spotlight they deserve because almost all of them are just playing for the love of the game and it’s such a pure approach to sports.
How has this impacted the women’s sports industry?
There is something in the culture and zeitgeist where women are speaking our minds and sharing more. These women on the U.S. national team are emboldened and have that courage now to say: “Listen, we won the world cup, we just got a ticker tape parade, and we make less for every game we win than the men make for every game they lose and something’s not right about that.” I think there’s a ground fault in our culture and also within sports that women are more and more in the spotlight and in the driver’s seat and demanding things. It’s an awesome evolution in our culture where we’re feeling that again. There were always voice like that — like Billie Jean King was amazing in her day, and there’s Donna de Varona fighting for Title IX — but in terms of sheer numbers there’s more and more women speaking up and demanding change.
How did your colleagues react to the idea of espnW?
When we were initially talking about the idea … I had an accounting of who were my immediate allies — who were the people who innately got it and understood and were super supportive, and who [was] ambivalent, who if we were successful would come on board, but were sitting on the fence. And [I] knew the people who didn’t buy it and weren’t supportive, who didn’t think it should be part of [ESPN’s] growth strategy … The support now is super strong and people understand [espnW].
In deference to other people, any new idea takes some time to live with it and understand it, and with us, to really demonstrate what we were all about. You can talk until you’re blue in the face about an idea, but until you show them a living, breathing product, it’s hard for people to envision it. It wasn’t until we had our first event, the espnW Summit, that some of the colleagues went and were like, “Oh my gosh, I understand what you’re trying to bring to life!” And until our website was really, really good and they could see every day we have interesting stories and we’re tackling new issues and putting women in the spotlight. With all due respect to my colleagues, I think some folks needed to see it. They didn’t make the leap of faith via a presentation. They had to see [espnW] functioning, they had to understand it, get a little sense of our momentum. And now we have so many examples about what we’re about and what we’re striving for.
Do you think of espnW as a way to empower women?
We’ve always grabbed the mantle of this being a place of inspiration. When we built espnW, the first thing we did was a conference and broke the mold. Then we partnered with the state department and did the global sports mentoring program, and we helped bring 18 to 20 women to the United States every year to experience not only America, but also women in business and sports and learn from that and then go back to their own country. It’s why we partnered with Robin Roberts and did a series called In the Game with Robin Roberts, where she interviewed really wonderful athletes and told their stories.
We were always thinking about surprising people and delighting people and doing things differently, and yes we’re super proud of espnW.com, but we also knew that to really speak to women and gain their trust and be this brand that they embrace, we had to do more than that. The inspiration piece has come pretty natural to us. We tell stories that get people really fired up, we have events that people have never experienced before, we celebrate women in a way that’s never been done before. So we’re proud of our journalistic job … but we’ve always had this instinct that inspiration could be this awesome through-line for us to connect with lots of different women, whether they’re athletes, avid sports fans, or just like working out– everybody can get inspired.
How have men reacted to espnW?
If you look at our traffic, there are an awful lot of men who come to espnW.com. So either it’s our good storytelling that’s universal, or we do know that men like sports, and so they do like women’s sports. We do get that occasional sort of look in a meeting, that maybe guys think we’re pushing too hard, but if you look at our traffic, men are definitely enjoying our content.
How does the growth of digital media play into the espnW brand?
At ESPN, we are really good at launching networks. We know a lot about cable networks and the cable system. But when we were building the business plan for [espnW], I never pitched a TV network because the lines are blurring so much between what’s analog and what’s digital and what’s linear TV and what’s streaming. It just seemed the wrong fight to be waging to get a fully distributed network to get focused on women and women’s sports.
A lot of what we had looked at in terms of viewership and behavior is that women were going everywhere with their phone. They wanted content on-the-go, so we couldn’t count on them to sit down at 8 p.m. on a given night and watch a program. And I don’t take that as, “Oh, they’re less passionate and they don’t like sports.” I always take that as, they’re super busy with a lot to do and just don’t have time to sit down and watch an entire baseball game. I know I don’t. I come and go, and I watch a couple innings, then I do seven other things, and I come back. On a Sunday, as much as I love the NFL, I just can’t watch three games back-to-back.
I think sometimes people take data and draw conclusions, and sometimes those conclusions were, “Well, women aren’t as passionate about sports.” And we took it as, “Women love sports, but they’re super busy and their habits are different.” So we always pitched espnW as a digital property first, that would have a strong digital presence, a great social voice and a bunch of social feeds. We’re consolidating down to a core brand, and what we want to happen is to see espnW content everywhere. Wherever there’s ESPN networks, there’s espnW. On Apple TV there’s an espnW channel. We’re not there yet, but that’s always been the vision.
What are you most proud of in your career?
I love the fact that espnW [is] really filling a void, and one not everybody saw. That for future generations of athletes and young girls, they now have a place to look to see women doing amazing things. Not only as athletes, but leading from a business perspective and supporting one another and setting a different tone about the role that women can play in sports.
I’m also super proud of the fact that we have so much talent on espnW that’s now on ESPN … I love the fact that we’re cultivating all these women’s voices that are now much more prominent across ESPN. And definitely proud that we persevered, because it wasn’t always easy, and that espnW exists in the way that it does today.
Julia Donheiser is a student research assistant at the Duke Reporters’ Lab, where she is helping track the growth and impact of the fact-checking movement in journalism.