At the beginning of this year, I published an article in my column entitled, The Top 10 Sports Business Trends To Watch in 2016. My number one trend was one word, "Women".
While this single word confidently occupied the top seed, multiple factors aided in its elevated status- female athlete domination and the rippling effect off the playing field, increase of female roles in male-dominated sports, the surge of female participation in youth sport leagues -all of which Laura Gentile predicted seven years ago.
"It started from a business opportunity perspective", said Gentile, SVP, and Founder of espnW - the property of ESPN that embodies a voice for women who love sports.
"Looking ahead, and being privy to our long-range plans and financial outlook, it dawned on me that we could be doing more with women. Looking at research and my own personal experience, we put a business plan together that talked about ESPN really committing to the female fan base that connected with women in a different way and to serve women more deeply."
Peering behind the mantra, "Vision. Action. Impact.", Gentile spoke much about the power of a women's voice at this year's espnW: Women + Sports Summit at Monarch Beach Resort in Dana Point, California. I had the pleasure of experiencing the multi-day event - the premier expression of the brand's ethos - that brought together leading voices and industry influencers to focus on creating change and opportunity for women in sports.
My insatiable thirst for inspiration through sport, (along with the other 450 attendees), was quenched daily - physically through yoga, meditation, surfing and other beachfront activities - and mentally through keynotes, panel discussions and interactive work sessions which elevated a collection of topics from global access to sports and opportunities for the advancement of women, to the marketing of female athletes and the business of women's sports.
ESPN President and Co-Chairman of Disney Media Networks, John Skipper, indulged ESPN's relationship with women, including the surprising statistic of the flagship's audience...
"Women comprise 47% of ESPN's viewership". Skipper continued, "I am proud to say that we have committed significant resources to closing gender pay gaps at ESPN."
Other powerful narratives that energized the summit ranged from female Olympic-medal recipients, Award-Winning Poet, Nikky Finney, to the captivating keynote speaker, "Good Morning America" Anchor and former ESPN host, Robin Roberts.
Roberts empowered the crowd with seemingly endless vats of wisdom, such as...
"When you strut, you stumble", and "God's delays are not a denial."
But it was her earnest reflection that halted this room,
"There is no better time to be a female in the sports industry than right now."
As a woman in the sports industry, I couldn't agree more.
With every medal and triumph seized by women, we stand witness to a pivotal cultural shift. These record-breaking moments are more than just victories; they are badges of inclusive legitimacy further cementing our place in a historically fraternal society. Something Gentile and I spoke of in detail...
"Sports is as much a girls' thing now as a guys' thing", said Gentile. "All of those stereotypes we grew up with, they don't' hear it. The word tomboy doesn't exist. Moms that grew up as Title IX athletes, are now giving birth to this next generation that doesn't even think twice about playing."
And the data is telling.
37.1M women and girls ages 13-65 watch, listen, read or log-on to ESPN media each week, (according to an ESPN All Day study), a record 61 medals for the U.S. at the Rio Olympic Games were won by women, and Yahoo's annual report of the most searched athletes last year was, too, dominated by women.
Demonstrative of market response, brands (and summit sponsors) such as Toyota, Adidas, Google, Always and Wells Fargo are now speaking about this openly in their communications. Campaigns such as "Find Focus" and "Like A Girl", painted a perfect backdrop of allegiance.
espnW began as a startup. And according to Gentile, functioned "scrappy" with five people, eventually growing to what it is today. Now, with approximately 60 people and global reach, its vision from day one still remains intact:
"Talk sports, herald female athletes, empower one another, give back and be global."
Succinctly summarized in one of the many provocative quotes shared over the two-day event...
"Women alone have power. But women together have impact."