Female athletes are set to have a US channel exclusively dedicated to them. Ahead of International Women’s Day, SportsPro caught up with Carol Stiff, the former ESPN executive now serving as an advisor to the Women’s Sports Network, to hear how the free, ad-supported, 24/7 streaming destination plans to provide coverage like never before.
There was something that used to keep Carol Stiff up at night during her more than 30 years at ESPN.
“We have these wonderful athletes that are so dedicated just like men,” she begins, “and what kept me up was that [within] Madison Avenue here in the States, no one was doubling down and investing.”
Stiff is responsible for much of the women’s sports content that now lives on North America’s most prominent sports broadcasting network, where she played a central role within the company’s programming and acquisitions department, managing relationships with the likes of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). With that in mind, she sees her latest endeavour as “a beautiful transition”.
Today, Stiff sits on the advisory board for the Women’s Sports Network, a new 24/7 television channel unveiled last month that is dedicated to covering female athletes. After decades of competing for premium airtime with better-resourced men’s properties, the idea is simple: that female athletes now have a platform that is exclusively for them.
“There’s so much content that is just not even being produced,” says Stiff, speaking to SportsPro ahead of her appearance at the OTT Summit USA. “And it’s so many great stories that aren’t being produced. That’s what we’re going to tackle. We’re in the sweet spot right now with this underserved content that will be massive.
“And what I like most about it is it’s not a women’s basketball network or a women’s soccer network – it’s women’s sports. So the canvas is clear and clean and white, and let’s go.”
Stiff (right) was tasked with growing the profile of women’s sports during her time at ESPN
The Women’s Sports Network is being launched by Fast Studios, a Los Angeles-based content studio founded in 2020, and will operate as a free, ad-supported streaming channel. Stiff is not yet in a position to reveal which digital platforms will carry the network, but does say that the company is meeting with “many, many, many distributors”.
And given how difficult it has been historically to find any women’s sports coverage on mainstream platforms, Stiff says it was crucial for the Women’s Sports Network not to be hidden behind some sort of paywall.
“It’s imperative that it’s free and easy,” Stiff states. “And that’s one of the issues that I saw while at ESPN, was the fact that you had to really dig, dig, dig, dig, dig to find women’s sports. And it was often on Sunday afternoon up against everything from the NFL, to Tiger Woods, to the NBA. And now it’s free, and it’s right there.”
As well as banking on the appetite of an underserved audience, those behind the channel are also making a big bet on changing consumer habits, where the theory holds that viewers are increasingly ‘cutting the cord’ and moving away from paying for traditional cable subscriptions in favour of ad-supported digital services.
What I like most about it is it’s not a women’s basketball network or a women’s soccer network – it’s women’s sports.
Fast Studios, which also operates SpartanTV, a channel that airs obstacle course races, and motorsport network Racing America, will take confidence from the fact that advertising dollars have been trickling into women’s sports in recent years, with the WNBA and National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) in the US seeing an uptick in investment across the board.
The hope, therefore, is that brands recognize an association with the Women’s Sports Network as an equally worthwhile investment. Stiff also points out that there are now more female executives with buying power at some of the biggest advertisers in sports.
“When I was at ESPN,” she says, “we did a study with Ernst and Young and the Women’s Sports Foundation. And what we found was females that are in the C-Suite here in the States played sports. They were athletes. And wouldn’t you want your brand associated with a female athlete who can multitask, stays in school, doesn’t get in trouble with the law, signs autographs, gives back to the community, goes overseas, does it all – isn’t that who you would want in your C-Suite?
“So you see advertisers now like Dick’s Sporting Goods, their CEO is a woman. And if you look at her ads, it’s geared around that premise that ‘we’re strong women running Dick’s Sporting Goods’. So there’s a business model here, and it’s finally here.”
Joining Stiff on the Women’s Sports Network’s advisory board is Sophie Goldschmidt, the president and chief executive of USA Ski and Snowboard who previously headed up the World Surf League (WSL). It is therefore no surprise that those two organizations were named alongside the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) at launch as properties that have already signed up to provide content for the new venture. Stiff says the channel will feature a combination of live and highlights content, as well as archival programming and additional storytelling, while it will produce a daily studio show covering news and updates from across women’s sports.
In terms of how that programming will be presented, Stiff says she plans to offer “a lot” of her expertise from her experiences at ESPN, but emphasizes that the Women’s Sports Network will very much have its own look and feel.
“We’re going to be looking at women’s sports possibly through a new lens,” she continues. “We’re going to have a live presence, [but] is it going to look exactly like [ESPN programme] SportsCenter? Hell no. It’s going to have women hosting and it’s going to be produced by women and men, but it’s not going to look exactly like SportsCenter. So it’s women’s sports through a different lens.
Given Stiff’s background it wouldn’t be a surprise to see women’s basketball eventually feature heavily on the channel. The company has been in contact with the NCAA, Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and US Tennis Association (USTA), according to Stiff, who is keen to stress that the new network will be inclusive of all sports. She also wants to emphasize that the aim isn’t necessarily to take on the likes of ESPN, but potentially to even collaborate with more established networks.
“We’re working with what rights are available,” she says, “and when those existing rights become available, we’re going to be right in there negotiating for rights. We’re not here to take down ESPN and their 16,000 hours of programming that I worked on. We’re here to complement them and be very inclusive with them and CBS Sports and NBC.
“Rising tides lift all boats. I mean, we do not have a problem promoting ESPN[’s women’s sports coverage], because that’s going to help us all. So when the rights are available, I would love to see as many sports as possible, the underserved sports that no one even knows about or hears about, will be on this network.”
The Women’s Sports Network also plans to be inclusive with regards to its audience and Stiff says the company is working with former ice hockey player Angela Ruggiero’s Sports Innovation Lab on “how to approach the demographic that watches women’s sports”, one that she believes increasingly skews both male and female.
US Ski and Snowboard is among the organisations that will provide content for the Women’s Sports Network
And when it does go live later this year, the Women’s Sports Network will join a growing ecosystem of media platforms that have been set up to solely champion female athletes, including the likes of Togethxr, Just Women’s Sports and Ata Football, in addition to others such as HighlightHER and The Gist. Many of those have carved out a niche around specific sports, or a dedication to highlights or storytelling content, but the Women’s Sports Network will be the first to bring all of those different strands together on one platform.
“Those platforms are terrific, we watch them, we partake in them,” Stiff notes. “But we’re going to be a streaming channel, where you can see it. And who knows, maybe there could be some partnerships where we’ll all be on the same island together, I don’t know where that will take us.
“Once again, this is great [because] there’s plenty of room for all of us. We’re going to be all inclusive and the boats are going to rise. And that’s the beauty: there’s plenty of room, there’s not a saturation that we see in men’s sports.”
For Stiff, the end goal is to get to a place where young girls point to the likes of Maya Moore or Diana Taurasi when asked who their role models are, rather than the male athletes who have traditionally received round-the-clock coverage from the mainstream television networks.
Her belief is that the Women’s Sports Network is therefore another step towards achieving that.
“It’s a game changer,” Stiff reiterates. “Enough is enough of basically ignoring another gender. And so with that, it’s time, it’s overdue.
“Back in the day, when I was with ESPN, we often looked at launching a women’s sports network. And I would always say, ‘no, let’s be part of the main menu and throw from a men’s event to a women’s event and let’s feed off each other.’ But [now] we have more women participating, and more women demanding, and more women that buy in advertising.
“The business model is here, and it’s here to stay.”