Carol Stiff, VP, Programming & Acquisitions, ESPN
Carol Stiff had a game to watch. Problem was, she was in the middle of a meeting. As soon as the meeting was over, however, it was game on. “On the way home, I had my iPad on,” said Stiff, who was trying to catch an ESPN women’s basketball doubleheader. “It went in and out, then I had the radio on, so I got my fix.” Stiff is a basketball junkie. She played at Southern Connecticut State University, and then she coached women’s basketball at Western Connecticut State University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., and Brown University. Then came a move to ESPN. These days, the Bernardsville, N.J., native oversees ESPN’s women’s basketball coverage as the vice president of programming and acquisitions. In short, Stiff is a product of Title IX. What is Title IX? Back in 1972, legislation passed that stated, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, denied the benefits of, or be subject to discrimination
under any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
Title IX turns 40 this summer, and ESPN is front and center with special Title IX programming. “On the ESPN side, we celebrated the 30th and the 35th [anniversary]. The 40th is going to be unbelievably great,” said Stiff, who, coincidentally, was taking part in a panel discussion about Title IX on the night of the doubleheader she was trying to catch on her iPad. Stiff and I spoke in one of the cafeterias located on ESPN’s main campus, which has grown considerably since my days working there as a field producer in the mid-1980s.
The ESPN Title IX initiative includes the 10 greatest moments in women’s sports and nine films on women’s sports. All well and good, I said. But, does it make fiscal sense? Research shows that women’s sports programming appeals to a different audience in different regions than the audience for men’s sports. And so, yes, it makes sense to try to reach them. And the decision to highlight the Title IX anniversary certainly provides the network with a trove of compelling stories to tell. “It just helps spread the knowledge of these women,” she said.
However, it has to be said that women’s sports are often not moneymakers. And that can lead to resentment of Title IX. Last year, Quinnipiac University in Hamden was hit with a Title IX lawsuit when it tried to eliminate women’s volleyball. A U.S. District Court judge ruled against the school. ESPN is not a Johnny-come-lately to women’s sports. The network began broadcasting college basketball back in 1982. The 2012 NCAA Championship will mark the 17th year that the championship has been exclusively covered on ESPN, and the 10th year that ESPN has covered all 63 games. The relationship between the network and the WNBA goes back to the league’s inaugural season in 1997. The 2011 season was the WNBA’s 15th season on ESPN.
But women’s college basketball hasn’t always been shown in prime time. Credit Stiff, with a little help from former UConn great Diana Taurasi, with changing that. “I fought to get prime Monday, ‘Big Monday,’” said Stiff. “It’s been on the men’s side for years. They had all of our women’s games on Sunday afternoon. Well, as you know, in sports, you have NASCAR, you have golf, you have the NBA ...
So, when Diana Taurasi came along in 2004, the ratings went through the roof. Everyone around here was talking about how great she was playing – how she plays like a guy. The light bulb went on. I said, ‘Let’s give them a prime-time shot.’ Now, we have Big Monday. You’re seeing more highlights on.”With a full plate of programming geared toward Title IX, ESPN in February was looking for a sponsor to help underwrite the cost of the programming. On June 23, the actual anniversary of Title IX’s becoming law, ESPN plans to broadcast 11 live women’s sporting events.
”You program for your fan base,” Stiff said. “Sometimes you do things for the right reasons, and, as the premier sports destination for all sports, we should be doing this. Period. “Yes, we’re in the process of trying to find a title sponsor. Hopefully, we find one,” she said. “But at the end of the day, the president of ESPN said we will do this. This is the right thing to do, and, we’re going to celebrate this, and hopefully make ESPNW the premier destination we all want it to be.” Maybe Stiff will make sure there’s an iPad app for the special programming, too.
Rich Coppola is the sports director for FOX CT and the anchor of the Sunday morning news