Laura Gentile talks sexism in sports, Ronda Rousey, and the future of women's athletics
In the words of WNBA player Skylar Diggins, this has been the year of the female athlete. That's largely due to the fact that the stories of the incredible women in sports are finally being given the space they deserve in mainstream sports coverage. One of the women who paved the way? Laura Gentile, who, after seven years of working at ESPN, founded espnW, the first dedicated platform for female sports and female sports fans. (Check out eight more of The Most Influential Women Leading Big-Name Sports Brands.)
In advance of the annual espnW: Women + Sports Summit, we talked to Gentile about how she conquered a male-dominated business environment to create espnW (which she is now vice president of), plus everything from the sexism sports-loving women face to up-and-coming female athletes we should all be watching for in 2016.
Shape: What was the catalyst for creating espnW as a blog back in 2010?
LG: To me, the opportunity was just so obvious. Having grown up as an athlete, as a tomboy, having played sports my whole life, I always fit in at ESPN no problem. After working there for six or seven years, though, it was clear to me that we could serve women even more deeply. Women already respected ESPN but also acknowledged, ‘This isn’t entirely targeted to me. It’s targeted towards my husband, or boyfriend, or son.’ And so, a light bulb went off. To create something specifically for women was just right there in front of us. Forty-nine percent of all sports fans are women, or 114 million people. When we were starting this business, it was like, ‘Oh, that’s a good niche within sports.’ One hundred and fourteen million people though—that’s a giant niche! The opportunity was to me pretty clear.
Shape: How has it evolved over the past five years?
LG: I started by building a team that was super resilient and believed in the potential. We hired incredible talent that could not only write, but also appear on Sports Center and be credible. That’s really been an ‘aha’ moment for the company, and for people in general. You see Sarah Spain talking about hockey. Jessica Mendoza is now covering baseball. Julie Foudy is amazing talking about almost every sport, but specifically soccer—men’s and women’s. And then it starts to feel natural. These women fit in and have a perspective, they make sense of it all, and they offer a bit of a different take, which has always been our premise. Women can see a story differently and talk about an issue differently and the great thing about building espnW is that after five or six years, we’re able to demonstrate that. Women don’t have a wholly different perspective—it’s nuanced. That makes all the difference.
Shape: What traits do you think women have that can help them succeed in a male-dominated workplace, as you did at ESPN?
LG: Innately, we have a different capacity for processing information and a different capacity in terms of juggling multiple things at once. I’m a working mom, we have a lot of working moms on our team, and the amount that we get done in a given day, both on the home front and in the workplace, is pretty extraordinary. I think ultimately it’s the ability to prioritize and juggle.
Shape: What do you think have helped you most in your professional career?
LG: It comes from being an athlete. I always knew it helped me in the workplace, but I think now, having two children, starting a business, and working somewhere like ESPN—which is totally 24/7—I appreciate it even more. As an athlete, you have that mindset of focusing on the task at hand, blocking out the noise, concentrating, and looking to complete something. And then there's all the intangible things about what it means to be a teammate, and what it means to be resilient, to persevere, and to know this isn’t going to happen over night, it will take time and effort and practice and repetition.
Shape: And the confidence that comes with being an athlete is a huge asset as well, I’m sure.
LG: I agree. When you’re an athlete—I played all through college and on a pretty high level—you don’t even realize you’re transmitting these confidence vibes, but you do, it just becomes so innate. I went in to the espnW business pretty naïve. I just felt in my core it was going to be a success. When I told my husband I decided to spend 100 percent of my time building espnW, he was like, 'You know, failure is in an option!’ I was shocked and put off. It literally had not even crossed my mind! [laughs] On some level it was actually nice, because he was only trying to keep me grounded.
Shape: How do you handle the sexism and misogyny that can surround women and sports in general?
LG: Anytime you go into a sports bar, actually go in to watch the game and are into it or talking about it, a guy will sit back on his bar stool and say, 'Wow, you know a lot for a women.' And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I do. I work at ESPN and went to college on a scholarship and have played sports my whole life.’ It’s just this feeling in the culture!
Shape: How does that effect what you do at espnW?
LG: It’s further sensitized me to language. Language has become so important to us [at espnW]. You noticed subtleties. It’s not always people being disrespectful or trying to be insulting. But it’s a little bit about how the sports culture works and the language of sports. We say basketball is 'basketball.' But women’s basketball is 'women’s basketball.' You have to call out the gender. It’s so ingrained. Athletes are athletes, but you have to specify a ‘female athlete.’ We do this at espnW to be descriptive since that’s who we’re focused on, but in the sport world at large, 'athletes' have always been male pronouns. It’s sad—but it’s changing. We’re calling things out that haven’t been acknowledged before.
Shape: The Women’s World Cup Final was the most-watched soccer game in U.S. history, but clearly that kind of national attention on women’s sports isn’t an everyday occurrence. What can change in sports coverage to showcase women’s athletics more?
LG: That’s really the next challenge: How you have that consistency? And that’s where espnW comes in—women are consistently in the spotlight. They are the protagonists and heroines and stars. We’re working even closer with the rest of ESPN to do that more across all our platforms. And we are. ESPN is clearly the leader in women’s sports. We televise more women’s sports than anybody else and we’ve done it since our founding 30 plus years ago, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do more. That’s what we’re striving for—to consistently hear these stories of women achieving, and their challenges and their struggles, in the same way we consistently hear about LeBron and some of the male athletes.
I think seeing is believing. The more we do it and find success, ideally all the copy-catting will start. And we’re ok with that. We need more people covering it. I never look at the industry and all the different players in the space as competitive. Where we are right now with women’s sports, we all have to be working together and we all have to be showcasing these athletes and telling these stories as much as possible.
Shape: Do you think those stories of women doing such badass things have always been there but haven’t been widely covered, or is there more opportunity now for female athletes?
LG: I think there are more women doing more amazing things because more women are participating and there is more opportunity. But Laila Ali was doing amazing things, and Jackie Joyner-Kersee was doing amazing things, and Mia Hamm. Some of these athletes have broken through, but we haven’t seen that consistent coverage of them in the way that you see the LeBrons, and the Kobes, and the Tigers, where you know every single thing about these people. For example, there have been incredible stars on the basketball scene, whether it’s Lisa Leslie or Cheryl Miller—these are groundbreaking athletes and we didn’t consistently hear their story. And now, that’s what we’re providing. Every move Ronda makes, we’re on it! And everybody’s on it! (Shape included! Here are 15 Times Ronda Rousey Inspired Us to Kick Some Ass.)
Shape: Ronda really has been so groundbreaking in that way.
LG: Ronda’s approach is a case study! She lets people in and puts herself out there. She’ll say the provocative thing, and she’s comfortable in that role. She can call out Floyd Mayweather—what other female athlete calls out male athletes? She does it and that’s part of who she is. She’s an Olympian, now she's the biggest headliner for UFC. Five years ago, people at UFC were saying, 'Women will never even take part in mixed martial arts within our octagons,' and now she's the headliner and they’re saying her next fight will break all records.
Shape: What was your moment for women in sports this year?
LG: There were a lot. Gosh, on the coaching front, Becky Hammon being the first D-League coach for the NBA and then winning the summer league championship. I think that speaks volumes, because it’s a woman playing and excelling in a men’s sport, and it’s just so crystal clear she’s got the skills and the ability. In front of the camera, Jessica Mendoza calling major league baseball games and calling the Wild Card game with the Astros and the Yankees, and holding her own with Dan Shulman and John Kruk. She got a couple mean tweets and ignorant comments, but for the most part, she was embraced—because she knows her stuff.
Shape: How do you think that's going to affect the way girls grow up today?
LG: I have a son, he’s seven, and—granted, he lives in my house and I’m constantly playing sports with him so he might be little bit of an outlier—but he's growing thinking women can do anything. I think this next generation is going to grow up more accepting and with a different perspective on what men can do and what women can do. For me growing up, I was a child of Title IX. I was able to play any sport I wanted to, but even as a kid playing football in the street with the boys, that was a little unusual. People were like, ‘Hmm, why is she always playing with the boys? Her hands are always dirty when she goes to Brownies…’ [laughs] Now, I don’t think girls get that. You just play sports! (They even now have Dolls for Girls to Embrace Their Athletic Sides.)
Shape: We just did an interview with WNBA star Skylar Diggins where she said that this has been the year of the female athlete. Do you agree?
LG: It’s funny, we’re getting ready for the summit, and literally every year at the ESPN summit, it’s the year of the woman! Back in 2011, it was the previous Women’s World Cup and that was the highest-rated soccer game at the time. 2012 was the London Olympics and the U.S. women dominated our medal count and were the biggest stories of the Olympics. 2013 and 2014, there were incredible things happening. Every year has been the year of the woman, but it really keeps getting better and better. Yes, it’s a pinnacle when a women’s team has a ticker tape parade in New York City—that’s never happened before. But if you look, incredible things have been happening for the last five years!
Shape: Who are your picks for up-and-coming athletes in 2016?
LG: The Olympics—especially the summer Olympics—is always an amazing showcase for U.S. women. You have swimmers Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky again—she just keeps breaking world records anytime she gets in the pool. There’s also Simone Biles in gymnastics. She’s a world champion, so she’s already on the scene, but I think that mainstream America doesn’t really know her yet. We actually have a Voices of the Future panel at our summit featuring up-and-coming athletes, and that includes Sam Gordon, the football player who we’ve all come to love; Jaden Newman who plays basketball and insists she’s going to be the first woman in the NBA; Claressa Shields, who has already won a gold medal in boxing but is only 20; and Victoria Duval, an up-and-coming tennis player who just overcame cancer and is still world-ranked. Those are some pretty amazing women.
Shape: Do you feel that female athletes— especially the ones in the ESPN Body Issue—are promoting a positive body image?
LG: They’re all amazing, but this past Body Issue was so beautiful. We’re completely proud of that product and the fact that women are side by side by men—they’re not treated any differently, or lit differently, and we don’t only use ‘pretty women.’ The women are all shapes and sizes. We have a shot putter [Amanda Bingson] on the cover. How great is that? That’s the beauty of sports, you take great pride in your body. Maybe your thighs are big by standards, but they’re super powerful and strong. At espnW we’re always looking to show authentic athletes and show that it’s ok to sweat, it’s ok for your hair to be dirty. I loved how Aly Raisman said, 'My entire body needs to be strong, even my pinky toe.' She probably has the strongest pinky toe of anybody we know! The women are super honest about how they’ve learned to love their bodies and they’ll say, 'I may not be a perfect size 4, but whose definition is that anyway? And I can do things that other people can’t.'