Personnel is policy, women’s basketball edition — Sue Bird talks Storm return — Must-click women’s basketball links
The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, February 23, 2022
Happy Basketball Wednesday! Below, you’ll find some Sue Bird content. First, though, some media on media for you.
Let’s get the personal bias part out of the way first. Alexa Philippou is a dear friend of mine, a delightful person, and has a truly exquisite dog.
But I want to talk about her hiring by ESPN because of the broader implications it has for women’s basketball coverage, not due to happiness for my friend’s shiny new gig.
There’s an old expression: Personnel is policy. Or put another way:
The very same process applies in women’s sports coverage. The reality is, in most newsrooms, the men’s sports are covered in a comprehensive way. It’s done by full-time hires, people whose sole job it is to cover their beat. And beats are manageable — a team, say, not an entire women’s basketball universe. And that writer has teammates, people working collectively. Women’s sports, too often, is an add-on, sparsely covered if at all by full-time reporters, the gaps filled by freelancers or, worse, not at all.
It all leads to dramatically different outcomes in which stories can even be pursued, how in-depth the coverage can get over the course of a season, and what readership follows — the last of which helps drive future decisions on coverage. Put one person on any beat like an entire sport and you’ll bump up against significant limitations no matter how talented that person is.
Alexa’s path, to be clear, is one that has been followed by countless folks in men’s sports media. She came out of school with a strong background from her college paper, the Stanford Daily, she interned at multiple daily papers, she got a shot at an important beat — the UConn women and Connecticut Sun at the Hartford Courant.
And now, ESPN. What does she bring to the job? Nothing less than a period of dominance in a very competitive market. She’s a newsbreaker. I’m going to lose scoops to Alexa. It’s not a bug, from my view, but a feature — men’s sports coverage does not suffer from so many folks working to break news, it amplifies all of it when it happens.
In an industry where there are very few full-time positions, the addition of Alexa to ESPN — with a FT replacement coming at the Hartford Courant for her former beat — increases the number of people doing this work, too. There are excellent people in this small but mighty group — but collectively, the relative few of us mean the cacophony can only get so loud. And combining Alexa with Mechelle Voepel means two full-timers on the beat at ESPN. (Three if we’re counting Katie Barnes, though what they do is different than a beat, robust feature work exclusively. It’s great! It’s just different.)
As to what Alexa hiring will mean for how and what gets covered, I’d point to the hiring of Meg Linehan by The Athletic to cover women’s soccer a few years ago. Freed from the need to find outlets for her work and able to just concentrate on the work itself, you’ve seen the kind of small-detail and largescale breaking news that’s followed. Yes, she is one person, but that increased the number of full-time woso reporters at large national outlets from… zero. (Jonathan Tannenwald, somehow, produces as much woso content as he does while also covering men’s soccer. Our own Annie Peterson covers everything from woso to NBA.)
Then came the Washington Post, adding Molly Hensley-Clancy. The Athletic saw such big numbers out of Meg’s work, they hired Steph Yang to add to the department. Two FT folks on women’s soccer! It’s growth. And both covered the sport for years before joining. This is not the only way — Chantel Jennings is a great example of a changeover — but it is the primary path for men’s sports, and for good reasons.
A pipeline of such people is necessary to maximize the way the sport is covered. This is the same path Sabreena Merchant followed — including, full disclosure, writing for me — before she became a full-timer on women’s basketball earlier this year at SB Nation, another huge win for coverage. There is no light switch to flip, equalizing women’s sports coverage to that of men’s sports. I believe in the model of fully fleshed-out media infrastructure, which is why you’re here, and why The Next exists. But there are areas of the infrastructure already in place where it matters more, on the margins, as well. This is one of them.
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