It’s been 40 years since Congress moved to level the playing field with the enactment of Title IX, and in recognition of that milestone, ESPN is rolling out a new documentary series about some of the pioneering women who helped drag the sports establishment out into the light.
Tonight, ESPN will introduce the first of its “NINE for IX” docs, getting things started with a one-hour film about five-time Wimbledon singles champ Venus Williams. Directed by Los Angeles filmmaker Ava DuVernay, Venus VS. focuses on Williams’ achievements on the court—in 2002, she became only the second African-American player to be ranked No. 1 in the world by the Women’s Tennis Association (Althea Gibson held the honor in 1957 and 1958)—and her campaign to sway Wimbledon and French Open officials to offer equal prize money to male and female players.
Venus VS. bows at 8 p.m. EDT on ESPN. Thereafter, a new NINE for IX doc will premiere every Tuesday night through August 27.
The NINE for IX initiative is a self-contained spinoff of ESPN’s established sports doc series, 30 for 30. Connor Schell, who created both series as vp and executive producer of ESPN Films, said that while NINE for IX is likely to be a one-off event, it could very well function as a means to get more women directors and producers involved with the 30 for 30 flagship.
To date, women have earned a director’s credit on just four of the 52 extant 30 for 30 films, whereas each of the NINE for IX titles was directed and produced by women.
“With NINE for IX we are working with some of the most talented female storytellers in the business,” Schell said. “I am exceptionally proud of the content. We wanted to get these stories right and I think it shows in the final product. I couldn’t be happier with how each film turned out.”
The new limited-run model is likely to be revisited by the ESPN Films team in the near future.
“Going forward, you may also see us try to organize other limited series around specific themes,” Schell said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we did something similar around the 2014 FIFA World Cup. It’s a variation that builds off the brand equity of 30 for 30 without departing too far from a model that we think really works.”
As the presenting sponsor of NINE for IX, AT&T will be a familiar presence throughout the series. The telco has committed to a run of 27 branded 30-second spots (four per film) and will be featured in an equal number of sponsored “sneak peek” segments set to air each Tuesday morning on SportsCenter.
The secondary sponsor is Procter & Gamble’s Gillette Venus brand.
As ESPN’s gender composition is 75/25 male/female, the network is reaching out to its broadcast sibling for a little promotional push. An executive producer of NINE for IX, ABC’s Robin Roberts is prepping several segments for Good Morning America, and there are plans to run similar promos in the syndicated Disney-ABC Domestic Television series Katie.
In the wake of tonight’s Venus Williams doc, ESPN has a number of intriguing subjects waiting on deck, including the flinty former University of Tennessee basketball coach Pat Summitt (Pat XO); the paradigm-busting 1999 U.S. women’s national soccer team (The ’99ers) and an examination into the double standard of marketing female athletes as sex symbols (Branded).