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ESPN’s 30 For 30 Documentary Series Is Back, And Women’s Sports Are Absent

ESPN’s much-acclaimed documentary series, 30 for 30, returned Tuesday night, when the network went up against playoff baseball with the debut of “Playing for the Mob,” a look into the point-shaving scandal that rocked Boston College and the college basketball world during the 1978–79 season.

“Playing for the Mob” is the first of seven new titles that will air throughout the fall as part of the 30 for 30 series, and several of the others sound fascinating too: there’s “The Day the Series Stopped,” about the earthquake that disrupted the 1989 World Series; “Brothers in Exile,” about Livan and Orlando Hernandez, two ballplayers who fled communist Cuba and earned Major League glory; “Rand University,” about wide receiver Randy Moss’ childhood in smalltown West Virginia; and “The U Part 2,” which revisits one of the series’ most popular films from its first season.

Something else is fascinating too: women’s sports are nowhere to be found.

According to the list of films and their directors on ESPN’s web site, none of the seven documentaries that will fill the season of 30 for 30 films broaches a topic that involves women’s sports. Just one, last night’s “Playing for the Mob,” features a woman co-director (Cayman Grant).

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This is fairly typical for the series. The original 30 for 30 series aired in 2009 and 2010. Two of its 30 films — “Unmatched” and “Marion Jones: Press Pause” — were about women athletes or women’s sports. In 2011 and 2012, ESPN produced 13 more 30 for 30-style films under the ESPN Films Presents banner. Just one of them — “Renee” — was about women in sports. ESPN launched Volume II of the 30 for 30 series in October 2012, and by the time the last of the seven new films airs in 2014, Volume II will include 26 titles and will have covered women’s sports or a woman athlete in just one — “The Price of Gold.” Of those 69 films, six had women directors or co-directors.

ESPN hasn’t ignored women’s sports on the film side. The Nine for IX series, which ran last summer and fall as part of a celebration of the anniversary of Title IX, featured nine films about women’s sports, all of which were directed by women. In June, ESPN announced plans to launch a series of short mini-documentaries as part of the Nine for IX franchise, and it has featured six so far, each ranging from 11 minutes to 17 minutes in length (by comparison, its web site lists 25 shorts as part of 30 for 30; one features a woman in a central role, though its topic is Major League Baseball).

Include the Nine for IX films, and the numbers look a little better: they make it so that roughly one-in-five of the full-length and short films ESPN has produced are focused on women’s sports. But there’s no reason documentaries about women’s sports need to be set apart from the main series generally, especially considering that the 30 for 30 brand is more recognizable and easily promoted. And once the nine films produced to celebrate a milestone anniversary are removed from the equation, just four of the first 69 full-length films produced under the 30 for 30 or ESPN Films Presents banners will have covered women’s sports or a woman athlete.

ESPN has proven that it cares about women’s sports. It just extended its television deal with the WNBA this week. It has a broadcast deal with the National Women’s Soccer League. It shows women’s college basketball, softball, and other sports and its executives tout the network as “the leader in covering women’s sports.” The 30 for 30 series, meanwhile, has made it an industry leader on another front. But it’s a front on which the Worldwide Leader can do a better job in highlighting interesting stories in the world of women’s sports than it has done through the series so far.