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ESPN got it right this time

By Mike DiMauro

Publication: The Day

Published April 14. 2014 4:00AM

And so the women's sports revolution rolls on, Nashville a whipped up version of happy history. Now the northbound odyssey to Neon Uncasville for tonight's WNBA Draft.

They're here again. You know. Them. The folks from ESPN. All the trucks and cables and cameras and mikes and Rebeccas. And on behalf of the women's sports revolution welcome to our corner of the world, worldwide leader.

Today's discourse: Has anyone paused to consider whether there would be a women's sports revolution at all without the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network?

Seriously. If you follow sports media, you are aware that ESPN gets blamed for everything short of Apartheid. And rare is the day hosannas come its way, even when ESPN's work is exemplary. This just in: ESPN's work at the Final Four last week should have everyone who gleans even a hint of enjoyment from women's sports applauding.

"The coolest thing," ESPN analyst and Washington Mystics guard Kara Lawson said last week, "was the countdown clock. How many events a year do you see SportsCenter doing a countdown clock for? Maybe the BCS championship game, Super Bowl probably under 10."

Exactly the point. ESPN elevated the "Pursuit of Perfection" from beyond a mere game into an event. Think about it: A women's game into a major event. How cool is that?

"We're there to cover the biggest sports events in the world. The women's championship fits that category," said Tina Thornton, ESPN's Vice President for Production, Ad Sales Integration and Management Operations, a title longer than Brittney Griner. "That event was historic in nature. We didn't look at it any differently than the men's championship. That's what makes me proud."

What should also make Thornton proud: People watched. Not just in Connecticut, where women's basketball has become a pastime. The game drew a 2.8 rating, the highest for any ESPN women's game in a decade, averaging 3.21 million households. It also drew 100,000 fans viewing the live stream on WatchESPN.

Hartford/New Haven, not surprisingly, was the top market (29.3), the highest overnight rating for a cable program this year in our state. Nashville drew a 6.8, followed by Knoxville (6.0), Louisville (5.5), Indianapolis (4.8), Raleigh-Durham (4.7), Providence (4.6), New York (4.6) and Memphis (4.5).

They're not all cities generally associated with women's basketball fever. And lest anyone think UConn can't deliver the New York market

This is the residual effect of the world's most influential medium taking the time to care. ESPN sent roughly 200 staffers to Nashville. Women's basketball was Easter eggs: all over the place. SportsCenter, Mike and Mike, Colin Cowherd, Good Morning America, sound bites, features, pregame shows, ESPNW.

"You know how much I love to work out," Lawson said. "I honestly didn't have time on Monday and Tuesday. It was non stop. In the arena, hits for different shows, the busiest Final Four I've ever been a part of. I don't want that to sound like a complaint. It was the best experience."

Even the brass was there: ESPN president John Skipper (he loves Carolina, by the way), John Wildhack, Executive Vice President of Programming and Production; Burke Magnus, the Senior Vice President of Programming and Acquisitions; Rosalyn Durant, Vice President for College Sports Programming; Mark Gross, Senior Vice President for Production and Barry Sacks, Senior Coordinating Producer.

This is significant. Women's sports get dismissed as necessary evils in some outposts, have-tos at the intersection of Title IX and political correctness. Except that ESPN is all in. And when the king of the jungle believes, so does everyone else.

"Even Goodyear wanted to be part of it," Thornton said, "so we got aerial coverage, too."

So next time you bash ESPN - you don't like the announcers, the games begin too late, whatever - just remember the respect it shows for the game. Our game. Last Tuesday was the greatest day in the history of women's basketball: all over ESPN, followed by a rattle and hum inside the arena a few minutes before tipoff that screamed Helen Reddy:

They are women.

Hear them roar.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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