Variety’s Sports and Entertainment Summit Probes Big Issues With Top Bizzers

Simone Biles
Kyle Okita/CSM/ZUMA Wire/Cal Sport Media/AP Images

Despite the drop in viewership for live sports during the pandemic year, sports still remains the best way to get audiences to gather round the TV. Advertisers love sports. Prices for rights are on the rise. Variety’s Sports and Entertainment Summit, presented virtually July 14, gathers top professionals in the business to discuss the multifaceted industry.

A focus will be on women’s sports and storytelling in sports. As the 2021 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics get set to kick off July 23, female athletes will grab the spotlight, with gymnast Simone Biles the most visible, while swimmer Katie Ledecky looks to continue her gold medal streak, and the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team, basketball squad and track and field stars will excite fans.

Indeed, the summit features a conversation with Molly Solomon, executive producer and president, NBC Olympics Production. NBC has turned sports storytelling and the stories of the Olympic athletes into crowd-pleasing high art.

Haley Rosen, CEO of Just Wo­­men Sports, will speak alongside Paul Martin, executive producer of “Formula 1: Drive to Survive,” and Greg Whiteley, exec producer, “Last Chance U,” on the Visionaries in Sports Story­telling panel.

Rosen says she started her site, which includes news, podcasts and viewer guides, to fill a need that wasn’t met out there. She played soccer at Stanford, and transitioned to a pro career that was cut short because of injuries. Rosen was frustrated in the lack of coverage of women’s sports. Rosen points out that some 50% of athletes are female, and professional women’s soccer and basketball leagues are strongly gaining in popularity.

“We have the website, we have a newsletter, we have podcasts. I think that’s really important, but more than anything, women’s sports are dope” she enthuses. “We say this all the time and we are stoked. So how do we get people excited? We need to be excited. It’s an amazing product.

“And something that we’re very focused on right now is world-building, knowing what the rivalries are and who’s beefing with who, and who’s in the MVP contention. That’s all part of sports, and we miss that sometimes on the women’s side because of the lack of coverage.”

Rosen notes that it’s important to tell these stories of women as humans, “who these characters are, who are the heroes” in order to build compelling stories.

As Rosen and JWS work to give greater visibility to women’s sport, one of its biggest pro leagues, the WNBA, takes center court at the summit. The WNBA Super Panel will explore how its athletes navigate the rising success of their league, the growing fan base and how players are balancing their interests across basketball and elevating their individual brands. Panelists include WNBA superstars Elena Delle Donne of the Washington Mystics, Sue Bird of the Seattle Storm, sisters Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike, both of the Los Angeles Sparks. City National Bank’s Todd Burach moderates.

The WNBA, celebrating its 25th season, earlier this year an­nounced that 100 of its games will be broadcast over ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, CBS, CBS Sports Network and NBA TV; 12 games are scheduled to be streamed on Twitter, and 20 on Facebook Watch and Oculus from Facebook.

For women in sports, Rosen underscores the importance of Title IX, which was passed by the federal government in 1972 and opened up all sports to girls.

“I think we cannot understate the importance of Title IX — since then, we’ve seen over a thousand percent increase in participation at the high school level and over 600% increase of women playing in college and something similar to the professional level. Just literally the amount of people playing in and interested in women’s sports is higher than ever before. It’s a whole new demographic that wants women’s sports.”

A keynote conversation with NBA star Carmelo Anthony launches the summit, while Religion of Sports co-founders Gotham Chopra and Michael Strahan (“Good Morning America” host and Pro Football Hall of Famer) are in a keynote conversation spotlight.