Meet Alison Overholt, ESPN The Magazine’s First Female Editor-in-Chief
Overholt chats with Folio: about her plans for the brand, the status of women's sports in America, and the new and changing ways in which sports and culture continue to intersect in the media.
Earlier this month, ESPN announced that espnW editor-in-chief, Alison Overholt, would add to her duties the role of editor-in-chief of ESPN The Magazine, making her the first female editor-in-chief of a major national sports magazine. Folio: caught up with Overholt to learn more about what she will bring to her new role and what's in store for ESPN The Magazine in 2016.
Folio: When did you first learn that you were being asked to take on the editor-in-chief role at ESPN The Magazine?
Alison Overholt: Just about a couple of days before you did.
Folio: What was your reaction?
Overholt: I was thrilled, because I actually started my career at ESPN as an editor with the magazine. In many ways, it’s like coming home, so I’m absolutely thrilled and excited about the creative opportunity. I think that the magazine is just in an incredibly strong position right now, really on an upswing of its creative identity. I’m really looking forward to building on that and making it even bigger.
Folio: What else can you tell us about your background? How long have you been with ESPN, and where were you before?
Overholt: I’ve actually had two stints with ESPN. I’ve been back almost two years now in my current role. In April of 2014, I came back to be the editor-in-chief of espnW. They were looking to grow the editorial presence and sort of reimagine all that espnW could be in a multi-platform editorial sense, from the website, to the full complement of social channels, to our flagship event every October. There was a strong foundation there, and we were looking to bring that to life even further by bringing in new voices, nurturing the voices we already had and seeing them really grow and become a larger part of the ESPN community.
Prior to this, I was running my own digital strategy consulting shop for about four years, working with a number of different brands. I spent about a year with Seventeen magazine, serving as the deputy editor, so that I could be immersed in the editorial culture there and help them build their iPhone app. That was a really fun project because it gave me a chance to return to some magazine roots and really soak up that editorial culture.
Other clients that I worked with included Nasdaq OMX, I’ve been teaching at NYU, I was writing for Fortune and Fast Company, and doing a lot of other client projects about reinventing digital identities or figuring out content strategy—what’s the true and authentic storytelling you can do that matches your business goals—and then figuring out how to get it out to as many people as possible.
Prior to that, I was here at ESPN for nearly six years, as an editor for the magazine and also part of the group that did the initial research into whether or not it was the right moment in the marketplace to bring espnW to life.
Folio: We understand that you're the first female editor-in-chief of a national sports magazine. Coming over from your ongoing role at espnW, how will that allow you to bring a unique perspective to the magazine?
Overholt: It was stunning to realize that I was the first woman to be editor-in-chief of a national sports magazine. Stunning in the sense of, "What an honor," but at the same time, stunning in that it’s 2016. It seems almost unimaginable that in this year, that could still be a thing. In one sense, I don’t think it was in any way part of the decision, but in another sense, we are more conscious than ever that the world is changing. The face of the American sports fan now spans every possible kind of person. There was a time, probably, when if you conjured the idea of who a sports fan was, you probably had a very particular kind of guy in your mind. That’s not the case anymore. We’re speaking to fans who are men and women, who are black and white, who are American Hispanics and Asian Americans. Somebody who comes to this job with a very conscious awareness of how important it is to bring new voices into the conversation, I think, is a tremendously important perspective to bring to this position.
Folio: Outside of the Williams sisters, the U.S. women's soccer team, and maybe UConn basketball, there’s kind of a void of female sports coverage, both at ESPN and in the media in general. Can we expect more women's sports in ESPN The Magazine?
Overholt: Absolutely. I think I can say that without a doubt. You can throw Ronda Rousey into that mix, too. I think she probably commanded more ink than any other female athlete in the entire sports world last year. I do think there’s this idea that people aren’t ready to read about female athletes or that women's sports are somehow less compelling. There’s an interesting campaign from the WNBA right now that’s just beautifully shot and very adrenaline inducing, and the tagline is “Watch me work.” In an espnW editorial meeting yesterday we thought, it’s great and everybody gets fired up and you say, "Watch me work," but when are people going to be ready to watch them play? That’s a story I’d love for us to tell. After 20 years, when is the American public going to embrace the WNBA and watch them play? They certainly deserve that attention.
Folio: Why do you think that perception exists about women's sports?
Overholt: I don’t know if it's actually rooted in reality. There is a piece of me that thinks it’s a little bit of a media-fueled storyline. The reality is that women's sports, if you look at them in a historical framework, are still in their infancy. It wasn’t more than a couple of decades ago where there were almost no professional opportunities. College scholarships are still a fairly recent thing, when you think about it in the context of history. Men’s professional leagues have had generations to develop into the powerhouse businesses that they are, whereas women's sports are still in their infancy, and yet the business success and the audience development is compared as if they should be apples to apples. To a certain extent, if you look at the variation among markets, there are certain cities where teams have really taken root and there are incredibly passionate fanbases. It’s all pretty comparable and reasonable within that timeline of how long each of them has had to develop.
Folio: What can you tell us about what’s planned for ESPN The Magazine in the year ahead?
Overholt: We’re still making our plans for the year, but what I’d really love to see from the magazine is just the chance to make some noise. I think we have an industry-defining franchise in our Body Issue, and I'd like to see us add a few more issues like that, that really command the cultural attention in the sports world and in the media world at large. I think we have an incredible opportunity to capitalize on the fact that we have the number one digital brand audience behind our magazine, based off that new MPA study that just came out. Our opportunity this year is really to say, "Okay, we have this incredibly immersive storytelling experience that can run from print, to digital, to social, to television, to film and beyond, how do we start to see the magazine as this very unique reader experience that can be the doorway into some of these full-circle immersive storytelling things that we can do with all of our other partners at ESPN?"
Folio: You mentioned the MPA numbers. At the American Magazine Media Conference earlier this month, your colleague Chad Millman described how a magazine cover is still a really relevant, valuable currency for athletes and celebrities alike. Why do you think that is?
Overholt: There’s something incredibly special about the commitment to put something into print. Whether it’s the time commitment that you make to do that photoshoot, the extra artistic energy that goes into creating that perfect image, the fact that it is physically commemorated, there’s something indelible about the cover of a magazine. We’ve placed such great emphasis in our world today on immediacy and on the interconnected social experience of the digital world. I’m coming over from digital, I’m as much of a digital consumer as anyone else on the planet, and there’s such an exciting and valuable thing about that immediacy and just incredible volume and reach that you can have through a digital or social experience. But the other side of that is because it's so immediate and because it’s so fast-moving, it’s also a little bit ephemeral. It goes away as fast as you can swipe your hand up the screen. Whereas to commit to putting something into print and to creating a powerful artistic statement on the cover of a magazine, I think everyone still recognizes that that truly means something. And then for ESPN The Magazine, just having that oversized trim size, it makes more of a statement and packs more of a punch even than a standard magazine cover. For a lot of these athletes, particularly who have grown up seeing that as a standard, I think it just carries a stamp of achievement and validity that it’s hard for anything else to come close.
Folio: What about espnW? You just launched a website.
Overholt: Well we’ve actually had a website for five years, but what we did was we launched a refresh of the site about a week ago. It’s a new architecture, it’s a streamlined look, its very clean, and its really designed with mobile in mind. So far, the feedback has been terrific.
Folio: What’s on deck for espnW moving forward?
Overholt: One of the reasons we did our refresh was that we just exploded with the amount of content and the number of new voices we’ve added to the mix in the last couple of years. One of the things we were noticing was that it was becoming difficult under our previous design to discover and surface that great content. We’ve launched a new channel on our site, our culture vertical. So many of our most successful and impactful pieces have been about this intersection of sports society and culture. We’re really kind of embracing the idea that we’re at this moment where women are engaging with sports in a way that's changing both the sports world and the world at large, whether its women coaching, or women in new professional roles in the media, or women having new exciting pro opportunities on the field or on the court. We wanted to make sure that we had a place to really be able to talk about all of those things.
We're also excited about the fact that we’re launching a couple of new events this year. We’ve had this very successful tentpole conference every October, and we’re pleased to be able to do a one-day summit in Chicago this coming April so we can bring a slice of that energy to a different city, but also in a one-day format that makes it a little bit more accessible for a broader group of people.
We also launched our first ever espnW film fellowship this year, and we’re announcing the fellow herself at our Impact25 gala on February 25.