Credentials come first for Alison Overholt, the first female editor of a major U.S. sports magazine
Alison Overholt never expected to make this kind of history. Not in 2016.
When Overholt was named editor of ESPN The Magazine in February, research revealed that she is the first woman to be editor of a national, general-interest sports magazine. (Sports Illustrated for Women, which lasted from 1999-2002, did have women editors).
Overholt’s groundbreaking promotion seems hard to believe considering there have been several women to serve as sports editors at major newspapers. The list includes former USA TODAY sports editor Mary Byrne, who now is a senior deputy editor for ESPN.com. Byrne is the current president of the Associated Press Sports Editors.
“When they told me, it was shocking to me,” Overholt said. “It’s 2016. How is that possible?”
If there is a sign of progress, it is that ESPN’s move didn’t qualify as major news. For Overholt, 39, the story is more about her credentials and less about the fact that she is a woman.
Guiding the magazine will be added to Overholt's duties, which also include editorial oversight of espnW. She says the move is a fitting parlay for a network approach that is centered on maximizing its many platforms for a story — from ESPN The Magazine to “SportsCenter” to ESPN.com and espnW.
“When you come at it story first, subject first, it allows you to think, 'what’s the best format, what’s the best way for readers and viewers to consume that story?'” Overholt said.
Overholt pointed to ESPN’s package on Ronda Rousey in December. During the summer, reporter Ramona Shelburne informed her bosses that the MMA fighter was willing to give her “unfettered access.” Instead of pigeonholing that story into one platform, ESPN looked at the big picture.
The end result: Not only did Rousey appear on the cover of the magazine with a major story, there was also an elaborate digital presentation and coverage on “SportsCenter.”
“The question was, ‘If we get this access, what can we do with this?’” Overholt said. “There were six or seven groups involved. We all were able to approach the story from a different lens. Each group brought their expertise….The interaction [of the various departments] sparks your brain in different ways.”
Previously, Overholt came at things from a digital perspective. Now as editor of ESPN The Magazine, she is seeing the virtues of print.
“One of the exciting things about print is that you can create something that truly is lasting,” Overholt said. “You can use creative and artistic expression that is different than what we do in digital.”
A case in point is the cover. Overholt believes it is an opportunity to present powerful images that show athletes in a different way. A recent cover depicted an elegantly coiffed and attired Bryce Harper.
“We all want access to our heroes,” Overholt said. “When an athlete commits three to four hours to a photo shoot, you see a side of that person that you don’t normally see anywhere else. This was Bryce really making a statement about style. You can see the intensity of his expression. It’s exciting.”
But isn’t the future of all media in digital? While ESPN The Magazine’s circulation is at 2.1 million — compared to Sports Illustrated's 3 million — readers can consume the latest issues on digital platforms. And many of them do.
Given the way the industry is going, with various print titles disappearing, I asked Overholt if she might have another distinction: The last editor of ESPN The Magazine?
“[Research shows] people spend more time with ESPN The Magazine than they do on the other platforms,” Overholt said. “I still feel like the magazine can be that place where fans say, ‘I want to unplug. I want to relax.’ And they still can experience how fun it is to be a fan.”
Another question that Overholt gets repeatedly since taking the job: Does being a woman give her a different perspective that will shape the magazine? For instance, she mentioned there will be an issue in May devoted to the 20th anniversary of the WNBA.
I asked her, “What is your response to people who will say this issue is the result of having a woman as editor?”
“[The WNBA issue] definitely came together after I came on board, but it wasn’t driven just by me. It was a collaborative effort,” Overholt said. “It’s probably too simplistic to say it is the result of a woman editor. But there’s always an element of truth in something like that, in how much it gets pushed forward.”
Last year, I did a column for Poynter about Byrne becoming the third woman to be APSE president. Now Overholt is making history at ESPN The Magazine.
While neither dwells on the fact that they are women in these roles, they know their elevations serve as small signs of progress in a male-dominated industry.
“I always see the impact when one woman gets an exciting position,” Overholt said. “It ripples out there to everyone. For young women especially, it frames what might be possible for them.”
Correction: A previous version of this story said Overholt "runs" espnW. She is responsible for its editorial oversight. And a previous version of this story called Mary Byrne a senior editor at ESPN.com. She is a senior deputy editor there.