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ESPN Announces Female-Centric Sports Doc Series 'Nine for IX'

Photo of Alison Willmore By Alison Willmore | Indiewire February 19, 2013 at 3:59PM

ESPN's documentary series "30 for 30," now in the midst of its second round of 30 films, has brought the world some great work from the likes of Steve James, Albert Maysles and Brett Morgen, but has also tended to skew very male both in terms of subjects and filmmakers. There have been a few exceptions -- Lisa Lax, Nancy Stern and Hannah Storm looked at the rivalry between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova in "Unmatched," John Singleton focused on Marion Jones and Barbara Kopple helmed "The House of Steinbrenner" -- but now ESPN Films and executive producers Robin Roberts and Jane Rosenthal are launching a slate of docs entirely focused on women in sports and directed by female filmmakers.
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Clive Brunskill/Getty Images 'Nine by IX' Film 'Branded'

ESPN's documentary series "30 for 30," now in the midst of its second round of 30 films, has brought the world some great work from the likes of Steve James, Albert Maysles and Brett Morgen, but has also tended to skew very male both in terms of subjects and filmmakers. There have been a few exceptions -- Lisa Lax, Nancy Stern and Hannah Storm looked at the rivalry between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova in "Unmatched," John Singleton focused on Marion Jones and Barbara Kopple helmed "The House of Steinbrenner" -- but now ESPN Films and executive producers Robin Roberts and Jane Rosenthal are launching a slate of docs entirely focused on women in sports and directed by female filmmakers.

The series is called "Nine for IX," and will air July 2 through August 27 on ESPN, Tuesdays at 8pm ET. The roster includes plenty of familiar names, among them "Middle of Nowhere" director Ava DuVernay and Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady of "Jesus Camp."

"ESPN Films is always looking to advance sports storytelling by working with the most dynamic voices and Nine for IX gives us a terrific opportunity to highlight women’s sports stories through the eyes of an incredible collection of directors," said ESPN Films' VP Connor Schell. "We are confident that fans of '30 for 30' will enjoy these creative, story-driven documentaries from an impressive roster of Oscar-nominated, and Emmy/Peabody-Award winning female filmmakers."

Check out a list of the films slated to air as part of "Nine for IX" and a trailer for the series below.


Venus Vs. (Ava DuVernay)
Everyone knows about the swing. Everyone knows about the swagger. But what most Americans don’t know about Venus Williams is how she changed the course of her sport. In a stunning case that captured the attention of the European public beginning in 2005, Williams challenged the long-held practice of paying women tennis players less money than their male counterparts at the French Open and Wimbledon. With a deep sense of obligation to the legacy of Billie Jean King, Williams lobbied Parliament, UNESCO and Fleet Street for financial parity. Indeed, it was her poignant op-ed piece in The London Times that convinced many people that the tournament organizers at Wimbledon were “on the wrong side of history.” The boys clubs at Roland Garros and Wimbledon finally relented in 2007. In fact, it was at Wimbledon that year that Venus became the first women’s champion to earn as much as the men’s (Roger Federer). So to her seven major championships, another victory can be added.

AP Photo/Wade Payne 'Pat XO'

Pat XO (Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern / Produced by Robin Roberts)
On April 18, 2012, Pat Summit, the winningest coach in the history of the NCAA basketball, did the unimaginable and announced her resignation from the University of Tennessee. On the very same day, her son Tyler was named assistant coach of the Marquette’s women’s basketball team, his first job out of college. While the sports world reeled from the news of Pat’s early on-set Alzheimer’s, the coach and her son quietly set out to beat this challenge just as they had every other – with grace, humor and most of all, each other. Pat XO tells the remarkable story of Pat Summit as it’s never been told before. This raw, authentic portrait takes the camera from the filmmaker’s hands and places it into those who know her best. With Tyler as the lead storyteller, moving recollections are shared by assistant coaches, players like Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings and Michelle Marciniak, fellow coach Geno Auriemma, and such admirers as Peyton Manning and Kenny Chesney. The archival footage and statistical records woven into the film provide their own insights into a woman who cared about winning, but also about elevating her players and her university. If it’s possible to do justice to Pat Summitt, Pat XO does it.

The Diplomat (Jennifer Arnold and Senain Khesghi)
At the height of the Cold War, Katarina Witt became one of East Germany’s most famous athletes. Trained in an ice rink that gave rise to socialist heroes, Witt dominated her field by winning six European skating titles, five world championships and back-to-back Olympic gold medals to become arguably the world’s best figure skater. Known as “the most beautiful face of socialism” her success gave her a unique status in East Germany. It also triggered constant surveillance by the Stasi, East Germany’s notorious secret police force. This film chronicles how Witt, one of the greatest skaters of all time, fought for her future in socialist East Germany, how she faced the great changes that occurred after the fall of The Berlin Wall and, ultimately, how she ended up both a beneficiary and victim of the East German regime.

Runner (Shola Lynch)
Mary Decker obliterated opponents and records with blazing speed and a starving hunger to win. She dominated her sport, holding U.S. records in every distance from 800 to 10,000 meters, and she did it all without the Olympics. She was too young in ’72, hurt in ’76 and shut out by the U.S. boycott in ’80. As Sports Illustrated’s cover “Sportswoman of the Year” in 1983, she was ready: 1984 was the target, with the Olympics in Los Angeles and her skills at their 25 year-old peak. But the story leads to a single shocking moment in the 1984 Games, with Mary writhing on the ground in physical pain and emotional heartbreak, with the whole world watching.

AP Photo/Listin Diario 'No Limits'

No Limits (Alison Ellwood)
As a teenager, Audrey Mestre suffered from scoliosis, but in those formative years, she discovered a passion for the ocean. It offered her a sense of freedom, and the burdens she faced on dry land soon dissipated as she slipped below the surface. In the final stages of her PH.D., Mestre was drawn to Cabo San Lucas where she became infatuated with free-diver Pipin Ferreras, a Cuban defector whose dives had put him at the forefront of the sport. The two became a couple and Mestre followed the elusive, often raucous Pipin on his almost spiritual quest to push his limits underwater. Soon enough, Mestre moved from support team member to ardent free-diver and then to a world-class competitor who outshone her husband. In 2002, after news arrived that a rival female diver named Tanya Streeter had successfully gone to a record-breaking 525 feet, Pipin began preparations for Mestre to make a 561-foot dive off the coast of the Canary Island. Having completed practice dives even deeper in the weeks leading up to the record attempt, Mestre was prepared. But because of a fateful decision before the dive, Mestre never resurfaced alive.

Branded (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady)
Anna Kournikova was never the greatest tennis player in the world. In fact, she never rose higher than No. 8 on the WTA world singles rankings. But her looks and willingness to capitalize on them made her the most famous tennis player on the planet and ultimately, a pioneer for fellow women athletes who understand that sometimes, sex sells. Sports is supposed to be the ultimate level playing field, but in the media and on Madison Avenue sometimes looks matter more than accomplishments. This film explores the double standard placed on women athletes to be the best players on the field and the sexiest off them. Branded explores the question: can women’s sports ever gain an equal footing with their male counterparts or will sex always override achievement?

Let Them Wear Towels (Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern)
Lisa Olson was just trying to do her job as a reporter for the Boston Herald in 1990 when a group of New England Patriot players sexually harassed her in their locker room by exposing their genitals and making lewd and vulgar comments. Even though a subsequent NFL investigation concluded that Olson had been “degraded and humiliated,” the 25-year-old continued to be tormented by Patriot fans—so much so that she temporarily moved to Australia to resume her career. In the meantime, the story touched off a national debate about the presence of female journalists in the male sanctum of the clubhouse. That debate should have been settled 12 years earlier, when Melissa Ludtke of Sports Illustrated successfully challenged Major League Baseball after she was kept out of the New York Yankees locker room. Why had equal access for women reporters remained such a hot-button issue? That question is asked in Let Them Wear Towels, a history and examination of females working in the man’s world of the locker room. Through interviews with such pioneer women as Ludtke, Claire Smith, Lesley Visser and Jane Gross, you’ll hear stories of raw behavior and humorous retaliation, angry lawsuits and remarkable resolve.

Brainstormin' Productions 'Swoopes'

Swoopes (Hannah Storm)
Sheryl Swoopes has famously been labeled as the female Michael Jordan. Actually, she’s far more interesting. On the court, she was nearly as dominant as Michael: a national championship with Texas Tech, three Olympic gold medals, three MVP awards and four consecutive championships with the Houston Comets of the WNBA, the league she helped start. She even had a Nike shoe named after her, the Air Swoopes. Off the court, she gave birth in the middle of her first WNBA championship season, divorced her high school sweetheart, and became the highest-profile athlete in her sport to declare she was gay. She has struggled with love, family, money and lack of recognition, but she has never lost her spirit. In this portrait, viewers will meet someone who’s not the everyday superstar, a woman who has defied a multitude of labels, including “old” – in August 2011, Swoopes, at 40, hit a buzzer-beater to end the Tulsa Shock’s 20-game losing streak.

The ‘99ers (Erin Leyden / Produced by Julie Foudy)
The world of women’s sports was kicked upside down on July 10, 1999. Before a sold-out crowd of more than 90,000 at the Rose Bowl and an estimated 40 million Americans watching on television, the women’s soccer team reached a cultural and athletic pinnacle with its penalty-kick shoot-out victory over China to win the Women’s World Cup. These players were more than the ponytailed poster girls celebrated by mainstream media. As told through the voice of longtime team captain, Julie Foudy, viewers get an inside look at the strong team ethic and rare “do for each other” mentality that propelled them to victory that day and turned the team into a cultural touchstone. With unprecedented access, the film uses candid, behind-the-scenes footage shot by the players themselves during the tournament to present a unique portrait of the women who irrevocably changed the face of women’s athletics. Reuniting key players from the 1999 squad and talking with current U.S. players as well, the film examines how women’s soccer – and women’s sports as a whole – has changed since that epic day at the Rose Bowl.

This article is related to: Television, TV News, ESPN, Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady, Ava DuVernay, Alison Ellwood, Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg