Daily Archives: July 23, 2007

Why should we care what ESPN does?

Kyle at Dawg Sports recently penned a lengthy, thoughtful piece on ESPN’s current place in the sports media universe which was inspired by a recent interview of Will Leitch of Deadspin on ESPN Radio.

Kyle’s post, in turn, generated this response at Heisman Pundit which is also worthy of consideration.

Both score some telling points, but I believe miss the mark on more than one occasion, as well.

Kyle is right to decry what he calls the “MTV”ification of ESPN and its emphasis on what it calls the narrative über alles (for my money, this remains the best criticism of the latter I’ve read), but to the extent that this is merely about format I think HP is right when he says

I do agree that ESPN is treading too far into the waters of celebrity and scandal these days. Instead of showing hard sports, we are seeing more and more soft personality features and a focus on issues that are better suited to the gossip or celebrity pages than the sports page. As Kyle notes, ESPN is following the MTV model.

Not that it affects my life that much. Sure, I have my opinions. Chris Berman? Can’t stand him. Steven A. Smith? A detestable loudmouth. Sports Radio? It’s a dying medium. But you know what? I don’t waste my time watching the NFL, NBA, NHL, Boxing, Major League Baseball or NASCAR anyway. That eliminates about 95 per cent of ESPN’s coverage, whether it be broadcast, telecast, internet or print. So, I don’t really need ESPN that much. All I care about is seeing college football on television during the fall. For the most part, ESPN does a good job of it. The ESPN shows surrounding college football are mostly dull and uninspiring, but at least they are dull and uninspiring about a subject I enjoy. At worst, it’s entertaining and, at best, it’s mildly interesting. Sometimes–not often–I learn a thing or two.

But I don’t rip ESPN too much because ESPN is also an easy target. And, like any business, it is merely providing what it thinks the customer wants.

And with some of his criticism, I think Kyle sees ESPN and the blogosphere as being on more of an equal footing than they actually are (not that he’s alone in this). Let’s face it – ESPN’s viewership and resources dwarf that of the blogosphere and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. I think it’s a stretch to say that ESPN is beholden to the blogosphere because it occasionally quotes without attribution.

(What does seem to be equal between bloggers and ESPN is the contempt that they hold for each other. Of course, the issue is how much of that is justified for either side.)

Surprisingly, HP seems willing to give Kyle’s position some credence when he makes his final point:

A question I raise is this: What if ESPN’s recent slouching towards Gomorrah is not in spite of blogs, but because of blogs? What if this obsession with style over substance, with gossip, with shock and ‘gotcha’ journalism, with flying-off-the-handle on a story is the result of the outside pressure created by blogs? What if ESPN’s latest direction is merely what it thinks is necessary to satisfy that hunger out there for more immediate, off-the-wall, personality-driven sports coverage?

If so, then I wonder if the blogosphere has what it takes to admit that it may be part of the problem, too.

I think HP is way off with this, although it does give him the opportunity to indulge in some good old fashioned blog bashing. (By the way, how does someone who by his own admission that “[i]t’s not very often that I venture over to other college football blogs” and who also proclaims he ignores about “95 percent” of ESPN’s output have enough knowledge on this topic to write at length about it?) Personality/celebrity driven journalism is as old as the hills; it certainly predates the blogosphere. So does sensationalism.

What I think HP completely misses (and Kyle underplays to some extent) is the blatant conflicts of interest that ESPN constantly engages in while attempting to hold itself out as an impartial journalistic source. As Big Blue Shoe at Stampede Blue put it,

Also, the fact that ESPN has an Ombudsman is a joke. I know ESPN is an entertainment media outlet more so tha (sic) a news outlet. It’s just the pretense of making themselves “seem” like a news outlet that bothers me. If you’re about entertainment, then be that! Don’t try and pull my leg with this false gesture of objectivity. A real Ombudsman would never have tolerated EPSN buying equity stakes in the Arena Football League and then, a short time later, start airing AFL highlights and scores on their SportsCenter broadcasts. [Emphasis added.] Any real Ombudsman would have railed against this, saying doing so completely undermines the credibility of ESPN as a “news” organization. Then, they would quit for ethical reasons. Ombudsman only have a place if they are keeping the news outlet objective. ESPN clearly is not objective, and this pretense of an Ombudsman is a friggin’ joke.

Can I get an “amen”, brothers? Hell, ESPN owns several bowl games outright that it covers. And the practice of colleges using ESPN as a source to broker match ups is disquieting to me. Kyle sees it as something admirable.

As I’ve said before,

Keep it in mind every time you read about bowl game expansion, college football on Friday nights, apparently meaningless matchups and brokered games. These are not people who have your interests at heart. They can control your access to events you wish to see. And they have the clout to get their way, whether you want them to, or not.

Along the same lines, while HP is right to note that Kyle’s point about Game Day’s influence on the Heisman Trophy selection is overblown, it’s a little disingenuous to say “(n)o one’s hands are clean, but for the most part, no one is out to get anyone either” in the wake of Kirk Herbstreit’s lobbying for Michigan to appear in the BCS title game, especially after Herbstreit felt compelled to respond to Gary Danielson’s own pushing of Florida for that game during the SECCG broadcast. Herbie is likely to have a much greater impact on the human pollsters casting their BCS votes than any blogger I can think of.

In the end, it’s a little bit of misdirection to paint this ESPN vs. the blogosphere debate as merely part of a bigger “mainstream media” picture. Sure, it’s fun to poke holes in any outfit that takes itself as seriously as ESPN does at times (and the same goes for certain bloggers, for that matter). But that shouldn’t be the main concern here.

What we should be paying greater attention to isn’t how obnoxious Stuart Scott is, or why Game Day picked a particular town to take its show to on a given Saturday, but what degree of control the network is allowed to have on a sport that means a great deal to us. I’m not suggesting that we should lie awake at night worrying about college football turning into some variant of professional wrestling – although I’d like to hear the justification behind ESPN broadcasting the Miami/FIU game this season – but the thought of what sort of influence Mickey’s empire will likely have on the evolution of the college football postseason should leave us all a little queasy.

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Are SEC teams not trying anymore?

For the league that inspired the phrase “if you’re not cheatin’, you’re not tryin’”, this comes as a rather shocking development:

By June 2008, the SEC will be without a program on probation for the first time in more than 25 years.

Commissioner Mike Slive set the goal four years ago of having the league be probation-free by 2008. It looks like it might happen if the crazed coaches, fans and administrators can keep their noses clean until June 11. That’s when Mississippi State football will be off probation.

Who’da thunk it?

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