In a recent report by Deadspin.com, internal sources within Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN) – the American sports entertainment megacompany recently valued at $40 billion – revealed that the network has made a concerted effort to shift away from solely reporting the news (what one might call journalism) and toward debates about sports. Jim Miller, the compiler of the ESPN oral history Those Guys Have All the Fun, told Deadspin that ESPN has “risk[ed] losing an identity for a news organization that they’ve been building for twenty years.”
While the news is disappointing for serious sports fans, it is not very surprising. The current trend in sports journalism, across the board, is a stratification into two types of sports media – highbrow and lowbrow. The new sports media is concerned with one of two audiences – the ‘smart’ sports fans versus the majority of sports fans. Unfortunately, most major sports media outlets have chosen the low road in search of the ever-elusive dollar.
ESPN, the most prominent sports media network in North America (they own 20 per cent of their Canadian counterpart, TSN), is the first choice for most sports fans. As outlined in the Deadspin report, ESPN, up until a couple of years ago, had a comprehensive news program that gave nuanced coverage to any topic they wanted to fully cover – and could be counted on to give good coverage. With their pre-eminence as the “Worldwide Leader in Sports,” ESPN has gained the power to create the story they cover. Instead of closely following the most interesting or most worthy stories, though, ESPN has instead given full treatment to what they believe will give them the best ratings – now that ESPN has become a broadcaster of major sports, they can create build up for their own programming, and casually ignore or give less coverage to sports for which they don’t own the broadcasting rights.
With their new debate-heavy style, ESPN can create stories to fill the 24-hour news cycle. Earlier this year, ESPN commentator Tedy Bruschi publically picked his former team, the New England Patriots, to lose their Week 4 game against the Buffalo Bills. Bruschi’s pick in itself became a topic of further discussion by other ESPN analysts. The new ESPN model basically eats its own tail; they create the stories they want, create the discussion, and then, when it gets high ratings, use that as an excuse for further coverage. It is sports journalism based on the power of a manipulated viewer – the network decides what viewers see, discerns what they like, and amps up the volume on that subject. No matter what, ESPN begins the conversation and then profits from it.
It’s odd, then, that ESPN owns Grantland.com, a website committed to an almost completely different set of standards. Grantland features long, often complicated sports writing: basically, sports for the “enlightened” fan who wants more than just a recap on what happened in last night’s game and a couple of basic statements about “what this means for (team/player x).” ESPN has nominal (luckily, not editorial) control over the antidote for people who are sick of its own content.
Grantland often features posts using detailed statistical analysis that is often criticized by ESPN commentators as the domain of “geeks.” Funnily enough, ESPN commentator Rob Parker recently tweeted an anti-stats analysis tweet; yet, you can watch him daily on ESPN’s debate show Numbers Never Lie*.
Grantland is part of the opposite movement in sports – content for the ‘highbrow’ fan. Grantland is joined by sites such as SportsonEarth.com (a subsidiary of USA Today, who are known for offering base-level sports coverage), TheClassical.org (a sports website funded by a Kickstarter campaign, which promises a “considerate, intelligent community for talking about sports” while proclaiming that they are “not the media,” or a “smarter version of what you can find elsewhere.”), the previously mentioned Deadspin, and a bevy of other sports blogs committed to nuanced journalism. The internet, and the ease of non-profit blog creation by anybody has allowed for more nuanced sports writing to flourish, despite the fact that major outlets have moved away from high-quality content.
But the seemingly good news that nuanced sports reporting is flourishing on the internet comes with a caveat – these blogs are often not well-read, and a site such as Grantland would not exist were it not owned by the monolith that is ESPN; its deep cast of professional writers wouldn’t be supportable by non-corporation-backed blogs that don’t have quite the same war chest. Deadspin, too, balances its more nuanced coverage with TMZ-style sports “scandal” stories, like nude photos of athletes that leak to the internet, in order to receive the web traffic to remain solvent. Still, the ability for anyone to have a voice on the internet has allowed for good sports journalism to thrive in the midst of profit-hungry media. It provides a conversation other than the one pushed by the major outlets.
This race for the wider base is not just limited to ESPN, though, and is not restricted to the televised domain. A separate Deadspin report has shed light on Bleacher Report, one of the fastest-growing sports media outlets. Bleacher Report is entirely web-based; their editors pitch stories to their writers (many of whom are unpaid, trying to make inroads in the industry) based on research by search engine experts. In essence, the editors pitch stories (most often slideshows or lists) that these experts predict will be most searched for in the future. Their content is based on what people are most likely to type into their Google search bar – not any sense of what, by virtue of its worth or impact, ought to be covered.
To sum it up, the sports media world has been considerably dumbed down and lost quality as it shifts from news to entertainment in search of maximizing profits (mirroring the trend in most sectors of journalism). Sports journalism does not have to be what an episode of the sitcom 30 Rock makes it out to be – four talking heads on a screen, yelling at each other incomprehensibly in a program called “Sports Shouting.” But that is what the major platforms are moving toward –sound, fury, signifying a whole lot of nothing. Fortunately, thanks in large part to the internet, there should always be a small corner of the market committed to covering stories somewhat above the newly low standard. It just takes more effort to find them in the vast expanse of watered down sports stories.