Friday, July 31, 2009


These have been dubious days in Bristol, for sure.

Whether it’s the leaked (and since removed) video of a nude Erin Andrews, the “Do Not Report” controversy of the Ben Roethlisberger sexual assault allegations, slight backlash over launching hyperlocal websites in several markets or the usually-criticized coverage of a handful of sports entities, ESPN has been taking a few punches to the jaw in the last two-plus weeks.

Now, it’s fairly common for non-ESPN media personalities and bloggers to throw a few jabs of their own in order to further the point that the Disney-owned sports behemoth has a few issues of journalistic integrity. In fact, there are some folks who make a pretty decent living off of assailing The Worldwide Leader among others in the sports media business. Yet, instead of piling on and adding fuel to the fire, I want to shed light on a point that so many of us seem to overlook; too many of us allow a single outlet dominate our media consumption.

Yes, ESPN is an omnipotent presence in the sports world; one that is imprinting its cachet across the globe after cornering national coverage here in the United States (along with a 20% ownership stake in Canada’s TSN). This doesn’t come from thin air, but from having the highest subscription fees in the cable industry at around $3.65. That dollar amount seems nominal, almost trivial, until you realize that this is per month per household ($3.65 X twelve months X over 98 million subscribing households = over $4.3 billion). Add the dollars from advertising partners – most notably beer makers such as MillerCoors and Budweiser – and there’s a financial strength that allows the network to do as it pleases.

Yes, the ‘E’ in the acronym stands for ‘Entertainment’ and many will have you believe that this is the very purpose of the network. Its critics lampoon the idea that the network provides sports programming with a twist; whether it’s by on-air debates; highly-hyped interviews or youth-oriented fare such as Madden Nation or its groundbreaking X Games. Its anchors and writers sprinkle in humor – snarky, silly or straight from the Pop Culture Reference Handbook – with their copies and articles as a point of differentiation from other established media outlets.

And yes, ESPN has used television’s most successful formulas. A) People of varying levels of attractiveness - lest we forget that Andrews is attractive to some, but not all – have helped carry television shows for years. B) People screaming to be heard are what make CNN, FOX News and CNBC tick. C) Details, schmetails; just use the major headline and talk about that forever and ever.

The true reason, though, why ESPN has such a presence, such a hold on us is that they are the leading national broadcaster of the actual games themselves. Their mammoth deals with organizations like the NFL, NBA, NASCAR and Major League Baseball are not for the permission to talk about what happened the night before or to strictly show thirty-second highlight clips. Linking up with UEFA (soccer/football), tennis and golf organizations of both genders and even the Professional Bowlers Association isn’t about having something to casually mention on ESPNews. Do you truly think that being in nearly every household in the United States is strictly because of SportsCenter? Hardly.

Sure, it’s hard to think of ESPN as just a broadcaster of the action as it’s equally difficult to think of the network as the lone provider of rumors, news and speculation. Yet, with fewer providers of games than providers of chatter, it might save us from more headaches if we understand that the games are why we avoid the stale, scripted fare every night.

Yet, if you enjoy hearing about the controversies coming out of Bristol, don’t let me stop you.

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