Friday, August 7, 2009

ESPN and the Dominance It May or May Not Have

In what has to be a shocker, Frank DeFord of Sports Illustrated doesn't think that much of ESPN:

Imagine if Vogue was not only the country's single dominant fashion medium but also produced most major runway shows. Imagine if The Wall Street Journal was not just the nation's only powerful business outlet but it also owned the rights to the listings on the New York Stock Exchange.

Well, essentially so it is with ESPN and sports. ESPN rules the land, the sea and the firmament of sport, and ESPN sees that it is good. What it covers is so often what it owns the rights to -- in almost every major sport. ESPN has multiple channels, a magazine, a radio network and now it's starting local Web sites in many cities to compete on that level.

To be sure, other networks share some rights to the various leagues, but only ESPN is a critical mass. ESPN can make you. For example, it signed a 15-year contract with the Southeastern Conference for more than $2 billion, thereby sending every other conference into a panic mode, fearful that ESPN will make the SEC preeminent, America's conference. It can do that.

In no other significant part of American culture does one media entity enjoy such domination.

Well, I hate to disagree with you there, Mr. DeFord. Have you, perchance, heard of a thing called NASCAR? It's true that NASCAR has a split contract with ESPN and parent company ABC, Fox, and TNT, but the main event, the Daytona 500, has remained with Fox Sports. Almost no one cares about any other race except for the Daytona 500 in NASCAR. It is a sport ESPN cannot control or dominate because, in point of fact, NASCAR's popularity dwarfs that of most everything else.

This split, however, reveals that ESPN is not entirely the evil entity that one might think it to be. Major League Baseball, the NBA, and especially the NFL are all carried on other networks besides ESPN. There's actually quite a bit of parity here--you can still watch all of the major sports and never land on the ESPN part of the dial. I rate the NFL, NASCAR, Baseball, College Football, the NBA, College basketball, then everything else starting with Hockey as being separate in many ways from ESPN. In point of fact, Hockey isn't even on ESPN anymore, and serves as the model for how a sport can exist entirely outside of ESPN's sphere of influence.

That has led some to speculate that ESPN has tried to kill the NHL:

It is without hyperbole that one can argue that ESPN is killing the National Hockey League. By creating and reinforcing an expectation of failure regarding the NHL, ESPN is shaping public perception and contributing to the “death” of the NHL in the United States.

At first glance, the argument that ESPN has the power to “kill” anymajor sport may appear sensationalist. However, the impact of ESPN on the average American sports fan can be easily underestimated. As the first national sports television network, ESPN has developed a loyal following and widespread credibility among sports fans — so much so that it can brand itself The Worldwide Leader in Sports without appearing too self-aggrandizing or sensational. Via a combination of business savvy, competent self-promotion, and responsible coverage of major sporting events, ESPN has more than lived up to its promise and is now the first choice for sports news in over 100 million U.S. homes. The network’s commentators and personalities have become larger than life and the de facto sources of sports information and expertise.

While ESPN’s stock has been rising, there can be little debate that the NHL’s stock has been dropping on ESPN. Since the NHL made the questionable decision to abandon the cable network as its broadcast partner in favor of the fledgling Versus network many have argued that NHL coverage on the Worldwide Leader in Sports has ranged from underwhelming to disrespectful. Even ESPN’s ombudsman, Le Anne Schreiber, felt compelled to examine hockey coverage on the network. In an article last month, she confirmed that hockey coverage has indeed diminished 28% on Sportscenter over the last three years and that hockey-oriented shows such as NHL 2Night were cut altogether since ESPN’s loss of NHL rights.

That article was written in 2007, and the NHL has had two fantastic seasons since then. The NHL isn't going anywhere. ESPN will, at some point, have to come back around and play the game. And I have two words for that: Sidney Crosby.

To wit:

[as of the end of the 2009 regular season] The National Hockey League has set an overall attendance record for the fourth consecutive season. Total attendance of 21,475,223 and the per-game average of 17,460 were 1.1% higher than the corresponding record figures of 21,236,255 and 17,265 from 2007-08.

Chicago Blackhawksestablished an NHL club record by attracting an average of 21,783 to their 40 home dates at United Center (not including the 40,818 who filled Wrigley Field for the Winter Classic on New Year's Day). With sellout crowds of 21,273 at Bell Centre for each of their 41 home games, the Montreal Canadiens ranked second in per-game average. The Minnesota Wildsold out their season for the eighth time in their eight NHL campaigns and the Pittsburgh Penguins completed back-to-back sold-out seasons for the first time in franchise history. Other clubs to attract sellout crowds to each of their games were the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs and Vancouver Canucks. Several other clubs, including the Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings, Ottawa Senators, Philadelphia Flyers, San Jose Sharks and Washington Capitals, were virtually sold out.

The NHL, then, is thriving in attendance, but perhaps suffering the effects of the bad economy like everything else. It could probably stand to lose two clubs, which I won't name, but when you're selling out in San Jose, all things considered, you can survive without ESPN.  In and of itself, ESPN is an immature entity, and sports is not, as Mr. DeFord tries to point out here, all that damned serious:

For instance, the network has a very unbecoming habit of subtly claiming it alone uncovers all the news. Typically, a valid report will come out, but hours later, ESPN will declare that it has "confirmed" such-and-such. That kind of tacky stuff. Exclusive: ESPN hereby confirms that it is Wednesday.

Or a couple of weeks ago, ESPN initially refused to report the news that was headlined everywhere else, that Pittsburgh's Super Bowl-winning quarterback, Ben Roethlisburger, had been accused of sexual assault. The network's excuses were too noble by half, because there's a double standard, and ESPN is known to cozy up to the very superstars it purports to cover.

Sports is diversion. When ESPN started up, there was precious little coverage of sports, beyond watching ABC's Wide World of Sports and whatever game of the week was on. I can remember a time when cartoons were only seen on Saturdays, sports were only seen on weekends, and Monday through Friday nights was a time for jiggly boobs and serious dramas. Oh, how far we have fallen.

We already have complete and utter obeisance to politicians from our Main $tream Media, sir--ever heard of a thing called Meet the Press? Ever heard of a thing called the Washington Post, which is a newspaper that cannot make up its mind as to how it can race to the bottom and cover itself in excrement fast enough? There is no equivalency to the ridiculousness of ESPN breathlessly covering every aspect of Bret Favre's game of chicken with his destiny and having an utterly incompetent and failed working media deliver lies, distortions, and rote stenography into our public discourse. When Kellen Winslow put on army fatigues and said he was going to war, of course we laughed--what a clown. When our media failed to tell us why the men and women in the real fatigues were really dying, well, that should tell you where this argument rests.

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