ESPN’s bad week

In a post at Medium, I reacted to Jayson Stark’s long piece assuming that America needed baseball players to speak out on politics. The short version: We disagree. More than that, his assumption – that political rifts have created wounds in need of healing – show disconnection from the broader public who, honestly, just doesn’t care about politics.

Then came this week’s news: ESPN expects to lay off a good on-air talent. The two stories have a common thread.

It would be tempting for anyone on the center right to point to ESPN’s socially progressive programming choices and blame that for alienating its core viewership, but the reasons are a bit more nuanced. ESPN’s tunnel vision and lack of self-awareness has prevented it from adapting to a new media environment. Once the sole source of 24 hour sports on TV, ESPN’s networks now compete with national sports channels run by Fox and NBC, regional sports networks, and – notably – networks run by sports leagues themselves. On top of that, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, and the National Basketball Association all offer direct-to-consumer online packages.

That ESPN missed these changes suggests they overestimated their value in consumers’ minds. Like Jayson Stark, they’ve misread the public vibe.

Bill Simmons and the myth of sports journalism

ESPN and Boston Sports Guy Bill Simmons are breaking up. There are probably no good guys in this split since the talented Simmons has come to embody every horrible stereotype of a Boston sports fan over the past 15 years or so (it’s not his fault, they’ve all gotten like that).

But ESPN is just pathetic in its self importance. Even the statement from network head John Skipper dripped with it: “I’ve decided that I’m not going to renew his contract,” he said. It sounds like the person who tells you the end of a relationship was a mutual thing. You know that person is probably the one who got dumped.

ESPN, the “WorldWide Leader” in sports, didn’t rip the lid off the somewhat obvious steroid use in baseball. They aren’t blowing up the out-and-out lie that publicly-funded sports stadiums are a boon for the cities which shell out the money for them. The closest they come to “sports journalism” is the nightly highlight reels of SportsCenter, or the longer-form, incredibly informative 30 for 30 documentaries that were spearheaded by, you guessed it, Bill Simmons.

Otherwise, the ESPN media empire is a wasteland of loud talking heads on TV and radio like Skip Bayless and Colin Cowherd and Mike and Mike in the Morning – all personality-driven, somewhat entertaining in doses, and devoid of intellectual heavy lifting. They’ll still talk in reverent tones about hallowed records or greats of the game – as if sports really matters. It doesn’t, at least not the way they cover it.

And they don’t cover it seriously because ESPN is also based around live games. And even paying huge sums of money in broadcast rights, the network can still act like a scared employee, worried that during the next round of negotiations Roger Goodell might decide he would rather have Monday Night Football on TBS. Last year, when Goodell was facing very serious and very legitimate questions about wether the most visible American sport was unwittingly giving cover to domestic abusers, Simmons found out the hard way that you don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Even if you are the one paying that hand.

The fact is that ESPN probably is better off without Simmons. They can probably replace him with someone cheaper, maybe someone whose pop culture references will be a little fresher. And the content ESPN churns out will be every bit as bad as it used to be.