The Goods on ESPN- Part 1: The Criticisms

I knew that being the owner of a sports media blog I would one day need to provide an in depth evaluation of ESPN.

By and large I like ESPN. They sometimes act like they’re the bull in the china shop. But you know what, they are. They’re not perfect. And no one should expect them to be. Those who do have the problem.

In preparing my analysis, I decided to look at what others say about ESPN, comment on it, then provide my opinion on ways they can make the network better. Today I look at some of the the criticisms of ESPN. Tomorrow I’ll offer my remedy.

Over a month ago, I posted two questions on this issue in which I sought your opinions; What do you like least about ESPN? and What would you do to change it? I also sent these questions to some of the best known and most popular sports blogs on the net to get their reaction. By the way, thanks to all of you who responded.

I also scoured the web, searching for common terms associated with criticism of ESPN; “ESPN Sucks”, “Why I Hate ESPN”, etc. I was able to come up with more than enough information to chew on.

In my opinion, the reason there is so much angst against ESPN from reporters and bloggers is that we all watch ESPN…A LOT. Since there ‘s no real competition to their empire we spend hours viewing their programming. That expanse of time watching one network affords us the opportunity to see many of their programs over, and over, and over again, making it an easy target to criticize. That’s not unique. If you watch any network for as long as we watch ESPN, you would also be able to pick out elements to scrutinize. Until there is a viable alternative, ESPN will more than likely be one of the first options we choose to get our sports information.

One note before I get started. Many critics spend an exhorbitant amount of time focusing on individual anchors, reporters, play-by-play announcers and game analysts. I am not about to throw anyone individually under the bus, this post would be too long if I did. My goal is not to look at individuals, but to look at some of the systemic problems over at the Worldwide Leader.

OK…here we go…

1. By and large the number one criticism of ESPN has to do with the way the network markets itself. The complaint is that ESPN promotes itself and its programming above all else. There are many aspects of this I want to delve into:

A. Using their editorial control on SportsCenter to give preferential treatment to stories about the leagues to which they hold broadcast rights. Just one example; This past spring the NHL Stanley Cup Finals were starting while the NBA playoffs were only in it’s second round. ESPN has the rights to telecast the NBA. It does not have the rights to the NHL. The NBA games consistently received top billing on SportsCenter. Even if the NHL is not as prominent as it once was, it’s championship series was getting short changed by SportsCenter. (Last night could have added more fuel to the fire. But wisely SportsCenter led with the NL Wild Card tiebreaker game over ESPN’s Monday Night Football contest between the Patriots and the Bengals.) In relation;

B. Promoting the games ESPN has the rights to while barely mentioning the big games not on the family of ESPN networks. Think about this one for a moment. I think by and large they do focus on the games they carry, specifically post-game on SportsCenter. But you know what? More times than not their games are some of the biggest of the day. They heavily plug Monday Night Football, because, well, for most of the season it is the biggest game of the day. For college sports, they tend to do a better job at spreading the wealth over the games of the day. They may lead SportsCenter with their game, which may or may not be the biggest, and spend more time on it, but they don’t neglect the others.

C. Promoting the ESPN brand at every turn. This doesn’t bother me as much as it does others. ESPN is what it is because it has multiple platforms to promote its products and programs. It does bother me when they promote so much that they leave out highlights during SportsCenter. I find it no different than CBS pimping 60 Minutes each Sunday during the football season. This criticism again is more intense because we watch so often. See how many promos surface on other networks. Because ESPN’s focus is solely on sports, its constant promotion could seem a little overbearing. Other networks promote just as much. But because they spread out their promos over their news, sports, and entertainment entities, it doesn’t seem as problematic. Remember the goal of any television network is to get people to watch their shows. In reference to ESPN we seem to get all in a bunch over their promotional antics.

2. Conflict of interest issues. This criticism has surfaced in a couple of areas. One being in relation to the Arena League, of which ESPN is a minority owner. Do they cross the line in their blatant support of a sport they rarely covered in the past? Maybe a little. But then again they are using their resources to enhance the return on their investment. Although a little seedy, it makes business sense. The second has to do with the use of SportsCenter anchors to star in promotional ads side by side with athletes. This practice does send a message that these anchors who work with an athlete may not be as objective when covering them. A valid point, but I have yet to see an example of this being the case. If it exists, please let me know.

3. The talent at ESPN thinking they are more important than the events they cover. This is my #1 gripe. When ESPN started in 1979 it was cute to see the personalities of the talent come through, either on SportsCenter or during game telecasts. Now these guys and gals go out of their way to make themselves the show. Remember, the sports games are what we want to see. You are not. Give us the facts and intelligent analysis. Leave the catch phrases at home. Walter Cronkite never needed schtick and he proved to have a pretty successful career.

What’s awkward is when the anchors are full into their act and then have to make an about face when they need to report on a serious story such as the death of an athlete. I cringe when this happens. I almost expect the anchor to come up with a catch phrase even in this situation.

I know ESPN is trying to cater to an audience which is on the low end of my demographic scale. There are plenty of opportunities to reach to those viewers (see my post tomorrow). Don’t lose the viewers who got you to this level of success by cheapening the product with anchors who spend too much time trying to come up with a cheeky nickname or an original way to describe a home run.

4. Over using corporate sponsorships tie-ins. Many have decried ESPN for tying content with corporate sponsorships like the Budweiser Hot Seat and the Coors Light Six Pack. I agree that these tend to cheapen the content of those segments. I don’t discount the idea, just don’t use it on SportsCenter. Can you imagine Brian Williams on the NBC Nightly News hosting a segment with an advertising tie-in? Just doesn’t make sense in that venue.

5. East Coast Bias. This one is difficult to prove. It does appear that there is a bias toward the east coast when it comes to the major sports leagues. Look at baseball for instance. This season, which teams were the best or made more news for most of the season? Really. The Red Sox, Mets, and yes, the Yankees. There was also a bias toward other large market teams like the Cubs and Phillies. How about the NFL? Yes, the Giants, Jets, and Patriots received a lot of attention. Basketball? I am not so sure that there was much of an east coast bias. Hockey? You can’t have a bias if the sport isn’t covered like it was when you held the broadcast rights. I would say overall the bias is toward large markets. It seems that coverage of our popular sports (baseball, football) are dominated by east coast teams because they are currently at the top of their leagues. I guess I can see arguments both ways.

6. Getting away from sports. ESPN Original Entertainment (EOE) has done more to bring drama and documentaries to the air. ESPN has also been called to the carpet over its coverage of such non-sports as poker, the National Spelling Bee, and the ESPY’s. Fans say they want more sports. Remember, ESPN stands for ENTERTAINMENT and Sports Programming Network. As much as we don’t like it, it’s in their name for God sake. I also want to see more sports action. For those of who do as well, don’t complain when they show soccer or more auto racing. These shows may have their place. Pick your poison.

There is more on which I can nitpick, but what I’ve posted above seem to be the biggies.  Comment if you wish.  Back tomorrow with one man’s ideas on how to make ESPN palatable to all.

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0 comments

  1. I want to say thank you for this, becasue this is first assessment of espn where it was not bias in either direction. You made excellent points.

    The one thing I don’t understand when people critize espn is that they don’t promte other networks. My question is always no one complains when the other networks do what espn does. Fox would not promte nbc, cbs, tnt, tbs, or espn. But espn has too?

    But even if espn did everything right, they are commentators like hollywood wags who would still critize them.

    Thank you can not wait till tommorow’s assessment.

  2. The East Coast Bias (which really could be called a NY Bias) is a bigger deal than you make it out to be. Minor injuries to NY players are incredibly overblown. And NY players receive more highlights and fawning over – e.g. David Wright was still the ESPN fav for NL MVP – until the very end of the year when the Mets’ collapse was in full effect. Then they finally started touting Jimmy Rollins and others. The Angels rarely get any coverage. The NBA is a bad example – the balance of power is so heavily tilted to the Western Conference even ESPN can’t spin it. But if the Knicks ever become decent again, they will get a ton of coverage.

  3. Harping on the preferential treatment to stories about the leagues to which they hold broadcast rights. This was a classic on Sunday evening 9/30/07 for the 7 pm sportscenter they spent the first 10 minutes on the stupid Nascar event the was being run that kept getting rain delayed. The first TEN minutes my eight year old daughter asked and I kid you not “are they going to talk about the Mets or Phillies?” Absolute joke.

  4. Your comments about East Coast Bias don’t really work for me. You claim there was some evidence of an East Coast/large market bias in baseball coveraged, but of the five teams you named, four made the playoffs and the other missed by a game due to a very newsworthy late-season slide. Of course ESPN is going to cover the best teams more. That’s not bias – it’s just sensible coverage.

  5. Agreed with Arrowhead… It’s nice to see an objective article criticizing ESPN.

    I don’t have a problem with them giving less exposure to the NHL and other leagues that they don’t air. It’s not like anyone would be outraged if they didn’t hear NBC plugging The Simpsons.

    I don’t really agree with your reasoning on catch phrases and home run calls… Although they seem to be getting progressively lamer, I think it had a large part in making SportCenter the institution that it is today. Back in the Kenny Mayne, DP, etc days of SC half the fun was hearing what wacky stuff was going to come out of their mouths! That being said, nowadays it’s largely becoming boring shtick.

  6. It’s not that ESPN should “promote” other networks. The problem is that they virtually act like the games on the other networks don’t exist.

    For example, is the winless Notre Dame football team story really THIS big? ESPN has been shoving it down our throats on a constant basis, and it just so happens to coincide with a swing of games where they played 4 of 5 on the road. ABC/ESPN had rights to all of those road games.

    And I guaran-damn-tee you that after this week it won’t be a story anymore. Because Notre Dame will have a streak of 5 straight games at home. Those games will be on NBC.

    That’s where I have a problem. Notre Dame is newsworthy on weeks when they play on their network. But they’re not newsworthy when they play on another network. That is unacceptable, period.

  7. You said that you weren’t so sure about basketball, when it came to East Coast (and big market–which I agree with) bias. Here are some points:

    1. The Lakers are as big as a big market team as you’re gonna get

    2. Why do they care so much about “what’s wrong with the Knicks?” Seriously. Other teams have been a lot worse for a lot longer. But you don’t see any “What’s wrong with the Grizzlies” stories.

    3. Where does Duke get many of its players, a good portion of its student body, and a good portion of its fan base?

    4. ESPN has a bigger college basketball contract with the Big East than anyone else. They televise the Big East Tournament every year in its entirety. Compare that to its “once a week on Tuesdays” coverage of the SEC, the conference which boasts the back to back national champion.

  8. i really like this, and i think you did an outstanding job. i have a real problem with just one aspect of it:

    “5. East Coast Bias. This one is difficult to prove.”

    no. no it is not. especially when it comes to baseball, this is a slam dunk no brainer.

    “It seems that coverage of our popular sports (baseball, football) are dominated by east coast teams because they are currently at the top of their leagues.”

    yes, it just so happens that the yankees, red sox, cubs, and phillies all made the playoffs this year. but the yankees and cubs were both receiving 5 times the coverage to any other team in the league back in april and may when they were way under .500 (similar to the bizarre attention notre dame is getting now). and how much did you hear about arizona on sportscenter this year? they finished with the best record in the NL but received next to no coverage. the indians also weren’t 1/10th the story the yankees or red sox were despite pretty much leading their division wire to wire. yes, it’s fine to say you can see why the yankees/red sox/cubs/phillies are well covered. but those weren’t the only high achieving teams in the league, and espn kicked everyone else to the curb on most nights. obviously they do this because those “media darling” teams have way more fans than the indians or diamondbacks. it makes good buisness sense. but don’t turn around and say the bias is “difficult to prove.” that’s a gross misjudgment of the situation.

    thanks again, keep up the good work.

  9. I guess I’d have to say my major critique of ESPN is that there are hardly any non-BCS matchups in prime time (such as Thursday night college football). The WAC/Mountain West once held a monopoly on this night and while it isn’t completely ESPN’s fault, the Worldwide Leader should have told losers like BIG 10 commissioner Jim Delaney to stick it where the sun doesn’t shine in regards to airing exclusively ACC/Big East, etc. games on Thursday nights. This forced the Mountain West to ink its own TV contract and now not even we fans in Utah, New Mexico, etc. can watch our teams such as BYU and Utah as there are virtually no cable or satellite companies which air their channel. Hopefully, a college football playoff will soon prove to alleviate this.

  10. Good read, but it seems at every turn you attempting to defend, and not critique, ESPN. It’s almost like you are their apologist. You do make some good points and are correct on many points. But I was expecting something a little more hard-hitting.

  11. the fact that espn shows more big east basketball games has to do with the way contract are the sec has contracts with more networks IE LF Sports and Fox Sports Net so the games are spread out more

  12. An issue I would add is their relentless promoting of Such-and-such recent event or person as “The Best XXXX ever” or “The Greatest XXXX” ever.

    The love shown towards Brett Favre – for example, the question of asking “Is he the best ever”? (Objectively, there’s no way you can rank him in the top 10 with all of his game-costing interceptions amongst other things), or the Rockies-Padres games as one of the best playoff games ever, et cetera.

    Don’t even get me started on the Patriots going undefeated talk they do every week. The team is 4 – 0 after playing three teams that would be 1 – 2 had they not played them. ESPN jumps on every bandwagon possible, and it’s the most frustrating thing to watch. It’s impossible for the network to do ANYTHING with any semblance of objectivity.

    That’s what I hate the most.

  13. Did anyone just hear that? I was channel flipping when my cable remote reciever froze.I was stuck on ESPN when I heard this phrase:”I don’t have superpowers,just the power to grant eternal life.”

  14. You suck. Back off the network. Are you stupid or what. with out the network you are jobless so back off you loser. Hater in the house.

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