The Atlantic‘s Derek Thompson has written an intriguing piece on the self-important “Worldwide Leader” that should bring cheer to the hearts of most thinking and breathing human beings who enjoy sports but are continually exasperated by the commodification and celebrity-focused mainstream sports universe. Thompson writes from a business perspective, but without the corporate agenda.
One of the loudest criticisms of ESPN is that its aggressively mainstream approach creates a sycophantic celebrity culture built around the biggest stars and juiciest plots, from the agonies of the L.A. Lakers, to the scandals of Tiger Woods, to the postmodern dramedy of Tim Tebow. But according to Elberse, the company’s superstar culture is the best strategy for a fat-headed world.
“It’s not different from People realizing that there are only five celebrities who really sell [magazines], so why put anyone else on the cover?” she said. “It’s Hollywood making more movies with Marvel characters. It reduced the risk, and it works.” The company’s core strengths stem from a superstar-first approach to sports news. Essentially, ESPN is in the business of building athletes into superheroes, because, like Walt Disney Pictures, it is in the business of building blockbusters.
Read the rest of Thompson’s story here: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/09/the-most-valuable-network/309433/?single_page=true
This articulation of what ESPN has become since they simplified their approach–current president John Skipper took over in 2005 when ratings were slumping–explains exactly why I can barely tolerate watching ESPN (even games I really want to see) with the volume on anymore.
ESPN’s Baseball Coverage
Despite the fact they have decent (if bland) commentators, the coverage is almost singularly focused on the soap operas these days. If you watched the Red Sox-Yankees game on Sunday night, you know what I mean. If I had time, I would have documented just how much verbal diarrhea was dedicated to Alex Rodriguez, not to mention the full-screen quotes (during game action). If you are like most baseball fans, you have performance enhancing drug-fatigue. The whole Biogenesis charade took over in May and simply won’t end. Why? Because ESPN needs its polarizing narratives. Because without LeBron to talk about for hours on end in every conceivable format (television, ESPN’s site, Grantland), A-Rod fills the void. Yes, he has been an important major league player for the last fifteen years, but you know if he were in any market other than New York, Miami or Los Angeles, ESPN wouldn’t be able to add fuel to the fire of A-Rod hatred, at least not in the same way.
Baseball on the Radio
Listening to the Boston Red Sox on the radio this summer has been an interesting change to the way I follow the team. The familiar voice of Joe Castiglione (Red Sox play-by-play voice since 1991) brings back childhood memories. Castiglione’s sidekick, Dave O’Brien, also works as a play-by-play television announcer on ESPN. Recently, O’Brien was about to do a Yankees game and Castiglione cracked, “You excited to talk about A-Rod all night?” While ESPN caters to the lowest common denominator, it avoids telling potentially revealing anecdotes about less-heralded players. Baseball announcing is about filling in the spaces. The spaces between pitches, between outs, between innings, between rivalries and match-ups. It’s about the 162-game season, and the dramatic arc of such a grueling calendar. It’s about the lesser-known quantities surprising in big moments, the anticipation of young prospects, or occasionally, a debut of a big-time one (Bogaerts at shortstop last night). When television companies direct their on-air talent to discuss only inflammatory topics, they might as well be shoveling manure on top of the mound. They may as well be covering the foul poles in vomit. Not only does this style of dialogue invite argument or hatred, it is a cheap plot twist, a formulaic device designed to pull in the guy who doesn’t know what he wants to watch, but likes hating on the Yankees, or A-Rod, or cheaters, or perhaps just doesn’t really want to watch actual baseball. It takes effort to find the real stories.
Player Love and Player Hate, Not Player Complicate-d
We can spread the blame beyond ESPN, and discuss cable news talk shows, or whatever tends to trend on twitter or Google or Yahoo news. We are forced to accept that we now live in a culture of superheroes and villains as opposed to athletes. But just as we’re forced to accept that it exists, we still have an opportunity to recognize the damage it causes. When you hate A-Rod, you better also hate Mark McGwire. When you hate the Yankees, you forget that players you used to love might now play for them, and your immediate hatred is both irrational and hypocritical. Ichiro was beloved by much of baseball for decades, but now that he’s in New York and winding his career down, the love is tempered by national audiences. And let’s think for a second of why Ichiro was so beloved at first. Seattle is not a big market. Ichiro was a novelty. Ichiro was a great hitter who was clearly not physically imposing. He was the size of many non-athletic men, diminutive even. Ichiro was never in the headlines, never had a mark of controversy. He was a Japanese superhero to many baseball fans. A lovable and exotic oddity with a penchant for infield hits and going the opposite way. Ichiro used to be an easy storyline. Now he’s more complicated. He’s a few hits away from 4,000 for his career, but that career includes his first nine seasons playing in Japan (1992-2000), and now he’s a Yankee. The television coverage on Sunday Night couldn’t help but focus on the 4,000 hits, but it’s treatment of the Japanese hits was as if they took place on the moon. To be fair, Major League Baseball and Japanese League Baseball are not interchangeable. Still, rather than taking a minute and highlighting some of the other Japanese League greats like Sadarahu Oh (868 career home runs), ESPN gave Ichiro the old asterisk. The 4,000….but. Jay Jaffe, for Sports Illustrated (say what you will about SI, but they still have a conscience), has a great piece on the milestone and Ichiro’s career.
So…What Do We Do With All This?
ESPN promotes controversy in a way that is shameless and reprehensible and that fans have been forced to stomach for the last decade. The ubiquitous nature of its media platform makes it seem unavoidable. As sports fans, we are simply bombarded by the beast. Some friends I know have flat-out chosen to boycott the television side of the company, while others tolerate it in small doses. As non-mouth-breathers, we are clearly no longer the network’s target audience. Unless we’re plan on removing ourselves from the sports world, we have to reconcile ourselves to the reality of ESPN’s sensationalistic reporting, melodrama and superficiality. If we want to see those games which ESPN has exclusive rights to, we have no choice. But that doesn’t mean we have to imbibe all of the nonsense passively. The mute button is there for a reason (even if it may drive others around you crazy). Use it.
Jonah Hall writes The Darko Index in order to cope with the nonsense that comes with being a sports fan. Contact Jonah at firstname.lastname@example.org.