If you are under the age of 40, are male, own a television, own a cable package and you happen to live in the United States of America, chances are you watch ESPN. In some way, in some form, at some point, you tune in. Be it for the white noise it can provide before falling asleep, for the fantasy sports statistics that have grown more and more popular with each calendar year, or for the countless debate-obsessed original shows the network now pumps out at an absurdly fast rate, you’ve spent at least five minutes stuck on that channel.
Late-night poker marathons. The single most successful highlights show in the history of mankind, Sportscenter. Monday Night Football. Professional basketball. College athletics. Major League Baseball. Shoot, even the “World’s Strongest Man” or Fourth of July hot dog-eating contests can draw the most fringe of fringe-fans to the network. ESPN has been celebrated, hated, ridiculed, shunned, parodied, awarded, praised, criticized and lauded more than most any other network pay-cable has ever seen. It’s like sugar-coated crack-cocaine for a drug addict with a sweet tooth. The irresistibility of the operation has made ESPN the de facto go-to network whenever the house gets too quiet or the parties need a visual element.
The Atlantic‘s Derek Thompson found this out recently when he sat down with ESPN’s director of research Artie Bulgrin.
“Some critics sneer at the company’s boastful tagline—‘The Worldwide Leader in Sports’—but it is unquestionably apt,” he wrote, “Although the network didn’t pay to air a single minute of the 2013 men’s college-basketball tournament, 8.15 million people—about the population of Virginia—filled out a bracket on ESPN.com in March. And although the network doesn’t broadcast any daytime NFL games, its digital platforms still average 800,000 viewers for each minute of game time on Sundays… ESPN’s cable channels collect more than $5 a month from each of the nearly 100 million American households that subscribe to pay-TV, more than any other channel by far. That comes to about $6.5 billion in revenue, without even considering advertising. With an estimated value between $40 billion and $60 billion, ESPN is at least 20 times bigger than the New York Times Company, or five times bigger than News Corp. As a single asset, ESPN could be worth as much as all the other parts of its majority owner, the Walt Disney Company, combined.” (“The Global Dominance of ESPN”, 14 August 2013)
Funny, considering how it make take a fairy-tale ending for someone to finally knock Mickey’s favorite sports channel off its pedestal. Many have come and gone, yet few have achieved any discernible amount of success while doing so. The Turner networks have carved out a nice niche by occasionally providing an alternative to The Worldwide Leader’s basketball and baseball coverage, but they clearly make their bones in typical TV drama. The NBC Sports Network, despite having more than a year-and-a-half under its belt and being in nearly 78 million homes, can’t seem to be taken seriously (even by its parent network: If NBC truly wanted to cause some waves, it would throw the Sunday Night Football package its way). That channel, of course, rose from the ashes of Versus, which served as the single most potent example of how irrelevant “outdoor” sports were/are.
Joke all you want about how narcissistic and dictatorial the mother-ship has become, but you can’t deny its success and you certainly can’t deny its longevity. Each time ESPN has been met with a distinguished challenger, it has reigned supreme, one talking, screaming head at a time, all “embrace debate” jokes be damned. The only thing left for those guys to do is descend into heaven and be the go-to source for all of God’s Baseball Tonight coverage.
Such is why at lest a few eyebrows were raised when on 17 August, something called Fox Sports 1 was launched into the excruciatingly crowded sports television universe. Instantly beamed into 90 million homes, the network’s development and subsequent unveiling has been chronicled obsessively by the sports blog community, each personality signing or show announcement generating a seemingly infinite amount of reactionary words. Some were good, some were not so good, but either way, one thing seemed to be immediately established: Fox Sports 1 may just be the fairy-tale force needed to eventually bring ESPN down to earth.
Naturally, this has afforded the new network a generous amount of buzz in recent months. If the Worldwide Leader has become the sports network equivalent of Nickelback, FS1 has been viewed as rock music’s White Stripes, a breath of fresh air that has made an exceedingly watered-down medium somewhat exciting again. Everything from an ex-jock discussion panel to a nightly recap of the day’s highlights has been repackaged by Fox Sports 1, a network that has coined the obnoxiously laughable term Jockularity as one of its primary focuses.
Wait. Jockularity? Yuck.
Anyway, all insufferable made-up mantras aside, remember something: This is Fox, you know. The fourth channel that butted its way into the Big Three conversation, subsequently forcing analysts to now consider the Big Four. The destination that essentially birthed the single most important 24-hour news network contemporary TV has seen (yeah, CNN has been around longer, but has it honestly generated more headlines or revolutionized that niche as much as Fox News has?). The network that has already been down the sports-network road, learning from its former mistakes and presumably grasping exactly what it takes to make the game competitive with ESPN. The subsidiary of oh ... say ... 21st Century Fox, the Rupert Murdoch-led conglomerate that seems as though it has its hands in every successful media venture the last two decades have seen.
The animosity toward ESPN’s reach is a direct product of its hubris. Being the default destination for televised sports entertainment, it has become the Joseph Stalin of American athletic consumerism. When it stopped televising hockey games, the sport’s highlights became nearly extinct on Sportscenter. Once the rights to Monday Night Football were acquired, the suits in Bristol, Conn., dreamt up ways to broadcast programs dedicated solely to the NFL year-round, despite it not even being in season. And, maybe the most importantly ignored element of this all, the mother-ship has consistently turned a blind eye to mixed martial arts, or most notably, UFC. And despite which side of the aisle you land on when it comes to that particular barbaric form of entertainment, not even Hulk Hogan could deny its meteoric rise in mainstream prominence throughout the last five to seven years.
The point is, despite what ESPN wants you to think, there are plenty of well-liked, cult-followed sports out there that have been waiting to have an opportunity to expand their fan-bases to those who simply haven’t had the option to check them out. There’s much more to the athletic world than the NFL, NBA, MLB and BCS and thanks to an Internet that shrinks the size of this planet by the megabyte, the demand for those sports now has enough of a foundation to carry them beyond the next level. The clearest example of such would be soccer, of course, which has all of a sudden become an object of ferocious bidding wars between not only the two networks at hand, but also NBCSN, which now carries the English Premiere League. Even so, FS1 landed the rights to both the UEFA and CONCACAF Champions Leagues as well as Europa, an addition to its arsenal that will certainly prove more valuable as the channel grows.
Other sports on the Fox Sports 1 docket? Big East, Pac-12, Big 12 and C-USA college basketball and football games. Almost all things motorsports (for those who may not have noticed, this replaced the SPEED network on your television dials), including more NASCAR than you could shake a muffler at. Formula E racing. Soccer’s World Cup (after 2014). Major League Baseball, including post-season games. And, of course, the aforementioned MMA, a niche that Fox has smartly been on board with for a while now.
In addition to all that, Fox Sports Live has become Sportscenter‘s most feared competitor. In somewhat of a brilliant move, the network handed the keys to Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole, the TSN duo that earned their bones by being massively popular in Canada until making the move to FS1. Even more promising was how surprisingly fresh they sounded on the show’s debut. People can knock the tandem for doing their best Dan Patrick/Keith Olbermann impersonations, but wait, how long has it been since the Patrick/Olbermann team left ESPN, again? Even if it’s second-rate Dan and Keith, it’s still better than first-rate Jay Crawford and Chris McKendry. The practice of the nightly sports show has been in desperate need of relatable snark and sarcastic intelligence for years now. While not perfect, Onrait and O’Toole can only get better in their new digs.
Actually, that’s something that must be considered within the rest of this stuff: Fox Sports 1 is approximately two weeks old. Whatever slip-ups it may have created during its first 14 or so days can easily be corrected. The fact that there haven’t been any major missteps yet should be considered a major step in the right direction.
“Overall, I was impressed,” Awful Announcing’s Ben Koo wrote after the first episode of Fox Sports Live. “Part of that is that I had low expectations for both FS1 and Fox Sports Live. That’s somewhat due to what Fox has put out of late, but more of the fact that all of this is new. Remember that line in Jurassic Park where they compare Disneyland’s bumpy launch to dinosaurs getting loose and killing people? The same principle applies to upstart media companies. To Fox’s credit, nothing glaring blew up. ... First impressions are critical in this day and age but you can’t judge it to be a success or failure based on one show. Fox Sports Live appears further along than I thought they would be. ... SportsCenter and ESPN still have me as a regular viewer despite my belief that the quality of both has gone downhill the last half decade but Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports Live will be in the rotation as well after what I’ve seen on the first night. For now that’s a pretty good start for the folks down in Los Angeles.” (“Fox Sports Live Exceeds Expectations With Rooom to Grow”, 18 August 2013)
But can a “good start” compete with the enormous and embedded popularity ESPN currently enjoys?
“ESPN has become synonymous with its subject in a way that few other channels have,” Thompson wrote in a different piece for The Atlantic. “MSNBC isn’t the only place for politics. CNBC isn’t the only place for business. The History Channel isn’t the only place for quirky reality shows. But for the vast majority of viewers, ESPN is the only reliable place for sports on TV.” (“This ESPN Slideshow Explains Why It’s the Most Valuable Media Brand in America”, 15 August 2013)
The key string of words in Thompson’s writing is very simply its last: “ESPN is the only reliable place for sports on TV.” That’s changing. The sports media landscape has gone through such a makeover within the last decade that there simply isn’t enough separation room for one singular product to be far and away the best that television offers, let alone the only one fans can go to anymore. For as chaotic and panic-y that the Brave New World of journalism (print, especially) has become, the one spectrum growing with ease is the sports terrain. Or, as somebody I heard recently put it, “It’s a good time to be a sportswriter.”
It is. It’s also the perfect time to take on an oversized establishment that has become utterly institutionalized and unequivocally demonstrative in practice. There hasn’t been a more exciting time for sports media consumerism. Yes, if you are under the age of 40, are male, own a television, own a cable package and you happen to live in the United States of America, chances are you watch ESPN today. Will that fact go unchallenged when you turn 50?
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times.