No Medium is an Obstacle
By the ‘90s the now-familiar amalgam of sports and entertainment became the new norm. ESPN played a major role in promoting this mixing of styles as their programming featured highlight reels and player profiles as well as live coverage: the focus on individual players helped establish many athletes as household names. In addition, the fact that ESPN subscribers could watch games from all over the country meant that many players became well-known outside their home market which made them effective marketing tools for national and international companies. This resulted in a dramatic increase in both the number and size of endorsement deals offered to these newly-minted stars.
ESPN also led the expansion of national sports programming to other media. ESPN Radio began broadcasting in 1992, the television station ESPN2 in 1993 and perhaps most noticeably, the web site ESPN.com launched in 1995. Today, 20.5 million users return to the site each month making it the most popular sports site on the Internet.
ESPN continues to adapt to the new media environment through its website and incorporation of fan feedback. However, new media has also affected the network’s television content. Today, ESPN assumes that fans have already seen highlights from the night before so SportsCenter now includes more analysis and debate than in previous years. Following the success of Pardon the Interruption (which features sportswriter Mike Wilbon and former sportswriter Tony Kornheiser arguing about the day’s sports events), the broadcast schedule added additional debate/opinion shows.
Now an entirely new generation of sports fans is growing up in the era of debate. Who is better, LeBron James or Kobe Bryant? Do you think baseball players should automatically be banned for taking steroids? Did Chad Ochocinco take his touchdown dance too far? These are just some of the thousands of topics that are discussed between fans of all ages, day in and day out, at the water cooler or during lunch at school. While debate and analysis was always a part of the game, ESPN has brought it to the forefront of its programming. With millions of fans consuming the company’s various mediums every month, arguing about sports has become more visible than ever.
This is not to say that the company hasn’t faced its fair share of bumps along the way. Take for example a recent incident in which Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was accused of sexual misconduct. ESPN was among the last media outlets to report these accusations, fueling complaints that the network held the story since the Steelers had won the Super Bowl the prior year and were one of the NFL’s most beloved franchises.
Recognizing the importance of maintaining good relationships with its fan base, ESPN had created the title of ombudsman back in 2005, appointing former Washington Post sports editor George Solomon to the position for a 21-month period. Following Solomon was former New York Times sports editor Le Anne Schreiber, who was then succeeded by the current ESPN ombudsman, veteran television producer Don Ohlmeyer.
Ohlmeyer’s initial column online included feedback about the Roethlisberger incident from Vince Doria, ESPN’s senior vice president and director of news. He explained that ESPN’s delay in reporting the accusations was based on the damaging nature of such accusations and the difficulty of the accused ever clearing their name while not directly addressing the issue of why other networks reported the charges several days earlier.
The main message of this incident is not whether ESPN was right or wrong, but that many sports fans regard the network as a news source and hold it to standards similar to other news outlets. It also pointed out the active role that sports fans take regarding coverage of their favorite sports: they are no longer passive recipients of coverage but active participants in the process.
Now, the ESPN empire continues to expand through ESPNDB (aka ESPN Database), an online project that will act as a large-scale sports encyclopedia for fans looking for history on their favorite players and teams. The company has also begun launching websites in local markets like Chicago, Dallas and Boston. On top of that, in August 2009, ESPN started a broadcast network in the U.K. In fact, the international reach of ESPN is also evident in the fact that its flagship program SportsCenter is available in 13 local versions broadcast in eight different languages: Spanish, Portuguese, English, French, Hindi, Cantonese, Mandarin and Japanese.
ESPN has exerted far-reaching effects on popular culture, effecting not only sport coverage but also movies (in addition to the 30 for 30 series, ESPN has produced made-for-television movies such as A Season on the Brink, which looked at Coach Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers during the 1985-86 season) shows (the series Playmakers, which dramatized the lives of professional football players, aired in 2003) and books (The Big Show: A Tribute to ESPN’s Sportscenter). But its influence remains greatest in shaping and structuring the way we consume sports. No one can forsee what directions sports coverage will take in the future, but it’s a good bet that ESPN will be a major influence in shaping that coverage.