In light of the recent firings at ESPN, where the sports network fired nearly every respectable member of their team in favor of their “Highly Questionable” team of yellers and thoughtless pontificators, now seems as good a time as any to have a look at the way sports media works (or doesn’t work). Even though the events of a few weeks ago are a good hammer blow to the way things should be, I think we all have to admit that these changes are not drastic, and have been a long time coming. Why is that? Is it really just that ESPN was bloated with staff, and the market did not require them? Is Disney squeezing them to be a leaner outfit? Does Disney/ESPN really think that what they’ve left us with (watered down SportsCenter, First Take, Outside the Lines, and Dan Le Batard) is what the people want?
As a fan of the English Premier League, I’ve gotten a good glimpse of the way sports media works in the United Kingdom. Perhaps not shockingly, fans of the beautiful game deal with the same issues from their sports writers and commentators. A majority of time is spent with the biggest two or three clubs and players, biased commentators soil the game, and postgame shows almost always dive into yelling at each other and belittling the opinions of fans and other members of the media. This has often been the case in soccer of the years in England, and fans of the individual clubs have been known to make a stand. Many clubs have fanzines and a new craze of “Fan Channels,” which deliver the news from the ground at clubs like Everton, Stoke City, and West Ham who may not get the coverage from Sky Sports or BBC. Perhaps the most notorious of the fan channels, ArsenalFanTV has been in the news lately because of their fiery opposition to Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. The traditional media types have laughed and mocked these intrepid alternate reporters, but the message is clear: whether the traditional media likes it or not, the fans of Arsenal do not believe them and do not trust that they are delivering the most accurate news.
In the US, similar counter-media organizations exist. While ESPN personalities and former athletes may have insider information or a degree in communications, fans watch their teams play every game. They sit at the edge of their seats, night in and night out, taking in information, formulating their own opinions. Even someone like me, in their mid-twenties, has a tremendous amount of experience watching my teams compete. A diehard baseball fan at thirty years old has watched his team play thousands of times in television, listened to thousands of games on the radio, and probably attended a hundred or so (maybe much more depending on the financial situation) games live at the ballpark. They know baseball. They may not have plated, and they may not have a #source in the locker room, but they know what they’re watching. The proliferation of deep stats has made the everyday fan even more knowledgeable about what they’re seeing on the field.
Perhaps the model of ESPN is the issue. People no longer need TV channels to get the news. I can watch highlights of any sports team on the planet on Twitter or on the sports teams’ own website. I can find out exactly what the team, the coach, the players, and other fans think on social media. Adam Schefter’s time advantage on his advance reporting gets slimmer and slimmer every day, as players are tweeting their own information and the teams try their best to stay way in front of any changes or PR issues. Furthermore, the current model ESPN uses for a majority of their shows, the panel argument, is reminiscent of the rest of the 24-hour news cycle. The very same format that people refer to as “Fake News,” where someone with a moderate level of understanding shares their opinions as fact, is the format ESPN has decided to go with.
The present and future states of sports media are in the hands of the fans. If we collectively turn off ESPN (which is nearly impossible for me), maybe they will make the changes a lot of us are looking for. If we can’t or they won’t, we must look to the multitude of new sources. We could have tried FoxSports1, but they appear to have the same ideas as ESPN. We could try our local papers (and you probably should do that anyway), but if you want the full perspective, local homerism will ruin your day. We could try podcasts and blogs, but sometimes hot takes and homerism find their way there as well. With the access we have to sports today, where just about every game is on television or streamed somewhere on the internet, we all have the power to be sports informers, which should have been the role of ESPN the whole time. The sports media have dropped the torched. I will pick and up and carry it for a while. Will you run with me?