The decline of ESPN: 3 major reasons

Posted by on Jun 1, 2015 in Voice-Over | 0 comments

ESPN, primarily due to SportsCenter, became red hot during the days of Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann. To be sure, anchors like Chris Berman, Bob Ley, Tom Mees and Charley Steiner got the network through the 80s and gave it cult status, but the era of Patrick and Olbermann is when ESPN really took off. Kenny Mayne, Stuart Scott, Rece Davis, Robin Roberts, Linda Cohn, Scott Van Pelt, John Anderson and a host of others took the ball from there and made SportsCenter anchors household names.  

When ESPN was purchased by Disney as part of the Capital Cities/ABC deal in 1996, the Worldwide Leader expanded its reach even further. This meant not just continuing to add sports programming but adding multiple networks targeted for specific demographics, moving into the sports film, reality show and documentary market with ESPN Films and branching into pop culture with Grantland.  

The Little Network That Could has become the major player it always wanted to be. But something happened on the path to sports entertainment dominance. The once spunky upstart has lost its way, becoming the very thing it had fought so hard to take down. In its infancy, ESPN would get pushed around by the sports divisions of NBC, ABC and CBS. Now ESPN is the one making curious decisions, offering substandard products, playing rough with employees that challenge management (Keith Olbermann, Bill Simmons) and creating a work environment that’s led to numerous issues with their staff. This includes several accusations of sexual harassment (Mike Tirico, Sean Salisbury, Harold Reynolds) racial insensitivity (Mike Greenberg, Bob Griese), favoritism (Dick Vitale, Bill Simmons) and broadcasters who display general buffoonery (Skip Bayless, Stephen A. Smith, Tony Kornheiser, Colin Cowherd, Dan Le Batard, etc.).  

The underdog network so many used to root for has now become the company too big and unwieldy for its own good, losing sight of its foundation. Simply stated, ESPN has become the corporate juggernaut they used to once mock. The slow and steady decline of ESPN can be traced back to three significant problems. 

The Demise of SportsCenter – Graphics, music and colorful commentary have always been a part of ESPN’s flagship show but now instead of enhancing sports highlights, they detract from them. Not only is the studio itself a busy mess, but the actual clips are as well. A loud grating guitar drowns out most play-by-play voiceover and the screen is filled with so many graphics that important details are often missed. Even more damaging is the loss of strong personalities on the show. Sure, there are a few SportsCenter anchors that can still deliver, but the lineup rotates more frequently than it used to and the broadcasters have been sanitized and homogenized. 

ESPN lacks courage – You’d think that a major network would use its clout to force athletes or sports organizations to answer hard questions but ESPN is afraid to do that. Many of the Worldwide Leaders on-air personalities have relationships with athletes that erase the line between journalism and fandom. Retired athletes turned analysts routinely defend their former teams and even writers get cozy with the people that they cover. Stephen A. Smith’s puff piece on Floyd Mayweather before his recent fight with Manny Pacquiao received better air times and more repeated airings than an “Outside the Lines” report documenting Mayweather’s history of domestic violence. Granted, ESPN should be given some credit for addressing the issue at all but burying its OTL piece on one of its lowest performing time slots demonstrates what the network truly cares about. ESPN refuses to take on troubling issues that need to be discussed in sports.     

A focus on superstar athletes instead of sports – ESPN has turned team sports into showcases for individual achievement. When ESPN only shows Yasiel Puig’s at bats during a 7-0 Dodgers loss, commits 75 minutes to LeBron James’s “The Decision” and emphasizes that big name athletes are the primary reason for a win or a loss in a team game (see: Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Stephen Curry, etc.) their content suffers. ESPN kowtows to big name athletes and their network partners at the expense of being able to look at the world of sports with a critical eye.

Considering all of their resources, it is disappointing that ESPN has chosen to take the easy path. With their considerable clout, the network could take the NFL to task for how it handles concussions or challenge athletes and organizations who make poor or morally bankrupt decisions. ESPN could be a force for change in a world that is becoming more about style than substance.   

In his outgoing post as ESPN Ombudsman, Robert Lipsyte (who hasn’t been replaced in the six months since his last piece was written) called for ESPN to make changes to address many of the issues I mentioned here and acknowledged the networks problems with journalistic integrity. This included a suggestion for a greater focus on news, including perhaps forming a central news desk. Here was ESPN’s reply:

“Of course, we could place virtually everybody in a ‘news’ division, and then essentially ‘lend’ them out to provide other functions,” said ESPN senior vice president and director of news Vince Doria to Lipsyte. “I think it works best under the current set-up, where the news operation isn’t necessarily responsible for all the administrative duties that would attach to these people, and thereby less encumbered with things that might take away from the time devoted to pursuing, vetting and reporting news.”

A team dedicated to hardcore news is not something that ESPN values. The cozy relationships that staffers have with their subjects and that the Worldwide Leader has with its business partners is much more important. Asking hard questions and doing the right thing when it’s unpopular ruffles too many feathers, which would be bad for business and therefore, of no worth to ESPN. 

What has ESPN morphed into in the 36 years since it launch in 1979? The saddest kind of network monolith, one of sound and fury signifying nothing. 

Gazette media columnist Terry Terrones is a member of the Television Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter at @terryterrones.

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