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ESPN Sucks, but I love it


Feb 23, 2013; Fort Collins, CO, USA; Colorado State Rams fans hold large cut outs of ESPN television personality Stephen A. Smith (left) and Skip Bayless (right) during the game against the New Mexico Lobos at Moby Arena. The Lobos defeated the Rams 91-82. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

When you don’t have the talent to do something, you may as well critique somebody else who’s more capable, more creative, and more talented than you. You know the feeling when you think you can build off an idea that wasn’t yours, or more clearly express a thought you never had, or make a bigger impact with insight you were never struck by.

It’s human nature. Or maybe it’s just because I’m an ass.

Either way, I’m constantly reminded of why I hate ESPN, even as I’m typing “e” in the address bar and “www.espn.com” autofills. After one letter. It knows I’ve been there.

Sure, there’s plenty of money to be made by being “sports” journalists… but there’s a little more to be made as sports “journalists.” Empty suits wildly gesticulating, athletic haircuts with gravelly voices, talking heads whose emphases are carefully crafted to elicit just the right mixture of anger, clarity, and sure-headedness that men with enlarged prostates consume to feel more manly. ESPN sucks because they have that half-yelling, half-professorial delivery down to a f***ing “T”.

True, ESPN deserves credit for shaping the way Americans view sports casting and for taking sports casting into the 21st century. Along the way, they developed tendencies not to inform, but to sound nice and get people to watch the show. Mark Cuban tried his best to argue against speaking in generalities, but ESPN knows their style is easier to digest, easier for people to pick a side for or against, and easier to catch one’s attention in the few seconds they have between channel changes or treadmill cooldowns.

ESPN sucks because they don’t care about unprofitable markets. They just don’t. Their CFO would ask why they should. Lots of other people would too. But some would (hopefully) remind them that journalism, even sports journalism, should strive to cover the story even if it’s unpopular, even if the narrative is tough to follow, and even if it plays against what the majority of consumers want.

That doesn’t mean you have to bust out an algorithm so every team gets the same amount of coverage, or develop an equation that allows a certain number of stories for each player based on their production.

It does mean having fewer situations like these. Slapped together in a bout of frustration a number of months ago, that crude illustration shows ESPN’s NBA page with no mention of a Blazers 30-point win on the road against the best team in the league several hours after the game ended.

ESPN sucks because they have a section called the “Heat Index,” with its own permanent link on the NBA page, dedicated to a single team. ESPN sucks because headline after headline favors whichever team or player will get them more pagehits.

And it all makes good business sense. But legitimacy can’t be bought. In this golden age of the Internet, where any person can call up any amount of information at any time, it might be good for ESPN to be fairer, to be better stewards of journalism, or at least hide their biases under a veneer of objectivity.

They have infrastructure, both physical and creative. They have history, capital, and name recognition. But so did MySpace. So did the “Big Three” networks. So did a lot of things that eventually disappeared because people found what they liked in more abundance, with more legitimacy, or with better analysis somewhere else.

I realize the tone here is accusatory. The truth is that ESPN is a resource that many people use every day, and that won’t change any time soon. But it’s a resource many could live without.

If solid journalism, good storytelling, and focused passion were the names of the game, how many more people would visit? Rather than trying desperately to gain more pagehits and catering to large markets, how much more often would casual browsers visit if they let the conversation last longer than 35 seconds?

Deeper questions remain: is something produced because the producers think it’s what people want to buy? Or is it because it’s the best in its field? And with 10-, 20-, and 30- year broadcasting commitments already inked, is there any reason for ESPN to change?

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