It’s not that long ago that sports media was a sort of hegemony. ESPN loomed large and controlled an overwhelming majority of cable live sports programming and highlights. The local dailies and print icon Sports Illustrated handled the commentary.
ESPN could be forgiven if it felt like it had perfected the sports media experience. Sportscenter was where you went if you wanted to know what was happening in the sporting world, even if you grimaced at the puns and the Chris Bermanisms, and the unearned hipness.
The emergence of blogs, Deadspin primarily, and the tinkering from ESPN to launch commentary beachheads on its dot-com, irrevocably changed the landscape. Now everyone knew no one consumed sports similarly, and niche brands could tackle the various.
Imagine, if you will, three Dallas Cowboy fans. One may very well live and die with the Cowboys W-L record, foist any criticism back on the critic as jealousy or hatred, excuse the transgressions of its star players in order to benefit from their athletic prowess. Another may like the Cowboys, but also the Texans (because they love all Texas), the Broncos (because they went to school in Colorado), and also hold love in his or her hearts for Eli Manning because he helms his or her repeat-champion fantasy football team. The third revels in the inevitable ineptitude of the Cowboys because he or she hates Jerry Jones and has come to expect the implosion, he or she lives for the LOL Cowboys coverage.
These three fans, seemingly interconnected by one team, have different wants and needs. They are not perfectly served by one publication. And those groups could be split even further down (the intense Cowboys fans who loves all Dallas teams; another intense fan who hates all other sports).
And this was a big thing before the national anthem protests, which will further bifurcate the fanbases. The protests were divisive (as most protests are!) and my brief reading of the situation that a majority of the younger sports commentators were for the protests. Your newspaper columnists, your Barstools, your Clay Travises were against it.
ESPN had governed this wide serfdom of sports fans for a while, and you could forgive it for thinking it appealed to all fans. Politics and breadth of choice have intervened. ESPN will never be as powerful again.
But what happens to sports media. Thousands of barely-scrapping-by outlets? Two similar mega-outlets that differ only in their takes on social justice? It’s uncertain. Two recent events make that clear.
Event #1 was ESPN canning its short-lived partnership with Barstool Sports (a late-night program called Barstool Van Talk) after one episode. The specific content, it seems, was not the problem; it was the association with Barstool Sports, an emerging media property that does not worry about causing offense. The decisions of ESPN, which is the closest real-life approximation of the below Simpson clip, deserve no closer examination than to say it is the spiritual heir to MTV in the 1990s, when it desperately tried to understand what should be popular (Gregorian-chant Enigma was a 90s MTV staple! So was 30s revival Squirrel Nut Zippers! I could go on forever). ESPN is forever touching live wires and burning itself and never learning and glancing into the distance where a live wire lays waiting. ESPN walks over).
ESPN, illustrated via GIPHY
I can certainly imagine a world where Barstool Sports becomes more viable than ESPN, only until the money gets too large to be rude and then the cycle continues with a cruder upstart ESPN-ing them.
The second news of note was a particularly illuminating New York Times article on the prospects of The Athletic, a national/local sports news hybrid. The founders are optimistic that the talent they acquire when local newspapers layoff sports writers is an unvarnished gain, as opposed to a simultaneous warning sign for their own prospects.
Good sports writing comes from everywhere and nowhere, it’s very hard for any brand to compete with the careful curation of that content from elsewhere.
I consume a lot of sports media, and I’m not sure what threshold a subscription site has to hit for me to pay. I am not rushing to subscribe to a site helmed by tech bros, even if they hire the smartest minds. Read the cautionary tale from The National. FWIW, I think the Internet makes it harder than easier for what The Athletic is looking to do.
But I am perhaps too niche for any service – I prefer the absurdist work by Jon Bois and incredibly detailed tactical football (soccer) analysis that is costly and not for everyone. This is not an attempt at bragging. I am not easily bucketed, and I don’t think I’m alone.
Sports media wars will never settle, which means there will always opportunities for the Barstools and The Athletics; and ESPN will forever be defending its turf. But no one should feel confident gloating. Because it’s going to be hard.