The Sad, Sorry State of Sports Reporting
(To read what the sports media world lost in the legendary Howard Cosell, read this excerpt from his book. Cosell was prophetic, and his words ring true nearly 30 years later)
There’s a company named Narrative Science that can take a box score from any sort of sporting event—major league, minor league or little league—and using their proprietary algorithms and software, produce a column describing the game. Reading it, you couldn’t tell the difference between the computer-written piece and one produced by a genuine “sports reporter.” In essence, Narrative Science has rendered sports reporting obsolete.
Think about that.
What does a sports reporter do? He or she reports on a game just played. But do sports fans need that anymore? There’s an app for that now. In this on-demand, instant access world, you can get results to any game played anywhere at any time you want it.
Yet there aren’t fewer sports reporters; there’s more now than ever.
Every newspaper (what few remain) has a sports section. Every local news station/report has a sports “anchor” or two. Nationwide, sports radio stations staffed with a small army of hosts have sprung up in every city with a major league team or major college program. ESPN (read a nice article on their true nature here), Fox Sports, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo! Sports…the list goes on and on.
The problem with having all of these outlets is that they all demand content. Constant content. But there are only so many games and events to cover. And only so many ways in which to cover them. What then can be used to fill in the gaps between games?
The answer has become opinion. Lots and lots of opinion.
Oh, sure. This is the opinion of “experts.” Longtime sportswriters turned talking heads accompanied by ex-coaches and professional athletes who can dissect a game by explaining the supposed inner workings of each and every sport.
But this is still opinion. These experts make incorrect predictions. They misdiagnose problems. They flip-flop constantly. In truth, their opinions—despite their backgrounds—are no better than yours or mine.
Yet America’s appetite for sports and sports related content appears insatiable.
There’s an excellent reason for this demand. Sports are about the only televised program outside of perhaps American Idol or Dancing with the Stars that must be consumed live, as it happens. They can’t be DVRed to be watched later. By then, the sports fan is out of the loop.
This is why sports are so attractive to both the networks and their advertisers. Each game takes on the air of an “event.” There’s no fast forwarding through commercials. It’s immediate; and the fan is often driven into a heightened emotional state due to each game’s “drama,” making them more susceptible to the advertiser’s message.
Yet with this increase in demand for sports and sports-related information, the actual number of true, independent providers is rapidly shrinking. So while sports fans may feel they have more options for content, in fact, they have fewer.
Consider the following networks and what they own and with whom they are affiliated:
|NBC is a longtime partner with the NFL and continue that tradition by airing Sunday Night Football. NBC is also partnered with the NHL, the NCAA & Notre Dame football, the Olympics, thoroughbred horse racing (the Triple Crown & Breeders Cup), Major League Soccer, Barclays Premier League, the Tour de France, and the French Open. NBC now operates its own cable sports network (and controls the Comcast Sports Network) as well as the Golf Channel, and it owns a stake in both the MLB Network and the NHL Network. Online, NBA bought out Pro Football Talk (and their associated sites) and is now partnered with Yahoo! Sports. In 2012, they launched their own sports radio network which (by last count) has 28 stations nationwide. It’s possible that may grow with the acquisition of Yahoo! Sports which has its own sports radio network once known as Sporting News Radio (the Sporting News, once a thriving magazine, went defunct in late 2012).|
|FOX is in bed with the NFL, MLB, NASCAR, and the UFC. They possess several regional cable sports TV networks, own the Speed Channel, Fuel, Fox Desportes (a Spanish language sports network), and Fox Soccer which covers soccer around the world, including the rights to the 2018 & 2022 World Cup. A stand-alone cable sports network – Fox Sports 1 – has just recently launched with another likely on the way. The network also possesses a chain of over 100 sports radio stations across the nation. Online, they are affiliated with MSN and Yardbarker.|
|ESPN has possession of the NBA and the WNBA while partnering with the NFL for Monday Night Football, MLB, the PGA, NASCAR, the PBA, the ATP and multiple NCAA football and basketball properties, most importantly the BCS. The network had to grossly overpay for most of these rights, especially for Monday Night Football, MLB, and the BCS Championship.They offer a multitude of cable channels (including the Longhorn Network) and swallowed ABC Sports (which is now ESPN on ABC). ESPN also has a massive radio network with affiliates in every state and Canada. They also publish their own magazine and online own Grantland.com (the naming of which I’m certain caused its namesake—legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice—to spin in his grave).|
|CBS may have lost a little ground on its competition, but it is still proud partners with the NFL and owns the rights to the NCAA Final Four (which I’m certain just eats at ESPN each year) as well as partnering with other NCAA properties and the PGA. CBS recently brought their own cable sports network to air and has a radio network boasting 232 affiliates, including the original sports radio station The Fan in New York City. Their online presence is limited to their own site, but it is highly popular among fantasy sports players.|
|Amazingly, Turner Sports (TNT/TBS) is a major player owning partnerships with the NBA, MLB, NCAA, NASCAR, and the PGA. Turner also runs NBA TV on the league’s behalf, and online operates NCAA.com, NASCAR.com, NBA.com, PGATour.com, and PGA.com. Turner Sports also recently purchased the popular BleacherReport.com to add to its properties. Interestingly, Turner Sports is owned by Time Warner which in turn owns Sports Illustrated. Very recently, CNN—which was tied to Sports Illustrated—announced it was severing those links to instead join with the Bleacher Report.|
No matter where you live in the United States, your sports information is being filtered through one of these five media conglomerates. They own it. They control it. And unless they say it’s news and worthy of coverage, it didn’t happen.
Oh sure, there are a few “independents” out there, and by that I don’t mean the likes of the NFL Network, NBA TV, the MLB Network, the NHL Network, the Big Ten Network, the SEC Network, etc. as these are merely propaganda machines. Online, you have the likes of Deadspin and Awful Announcing to help break up the monotony, but consider the story of the aforementioned Bleacher Report (a website I used to write for albeit only to help get my own name & The Fix Is In out there, so I admit I used them basically as they used me, for reasons I’ll show momentarily).
This article best describes what an abomination the Bleacher Report is/was, but to sum up, the site allowed anyone—and I mean anyone—to write for them. Unpaid, of course, no matter how many hits your article obtained for them and how much they profited from it (to the tune of a $200 million sale to Turner Sports).
Bleacher Report became what it is not by offer excellent content—far from it. They worked off of three ideas: don’t break stories, but rather piggyback upon them; rely upon lists (more directly, slideshows) to get more page hits; and work Google to ensure their articles appeared at the top of the search engine’s results.
But fans and visitors to the site apparently didn’t care, despite the fact that 99.9% of the Bleacher Report's pieces were opinion. Sometimes, this was intentionally bad/controversial opinion because that’s what drew people to click on the articles and leave comments and feedback, making those same people return to the same article multiple times basically to argue moot and/or foolish points.
That notion of bad/controversial opinion seems to reign, especially at ESPN today. The constant barrage of moronic thoughts spewing from Stephen A. Smith, Skip Bayless and their ilk on the likes of First Take is intentional (well, I doubt Stephen A’s use of the “n-word” was, but ESPN conveniently covered it up for him). These comments, whether actually believed by the hosts when their said or if they’re simply scripted talking points, has led to a situation where this is “must see TV” in sportsdom’s eyes simply for the “what are they going to say next?” fascination.
But this is not sports journalism, people. This is junk food news. And unfortunately, it is everywhere within the sports media world.
Investigative reporting in sports is dead. Why? For one, refer back to the list of the five corporations that not only cover but fund the sports world, and you’ll realize that bad mouthing (or perhaps destroying) a business partner is not in their best interest.
But secondly, it’s hard work. It takes time. It takes money. And the fans don’t seem to care. They’re happy with their nonsensical opinion pieces written by the likes of Jason Whitlock.
The guys who reached the pinnacle of the sports journalism world do nothing with the power they should now possess. Think of the biggest names in sports media: Bob Costas, Dan Patrick, Jim Rome, etc. Now name me one—one—piece of breaking, important news that they’ve uncovered. One Spygate, or Bountygate, or Lance Armstrong case, or Tim Donaghy-level scandal that one of these guys ever broke. You can’t name one because they don’t exist.
But, you say, that’s not their job. What is there job then? And if they don’t do this sort of work, who, if anybody, will?
Consider this. Very recently, Bob Costas got into all sorts of trouble for his 90 second anti-gun rant during his halftime segment on Sunday Night Football.
Perhaps this wasn’t the time or place to make such comments due to time restrictions, but then again, where else was Costas going to get the opportunity?
But thirty years ago, Howard Cosell made this report on ABC regarding athletes and drugs at a time prior to any sort of league mandated drug testing policy (and prior to the cocaine explosion in professional sports in the mid-1980s).
Look at how Cosell handled this topic, and ask yourself where—if anywhere—would you see a similar report made today?
Now ask yourself why that is? And follow that question by asking yourself what’s the true state of sports reporting in this country, and how it got to this point?
The networks, and by extension the leagues, don’t want another Howard Cosell. They’ll live with Bob Ley, but prefer Chris Berman, or Joe Buck, or Erin Andrews because they know these “reporters” won’t dig deeper. They won’t point out problems, and like Cosell did, offer solutions. They’ll toe the party line and fans will be happy to hear it, as long as the games don’t stop being played.
(And by the way, this article was posted here just prior to Lance Armstrong's "confession" to Oprah and the entire Manti Te'o "girlfriend" episode, both of which further prove my point.)
UPDATE AUGUST 2013: It was revealed that due to pressure from the NFL, ESPN backed out of a partnership with PBS's Frontline after 18-months on a two-hour documentary about concussions and brain injuries in the NFL which will air in October 2013. The obvious reason is that ESPN gives the NFL $1 billion a season for Monday Night Football; PBS does not. As Frontline wrote on its website:
"From now on, at ESPN’s request, we will no longer use their logos and collaboration credit on these sites and on our upcoming film League of Denial, which investigates the NFL’s response to head injuries among football players.
"We don’t normally comment on investigative projects in progress, but we regret ESPN’s decision to end a collaboration that has spanned the last 15 months and is based on the work of ESPN reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, as well as FRONTLINE’s own original journalism."
ESPN's journalistic integrity, if it once had any, is now completely shattered.
Watch "League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis" preview on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.