Locked In on ESPN

December 7, 2011
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As the lights rose on a recent late night edition of ESPN’s SportsCenter, anchors Stuart Scott and Scott van Pelt grinned disingenuously, like desperate salesmen sampling crumb cake before demanding we sign for all eight units. ESPN had just wrapped coverage of an utterly forgettable college basketball game that saw No. 5 North Carolina beat No. 7 Wisconsin.  The game could be best summed up by the fact that the Tar Heels’ offense and Badgers’ defense were both embarrassed by scoring/allowing a season low/high 60 points, the kind of statistical non-anomaly so often taken up maddeningly by both detractors of and advocates for the college game.  Lest they be concerned that such a humdrum sports happening would lead the telecast on a weeknight that normally provides a full slate of pro games, Scott and van Pelt reminded viewers the NBA would return in just under a month, that this college thing (as it does for so many top collegiate athletes) will have to do for now.  If the last five months are any indication, Christmas can’t come soon enough for ESPN.

The National Basketball Association’s lockout began July 1 and reached a provisional end on the day after Thanksgiving, but even if you’re the most casual of sports fans, chances are, you knew this.  And even if you’re the most casual of casual sports fans, chances are, ESPN played no small role in informing you about the work stoppage, introducing you along the way to vaguely noxious MBA-speak like “basketball related income” and “amnesty clause.”  All the while, non-ESPN media squawked about the lockout simply being a squabble between the rich and the super-rich; about how basketball isn’t football; even about how boring ESPN’s coverage of it all was.  I won’t deign to tell you WHAT IT WAS REALLY ALL ABOUT, though I tend to agree with Charles Pierce that by focusing so intently on money, we tend to miss the bigger picture.  Accordingly, I’d like to consider briefly not the content of the various back-and-forths among players, owners, and sports pundits, but the broader implications of ESPN’s mediation of this dialogue for televised sports.

If there is a takeaway point from Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s eminently skimmable (and purposely, polemically gender-biased) oral history of ESPN, it’s that the network fancies itself to be lifestyle television.  This manifests both in all the most banal ways you think it does (incessant talk of “the brand” and other Disney-fied corporate logics) and in more insidious ones that seek to make “ESPN” and “sports” as interchangeable as possible in viewers’ heads.  ESPN has a mixed, sometimes hilariously bad history of extending its own brand beyond the viewing moment, so its most valuable commodities are often the personalities on display in its programming.  Pardon the hacky Bill Simmons-ism, but if ESPN is Bravo, then at the present moment, the NBA is its Real Housewives, Top Chef, and Andy Cohen all rolled into one.  (The comments section is yours to work out the Housewives equivalents of the Miami Heat’s big three.)

This is not to ignore the significance of ESPN’s relationships with the other two major American professional sports leagues, but crucial differences exist between them and the NBA.  The NFL–the indisputable televised sports juggernaut of the recent past and forseeable future–contracts with three out of the four major broadcast networks and a number of cable (including the prized Monday Night Football franchise on ESPN) and satellite outlets.  Television is the NFL’s cash cow, and viewers seem to enjoy watching it.  MLB’s television interests are similarly spread among several broadcast and cable outlets, with myriad regional sports networks picking up the slack.  But baseball–with its 81+ home games per team per season, summer weather, and Tony LaRussas giving fans multiple opportunities for trips to the concession stand–prizes gate and gameday revenues much more than football does.

While it has long thrived on elements from both models, the NBA has become a decidedly more television friendly league, with ESPN leading the way.  In fact, the league’s only broadcast presence is with the also-Disney-owned ABC.  (TNT provides the other significant chunk of NBA coverage, but the netlet is more interested in using basketball as a promotional vehicle for Rizzoli & Isles than it is in building a brand identity around it.)  The outlets fortuitously renewed their deals with the NBA after a poorly rated Finals series in 2007, and it seems fair to say that ESPN was getting an undervalued property.  A change to the hand-checking rule the year before catalyzed a surge in league-wide scoring, and the LeBron-led class of stars would be entering their prime (and free agency years) over the course of the following decade.  Part of the pact also afforded ESPN wide-ranging use of the NBA’s digital content, an element commissioner David Stern saw as key in spurring the league’s global growth (and one that stands in stark contrast to other sports’ digital policies).  For ESPN, the NBA was fast becoming the most fertile land upon which to plant its flag as “The Worldwide Leader In Sports.”

It goes without saying, then, that ESPN had much riding on the resolution of the NBA lockout, not so much that it might be accused of anything unethical, but certainly enough to be guilty of belaboring viewer interest in the minutiae of labor.  Its lockout coverage arguably started in earnest with last summer’s “The Decision” special on the free-agent status of LeBron James, a stunt aimed just as much at stimulating interest in non-NBA fans as it was at narcotizing the resentment of NBA die-hards about the upcoming work stoppage.  Or, it’s the other way around.  I don’t know.  Either way, ESPN’s NBA coverage since “The Decision” has been not about uncovering the real issues behind the lockout or picking sides between players vs. owners or Dirk vs. LeBron.  Instead, its goal has been to breathlessly, relentlessly fuel the idea that discovering that truth or picking a side matters.  If you care not for such things, if you like your displays of athletic competition virtuous and untouched by the tentacles of capitalism, well, there’s always the college game.


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