ESPN Influence Is Also Its Curse

Kevin StricklandCorrespondent IApril 2, 2009

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 1:  Detail view of the ESPN College Game Day set after the game between the Penn State Nittany Lions and the USC Trojans on January 1, 2009 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.  USC won 38-24.  (Photo by Jeff Golden/Getty Images)

When the Milwaukee Schlitzes took on the Kentucky Bourbons in a slow-pitch softball World Series game in 1979, the two teams had no way of knowing what monster would rise from dust of their diamond.


Fledgling cable network ESPN (the Entertainment Sports Programming Network) broadcast the aluminum-bat slugfest to its 625 cable system affiliates, reaching more than one million of a total of 20 million households. 


It was the first televised sporting event for the network, the brainchild of Bill Rasmussen.


Sports haven’t been the same since.


Since that initial broadcast ESPN has grown into a behemoth. 


From low-rent boxing matches, slow-pitch softball and Australian Rules football the self-proclaimed World Wide Leader in Sports has expanded to dominate the American sports landscape.


College football, basketball, softball and baseball; the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, NASCAR, the PGA and the National Hockey League all call (or have called) ESPN home for at least part of their seasons.


The network provides sports fans with unprecedented access to sports both through the broadcast of live events as well as its real-time reporting of scores.  


The days of waiting for the morning newspaper box score to see how your favorite Cleveland Indian fared against the mighty Yankees the night before are long gone.


With ESPN you know instantly. 


The network's companion website provides pitch-by-pitch analysis if you don’t have the patience to wait for the score ticker that runs constantly across the bottom of the ESPN screen.


This instant access spawned a cottage industry of fantasy baseball, basketball and football leagues.


The insatiable desire for sports coverage unleashed a series of sister networks including ESPN2, ESPNU and ESPNews. It birthed magazines, radio networks, restaurants and more.


ESPN is now ingrained in the psyche of the American fan.


While the pervasive coverage and the access to more information is a boon to sports lovers, over recent years the trend at ESPN has edged more toward creating the news as opposed to merely presenting and reporting on it.


The network has, by virtue of its sheer size and scope become a powerful force that has the ability to influence public perception and, even worse, the very competitions it is purported to objectively cover.


Take the example of Barbaro, the Kentucky Derby winner who was injured in the 2006 Preakness and was euthanized eight months later after his injuries failed to heal.


ESPN carried second-by-second updates of Barbaro’s condition. When he was put down, the network devoted significant air-time to honoring his memory.


The national response was overwhelming.  Grown men and women who had never seen the horse race wept openly on camera when the news of Barbaro’s demise was reported.


Lost in the furor over Barbaro is the fact that hundreds of horses die during racing events every year. The California Horse Racing Board reported that 306 horses had died during the 2007-2008 fiscal year in that state alone. 


The U.S. Jockey Club in New York estimated more than 600 deaths at racetracks in 2006.


This begs the question: Did ESPN respond to a surge of national interest in Barbaro’s condition or was the surge of national interest created by the network’s saturating coverage?


In 2004, the network undoubtedly played a part in determining the participants in college football’s BCS national championship game.


At the conclusion of the 2004 regular season, four teams sported unbeaten records: Big 12 Champion Oklahoma, Pac-10 Champion USC, SEC Champion Auburn, and Mountain West Champion Utah.


As the four teams headed down the stretch, ESPN college football analysts led by its College GameDay crew of Chris Fowler, Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit relentlessly pounded the scheduling drum, making the claim that the strength of schedule for both Auburn and Utah paled in comparison to that of USC or Oklahoma.


When the final polls were released, voters retained USC and Oklahoma atop the polls and many of those who voted parroted the ESPN strength-of-schedule mantra in justifying their picks.


Problem is, the ESPN talking heads were wrong. 


When the NCAA released its 2004 report, Auburn’s strength of schedule rated higher than either the Trojans or Sooners.


The following year as Texas and USC churned toward the ESPN-hyped game of the century in the BCS title game, the network debuted a series of specials calling the USC team with its lone title a dynasty, while comparing them to and ranking them above many of the greatest college teams in history.  


Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville was vocal in his criticism.


"It's done," Tuberville said in 2005. "The national media, led by ESPN, wants to see Vince Young vs. Matt Leinart in the championship game. It's going to be those two teams unless Texas or USC get upset.


"Last year, they wanted to see the two Heisman Trophy quarterbacks, Jason White and Leinart. After six or seven games, we were out of it.


"If four teams are undefeated at the end of the season, there should be a playoff. There should've been one last year. But it's decided already. I don't like it.


"ESPN has gotten so much power lately, it's kinda scary," Tuberville said.

In response to Tuberville’s comments, ESPN radio anchor Dan Patrick aired a contentious interview with the Auburn coach where he warned “You’re biting the hand that feeds.” 


Fowler, from his moderator’s perch on College GameDay lambasted Tuberville. Later Fowler was filmed touting an upcoming USC-Texas BCS title matchup at a time when neither of the BCS participants had been selected.   


That Tuberville’s criticism of the network’s power could be chastised as “biting the hand that feeds” is clear evidence that ESPN wields undue influence. 


That Fowler would use his position as lead anchor of College GameDay to berate a critic shows that an agenda, even a personal agenda, trumps objectivity.


When coaches aren’t allowed to criticize the networks that cover their sports, or worse, when they’re targeted and/or penalized for those opinions, it’s a clear sign that the balance of power has swung too far.


ESPN is a victim of its own growth and reach. But the only ones harmed are those who dare to run counter to the official network position. 


Like Roman emperors, the hands that feed can turn a thumbs-down and punish those who disagree. 

Beyond that, however, the network has become fatuous. 


In the never-ending effort to top itself, ESPN has reached well past its core competencies. 


The foray into original programming with such fare as the Dale Earnhardt biopic was misguided. The constant parade of former athletes turned analysts is tiring—as is some of their ridiculous attire.


Even its SportsCenter broadcasts once glib and fresh when Patrick and Keith Olbermann manned the anchor desk have become self-indulgent parodies.


It’s one thing to toss off an occasional clever bon mot. It’s another to bludgeon viewers with repetitive and cloying manufactured catchphrases.


As John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton noted in 1897, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” 


From its poorly lit sets and softball game beginnings, the ESPN of today has reached a state of near absolute power over the games it broadcasts.


As its influence broadens, how wide is the leap from shilling for big market teams to make the BCS title game to quietly insisting that certain teams win in order to create the matchups programming managers want? 


To withholding air time from teams and conferences that don’t follow guidelines passed down from the network?  


How big a stride is it from disregarding every other player on the golf course to focus on Tiger Woods’ efforts to remove a bee from his towel to quietly encouraging events to make sure Tiger plays the final day?


ESPN already decides who sports fans are supposed to like and who they are supposed to loathe.


They decide which teams are popular by focusing promotions and by airing their games.


If ESPN decides tomorrow that the American fan should like Barry Bonds again, the general public perception could be turned in two weeks or less.


That’s the power of influence the network currently holds.


At what point does the exertion of that influence become corruption?


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