On Monday, ESPN launched ESPN Los Angeles
, the fourth of its local sports sites (Chicago
are the others). The network has assembled an all-star lineup
of bloggers, reporters and columnists, and it plans on tackling the nation's biggest market, New York, within a few months
Of course, a bunch of massive media companies
(even ESPN competitor Fox Sports Net
) are trying to branch out into hyperlocal sites right now, but none of them are doing it with ESPN's success. Consider this fact
: Within a month of the time it was launched, ESPN Chicago drew more unique visitors than the sports sections of the Chicago Tribune or the Chicago Sun-Times.
This means that it took ESPN all of one month
to overcome the Tribune and Sun-Times' decades-long head start in building trust and authority and insinuating themselves into readers' habits, and their 14-year head start in specifically covering Chicago sports online. One month, and all that was out the window.
Let that sink in for a while. If there's a better indicator of ESPN's absolute dominance of the sports media world and the completeness of its takeover of local sports coverage in the public's mind, I haven't seen it.
What's most remarkable to me about ESPN's invasion of local sports journalism, though, is the climate in which it's taking place. It seems strange to think of it this way now, but ESPN is an old-media company, just like the Tribune and the Sun-Times and every other newspaper it's advancing on. For virtually every other American old-media company, this decade has been one of collapse, of downsizing, of a steady chipping away of authority. The theme of this decade in news media could easily be Yeats' line, "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold."
Yet for ESPN, this has been the decade of expansion, of hegemony, of steadily mounting authority. How has ESPN managed to make itself all but immune to the social and market forces that are tearing down just about every other establishment media organization in America? Here are a few ideas:
— It's working with a captive audience.
Most establishment news media organizations traffic in just that: news. And by that I mean general news — politics, crime, business, foreign affairs. And we've all seen the statistics
about the growing number of people (especially young people
) who just don't care about that kind of news. Well, guess what? We're not seeing the same trend with sports news. Interest in sports in the United States is not going to be declining anytime soon. So whereas many news organizations have to ask themselves two fundamental questions ("How do we get people interested in the news?" and "How do we get them interested in our
news?"), ESPN is only concerned with the latter, and that's one very big thing not to have to worry about.
— It moves quickly to master every style and medium its competitors use.
Despite that native advantage to sports news, ESPN has still had to outmaneuver its many competitors to reach its position at the center of the sports media universe. And it's been able to do that, quite frankly, because it's generally very, very good at what it does. You can see it medium after medium: When WFAN and sports talk radio were just starting to explode, ESPN launched a radio division in 1992
, quickly scooping up local stations and top talent and becoming a force in the business. When the blogosphere's snarky tone was starting to bubble up early in this decade, ESPN acted quickly, snapping up the nationally unknown Bill Simmons
in 2001 and turning him into the most widely read sportswriter in America
, creating the irreverent, pop-culture-heavy Page 2
, and absorbing the fantastic NBA blog TrueHoop
ESPN may be at its core a cable network, but its efforts in other media are smoothly integrated enough to feel native: It functions on the web, for example, as a multimedia, 21st-century sports website, one that feels like it was produced by people who specifically had the web in mind. Most newspaper sports websites, on the other hand, still have the awkward feel of a fundamentally print-based mindset superimposed on the web.
— It has money, and it's not afraid to use it.
Of course, ESPN also pumps out an alarming amount of crap
, but it's still managed to protect its brand and its territory in the industry. Every sports fan I know has a love-hate relationship with ESPN, and the love part mostly stems from the fact that there's nowhere else to go; no one else offers what ESPN does. No one else has made a bona fide effort to produce a regular sports news program like SportsCenter, treating sports the same way CNN treats news. No one else (except Best Damn Sports Show, and that's off the air) has tried to produce the daily televised discussion-as-entertainment gabfest like Pardon the Interruption, treating sports the same way Fox News treats politics. And the reason they haven't tried it is simple: It costs too much money, and ESPN got there first.
There's a reason ESPN keeps poaching top sportswriting and on-air talent from the nation's newspapers and TV networks: It's paying them piles and piles of money. It's the same reason ESPN keeps swallowing up more college football
broadcast rights. I'm not privy to their financial statements, but I'm pretty sure other networks, like Fox and the new Comcast/NBC
have this kind of money; they're just not as willing to spend it as ESPN is. And the more money ESPN spends, the more of the sports landscape it takes over, and the more money it makes.
— Other sports media organizations' declines have helped pave its way.
Finally, it's worth noting that ESPN doesn't deserve all the credit for its own dominance — it's been pretty serendipitous, too. The decline of the newspaper has decimated the longtime stronghold of sports coverage that was the local sports section. The collapse of their authority has created a void that ESPN has gladly and smartly stepped into. It's also helped that newspapers have generally moved onto the web so timidly and awkwardly (especially initially — they've improved drastically now), making ESPN's online offerings appear so strong by comparison.
I don't think it's a foregone conclusion that ESPN will continue its dominance through the next decade. I think ESPN has some legitimate challengers on the horizon, whether it's on the fringes
or right smack-dab in front of the network
, and it'll be interesting to watch to inevitable battle. But I think as the decade closes, it's worth appreciating how ESPN got its position as the undisputed king of the sports media hill in the first place.