Canucks and Beyond

What Motivates ESPN?

03/07/2007 at 3:41pm EST

imageI read an interesting post on the New York Metroblog on Monday that got me thinking about ESPN television’s apparent disinterest in the NHL.

I usually prefer to bring up ESPN only when there’s a choice reason to make fun of that network—they certainly provide me with enough opportunities (competitive dominoes anyone? or how about fantasy fishing?!). But today I’m considering the more serious aspects of ESPN’s dominance in sports television coverage.

As NY Metroblogger Chris Baldwin asks, “If a sporting event takes place and ESPN doesn’t have a stake in it, did it really happen?”

ESPN is the sports broadcasting standard in North America and everyone knows it. With their multi-network outlets and ready availability to all American markets, they command huge audiences. It’s gotten to the point where they’re virtually synonymous with the public’s perception of a sport being ‘real’ or not and the NHL has been heavily criticized for not finding a way to renew their relationship with the network.

But while it’s understandable that fans are frustrated with Versus and the NHL—we’re always hearing how hard it is to track down a hockey game some nights1—it’s just as reasonable to consider ESPN’s motives for virtually ignoring a major 30-team professional league. The NHL bears plenty of the responsibility for that failed relationship in the press, but how about ESPN themselves? Which brings me back to what I read the other day at NY Metroblog.

Chris Baldwin shared an obvious—but often overlooked—theory about why ESPN doesn’t seem to want hockey, doesn’t cover hockey news, doesn’t think about hockey… in fact, can barely be bothered to report NHL scores.2 And it’s not because they can’t sell the game to the American public, or because they hurt advertising revenue by reporting on it; rather, it might be because they don’t receive a direct financial benefit from reporting on the league.

ESPN seems to primarily market the sports they’ve invested in, both in their own financial portfolio, and those that they have on their schedule. Baldwin uses the example of ESPN’s ownership investment in the Arena Football League to make some interesting points.

The latest act of clairvoyance by the suits at Bristol has Arena Football sweeping the nation as our latest sporting craze. Of course, ESPN happens to have recently purchased part of the Arena Football League.

Forget for a moment that more people do probably care about Arena Football than hockey after years of Gary Bettman’s brilliant NHL positioning. It just doesn’t look good when you’re a part owner of the AFL and suddenly Quincy Carter’s comeback in AFL2 is the lead story on “Outside the Lines.” Especially when it also happens to be the day your arena coverage kicks off.

It’s not unreasonable that ESPN would seek to market properties they have a financial stake in, but the issue surely goes back to the matter of reporting standards and credibility. While some people may not consider sports serious enough to fall under the header of “journalism” it most certainly still is journalism. And while other types of media outlets possess their biases, they all still seek to report on everything that interests their audience—not just what they have a financial investment in themselves.

Baldwin also suggests another reason why sports fans should be wary of the monopoly ESPN holds over American sports coverage generally:

It’s fun (and increasingly easy) to make fun of ESPN. But there’s a more serious insidious side to a network making news decisions on what benefits its properties. ESPN already can determine if certain sports succeed or fail.

Is it so farfetched to imagine a time when there are ESPN athletes and non-ESPN athletes? When you’d better play nice with Dan Patrick or your endorsement dollars are going to fade because of lack of platform exposure?

Suddenly, the Budweiser Hot Seat takes on a whole different meaning.

Since my sporting interests are centered around hockey, I don’t personally pay much attention to ESPN and the ins-and-outs of their daily coverage, but I’m interested in the opinions of others.

Is ESPN’s influence so great now that they’re stacking the deck against some sports (such as hockey) in favor of others purely for their own financial gain? And if so, do any other networks (i.e. FoxSports) fill the gap in a legitimate way?

1An interview with Gary Bettman, with some questions about the transition to Versus, and the “growing pains” of that deal.
2My only addendum to this would be’s NHL Stats, which is excellent.

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