Evolution is inevitable in any business, and is often fueled by consumer demand. Sports media is no different.
Those in the industry have different motivations behind their work. For some the medium is an art form or a trade they hold very dear to their hearts, which meets an unavoidable intersection with commerce. Lately, the crossroads at which the art of media meets the commerce that keeps the lights on also includes tech.
The product in sports media is the media itself: writing, audio, video. Just like any other product, the quality from one to another isn’t always going to be the same.
Example: A high-volume blogger espousing an opinion on a sport they never covered professionally isn’t going to carry the same gravity as an embedded pro, because the latter’s built up more credibility. But who determines their value? The easy answer is the consumer, but how much influence does the commerce side exert in pushing a particular product on the consumer?
Humorously, often lost during the discussion of sports media, is how much more invested the media itself seemingly is in its importance than the consumer.
And yet, in the immediate aftermath of major sporting events, consider how much outlets devote to tying personalities into the story. In college football, it’s often Paul Finebaum.
Following the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Game 7 win over the Golden State Warriors, you might have thought Skip Bayless donned a blue-and-gold uniform for all the attention paid to him.
Scott Van Pelt disses Skip Bayless pic.twitter.com/TuFN5gkBkE
— FootBasket.com (@FootBasket) June 20, 2016
If you are like me, a person who is deeply invested in whatever it is that we do in sports media, then you follow like-minded people on social media. Thus, whenever a Skip Bayless is leaving ESPN for FOX type thing happens, the opinions being tweeted on your timeline are skewed to the perspective of those who live and breathe this industry.
For someone outside this bubble, it is merely a sports personality moving to another network. That is it. There is no grand, deep-seeded meaning behind Bayless turning down $4 million per year at ESPN for a few more million at FOX.
That is a perspective media folk (bloggers, journalists, etc.) need to keep in mind every time discussing the travesties of the media world. You and I might THINK we know who is trash and who isn’t based on credibility, but ratings are ratings – but according to First Take’s ratings, there’s an audience that wants to consume hot-takes.
So be it. That is fine. It really is. It is not media’s job to tell readers/listeners/viewers what to enjoy consuming. The media’s job is provide things for them to consume, and the consumers then pick-and-choose. At the same time, it is also “our” job to not simply cater to the lowest common denominator.
So why, in a sea of praise for LeBron James beating the Warriors, or Stanford coach David Shaw making a simple comment, do sports media outlets make the centers of attention Skip Bayless or Paul Finebaum?
As Ben Koo, owner and operator of Awful Announcing, explained: “People are inundated with content options all day. One of the emotions most likely to spur a click via something you see in a various feed is outrage. People are more likely to click on stories and articles that spur some level of anger on a topic and therefore we’re seeing a lot of outlets skew towards that point of view.”
Think of it like the old adage, If it bleeds, it leads. Consumers seemingly drive the demand for coverage of the salacious. It’s basic supply-and-demand.
FOX is doubling down on this approach. Bayless is the latest and biggest-name free agent added to the FS1 League of Hot-Takesmen. Colin Cowherd came aboard in September, followed shortly thereafter by Jason Whitlock. The network’s retooled its college football kickoff show multiple times in just three years of existence to more prominently showcase SEC flag-waver Clay Travis, despite FOX having the rights to exactly zero SEC football games.
Has Fox Sports become the home for more of the hot-takey of the hot-take artists in the sports industry? I guess. It is also the home of many other excellent talents.
From real journalists and experts like Bruce Feldman, to a rising TV and digital star like Katie Nolan, the number of good-to-great sports personalities vastly outweighs the trolls at Fox Sports – as is the case at most sports media outlets.
Yet somehow, all the things we dislike about those networks define them, and not the great work media at these and other outlets do every single day, because it’s what garners attention.
Ratings/clicks are the gods of the media industry. If original and thought-provoking content is indeed the king, then paying more attention to those works appears logical. It has forever been odd to me that those driving the sports media discussion only cover the bad in the industry, yet never shine a light on all the good work that is out there.
“There is certainly an opportunity there, but it’s a niche opportunity in my opinion,” Koo said. “I think change the landscape is probably asking too much, especially considering people have less site loyalty than ever and have become more dependent on social networks to find content.”
The landscape for media in general today, not just sports, has to cater to an audience with more options and less time available to parse through it all. Establishing a reputation based exclusively on good work and less on name-calling and bullying tactics takes time and resources that Koo said he fears are eroding.
“I am worried about blogging and journalism,” Koo said. “Economic factors such as ad blocking, consolidation of media companies, investors preference to less substantive video opposed to well done written content, the rise of Facebook, are devaluing original content — especially for upstarts with low reach and scale. There will continue to be good opportunities, good writers, and good work, but the path to do that kind of work is becoming more narrow and more hazardous, unfortunately.”
The now newly more common media/blogger hybrids have also taken notice in the shift in the landscape of how sports media is both consumed and shared.
Chris Reichert is a rising star who covers the NBA D-League. He said he sees the attention paid to the bad in sports media, but it leaves him undeterred in his own work.
“Would it be nice to see more exemplary work brought to light? Of course. But I write about basketball because I love it,” he said. “I love the scatterbrained ideas us like-minded numbskulls derive from what we see and find joy in having the ability to produce that in written form.”
And as for the focus heaped on the negative?
“Honestly, I don’t mind the ‘hit’ pieces that come out almost daily,” Reichert said. “In all honesty, they don’t affect me negatively or positively in any imaginable way. The Deadspin pieces attacking Whitlock, or whatever else is hot that day, are exactly that — heat seekers. [Deadspin is] very, very good at what they do and many of those sites have intelligent, well-informed, scribes behind those pieces; Deadspin certainly does in my opinion.”
Deadspin’s series investigating Whitlock’s failed attempt to launch The Undefeated brings up another point about sports media coverage. When Whitlock and ESPN broke up, Whitlock promised a scathing response. Whether or not it lived up to his billing is up to the reader, but Whitlock did attack the credibility of the Deadspin reporter, Greg Howard.
Reichert summed up covering sports media nicely: “A site based solely on the critique of other sites is putting a large target on its back, in my opinion. If I was part of one, or leading one of said sites, I would want to be as knowledgeable as possible about the people and topics we would attack.
“You’re going after the livelihood of people in many cases,” he added. “They aren’t just random avatars on Twitter, they’re real people with mouths to feed, so if you’re using a major platform to go after them you better be right.”
Right means accurate, which ties into a much more important journalism adage than that bloody one above. It’s about credibility, and credibility is the first thing any detractor will attack for a media outlet.
For example, coaches and athletes sometimes hold to a line of thinking that they’re above reproach from those who never played the game. Is it this way for sports media pundits?
“I certainly think [a prerequisite or understanding] is important, and generally our staff have a good business understanding of the sports media landscape, but I wouldn’t say it’s a requirement for everything,” Koo said. “If someone thinks Phil Simms is terrible and wants to write about that, I’m not sure you really need to have sports media business knowledge to help with that article. Another example is when ESPN did a whole college basketball game with a new terrible camera angle. Those are articles that really focus on the fan viewing experience, which doesn’t require much background on the business side. It’s certainly helpful to have an understanding of the politics and economics of sports media, but it’s not required for everything.”
Still, sports media criticism does not solely focus on the fan-experience. Many focus on the journalistic qualities, approaches, etc. of networks, outlets, and specific personalities. That can be dangerous ground to walk on without a certain level of authority.
There’s also the matter of potential conflicts of interest.
Maybe the most respected voice on sports media criticism is Sports Illustrated‘s Richard Deitsch (who did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this piece). Deitsch stands up against shoddy reporting, baseless incitement and other questionable practices in sports media, but as an employee of Sports Illustrated, how aggressively can he go after his publication’s own?
It’s much the same as Van Pelt’s editorializing on SportsCenter following Game 7. Bayless has been lobbing verbal jabs at LeBron for years now, but is only a public target after leaving the network.
Reality is that no amount of criticism will make the Skip Baylesses of sports media go away. Only when personalities are ignored do they go away. And, as long as that kind of media commands an audience, it will continue on.
Still, even if there is that audience, there are other audiences: the readership, viewership or listenership that wants engaging, original, and thoughtful content.
You, normal sports fan, merely want to be entertained. What you define as entertainment varies – which is why there’s room for all the hot-takers, opinion makers, conversationalists, analytically focused, etc., and whatnot. And you know what? Thank you for being a large and diverse enough audience to provide us media-folk with enough different avenues to travel to deliver our messages.