The sad state of American sports media

By Dan Karpiel

The Surveyor

I am old enough (just barely) to remember when there was music on MTV. With the way things are trending, in a few years, anyone reading this column will be able to say they remember when there were sports on ESPN. 800

Dan Karpiel

While the latter might be a slight exaggeration, the point yours truly is making has some merit.

Over the course of the last several years, ESPN, the self-proclaimed ‘World-Wide Leader in Sports,’ has undergone something of a metamorphosis. Yes, broadcasting live sporting events remains the network’s bread and butter (not to mention, by far, its biggest financial outlay) but its programming, most notably its famed ‘SportsCenter,’ franchise, has moved away from highlights of games, interviews with players and coaches and Xs and Os analysis. Replacing those staples of sports reporting are interviews with celebrities – literally as I write this column I am watching SportsCenter anchor Neil Everett interview actor Wilmer Valderrama, best known for his role as ‘Fez’ in the early-2000s sitcom ‘That 70s Show’ – and, of course, hot-take debates about (supposedly) buzzworthy topics from the sports world.

Whether you were an early-bird, a night-owl or something in-between, literally for decades you could turn on your television, flip to ESPN and get a recap from that day’s or the previous day’s sports happenings. It did not matter if NHL hockey was your favorite or if you were a college basketball fan, if that league was in season you got a pretty good wrap-up of who won and who lost, who had a big game, who choked, which coach made a great decision at a critical moment and which one should be on the hot seat.

Now, turn on ESPN at any given moment and you are likely to see either two or more people yelling at each other about something related to the NFL or NBA or an interview with some celebrity.

And ESPN makes no bones about this change in its programming strategy. The network’s widely-panned but (for some reason) highly-popular ‘First Take’ was moved from ESPN2 to ESPN, aka ‘the mothership,’ this year. The show features loud-mouth hot-takers Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman, both native New Yorkers, shouting at one another in their gruff East Coast accents about one thing or another, taking provocative stances for the sake of taking provocative stances and hoping to generate reactions on social media. Similar programming follows throughout the day, including ‘SportsNation,’ ‘Highly Questionable,’ ‘Around The Horn,’ and ‘Pardon The Interruption.’

The 4 p.m. ‘SportsCenter’ has been re-dubbed ‘SC6’ (because it airs at 6 p.m. in the Eastern Time Zone) and is, literally, promoted as “sports, movies, music with their own style,” with ‘their’ referring to co-anchors Michael Smith and Jemele Hill. This past Monday I tuned in (briefly) to SC6 and saw Ms. Hill interviewing actress Regina Hall (who?) about a movie she apparently stars in called ‘Girls Trip.’ The week prior it was world-renowned sports expert Will Ferrell gabbing it up with Hill and Smith on SC6.

In April, ESPN laid off 100 on-air personalities, all reporters or analysts, not hot-takers. The list of journalists who were handed pink slips included John Clayton, Ed Werder, Jay Crawford, Sara Walsh, Chad Ford, Marc Stein, Britt McHenry, Jayson Stark, Paul Kuharsky and Pierre LeBrun.

Despite their flaws, ESPN is far from the worst offender to the world of sports journalism. Enter Fox Sports.

Three years ago, Fox Sports One and Fox Sports Two were launched in an attempt to compete with the ESPN family of networks. Yet, after several programming strategies failed to take off with the sports-viewing public, the network went all-in on the “embrace debate” mantra, copying the worst aspects of ESPN.

Fox Sports National Networks President Jamie Horowitz – who was fired last week amid allegations of sexual harassment – lured ESPN “talent” such as Skip Bayless, Colin Cowherd and Jason Whitlock to Fox Sports where, you guessed it, they were given blocs of programming where they yell at each other and their guests about hot sports topics. The strategy, thus far, has failed to bear fruit with most studio programming on FS1 failing to reach even 100,000 viewers.

Some excellent reporting from the sports media blog, AwfulAnnouncing.com, revealed that Horowitz’s war on sports journalism extended well beyond the small screen. Horowitz handed walking papers to each and every one of the writers, reporters and editors at FoxSports.com. The website now consists of nothing but video clips from FS1 and FS2 studio programming, highlights from Fox’s regional networks and an occasional interview or field report. AwfulAnnouncing.com referred to the remodeled FoxSports.com as, “just a bad YouTube channel.”

Furthermore, beginning last year, FoxSports.com’s writers, reporters and editors were assigned to ghost-write stories from the network’s big-dollar, hot-take, TV talking heads. Their own reporting, their own opinions and analyses were taken from them, replaced by pieces such as, ‘Skip Bayless – Tony Romo Will End Jerry Jones,’( which was written by Dieter Kurtenach) because Bayless leveled that hot-take on his ‘Undisputed’ program, which is essentially a carbon copy of ESPN’s ‘First Take.’

It is unfortunate that pair of global entertainment behemoths like ESPN and Fox have gone the way they have gone but, at the end of the day, we the consumers have to share some of the blame. There is clearly a market, albeit an ever-thinning one, for hot-takes and their ilk. We, the sports fans, have to vote with our remotes and our mouses. I know I sure am.

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