The ESPN Dedicated Local Coverage Debate – Competition is Good, Even For Sports Reporting

July 30, 2009

Read the debate intro, Bleacher Fan’s argument that ESPN’s expansion into local markets is good and Loyal Homer’s argument that it is not.

Let’s face it, as ESPN has grown over the past two plus decades it has becomes fashionable to bash them on the Internet. Fan expectations, and criticism, have grown in lockstep with the family of networks and various media distribution channels. It is easy to find fault with reporting decisions and the content ESPN generates (outside of actual sporting event coverage).

This was a difficult verdict to sit down and write because I was looking for a way to shoe-horn my general lack of respect for the way ESPN reports into my commentary. But, while the ESPN filter is prominent in all of its reporting, the responsibility falls to the fan to navigate around it and glean good bits of information. The ability/willingness of the fan to actually do that is a debate unto itself.

That said, a couple of things do make me feel uncomfortable about ESPN. First, the advertising dollars and reporting decisions are uncomfortably close to each other. Like church and state, those two things should remain separate. When content becomes influenced by advertising dollars and business growth objectives, any sense of journalistic integrity flies out the window. The close proximity of advertising dollars to reporting decisions calls content decisions into question (e.g. “Chicago is an important market, do we need to run this negative story about a highly influential member of the Chicago sports community?”).

It is easy to look at ESPN’s decision to move into local market reporting superficially. That is, these markets make sense for ESPN the business, not Joe the Chicago sports fan. ESPN is creating a de facto wire service to create even more potential content for their national distribution channels, and it’s easy to call into question their willingness to let a market with lots of eyeballs and key demographics get a story over a piece of true journalism like what Yahoo! Sports has done with the strange death of a high school football star in Mississippi. (At press time, ESPN has not touched on this developing story yet.)

The only real element of ESPN’s content line up that involves good journalism and reporting is Outside The Lines, but it’s buried is weird time slots. But, like I said, it’s easy to criticize the way ESPN goes about the business of journalism and sports reporting.

Despite the obvious opportunity to criticize ESPN, this debate victory goes to Bleacher Fan. Whether we’re talking about a sporting event or the business of sports content, competition is good, it makes everyone better (unless it’s a quarterback controversy in Cleveland, it seems). A fan having another source to get sports information from is a positive outcome of ESPN’s new initiative and a good thing for Joe, the Chicago sports fan. If Joe does not like the way ESPN Chicago is reporting local news or they fail to cover his favorite high school team, Joe has other resources he can get his news from.

In fact, ESPN’s reporting and information will have to be buttoned up more than ever, as they will actually encounter something they have not encountered since they first began more than two decades ago: competition. The current local market reporting landscape is a tough nut to crack for a newcomer – even for an organization like ESPN. As Loyal Homer points out, the local reporters are already well embedded and sourced. ESPN will have to work and out-hustle to get good stories, and it will not have the luxury of burning a bridge that a powerful national organization might. It’s an interesting experiment that all fans should hold ESPN accountable for executing with integrity as a primary cornerstone of the business strategy.

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The ESPN Dedicated Local Coverage Debate – Stay Away ESPN

July 29, 2009

Read the debate intro and Bleacher Fan’s argument that ESPN should cover local activity.

Listen, I am as big a fan of ESPN as anyone I know. Yes, like everyone else, I get tired of the overkill stories on people like Brett Favre and Michael Vick. I still watch a significant amount of ESPN. I’d hate to even give you a number stating the amount of hours a week I watch ESPN. But, this is where I draw the line.

In Sports Geek’s intro, the question is about ESPN being a viable source for local market sports coverage. I answer that question by simply saying that ESPN needs to stay out of it!

ESPN does a great job of covering a wide variety of sports from various different angles. For example, I read the USA Today every day at lunch to get a broad variety of sports news. I can read about the latest involving Favre, Vick, or Michael Phelps. It’s basically general information, but it satisfies my need for “national” sports news.

However, as a Georgia resident, I like to read and hear about Georgia sports through in-state media and reporters. As Sports Geek stated, ESPN is branching out into major cities, and if the trend continues they could be setting up shop in Atlanta. This would be a terrible idea. Much like I read the USA Today for national sports news, I read the Atlanta Journal Constitution every day online for “local” sports news. I read columns/blogs every day by featured columnists such as Mark Bradley (who follows us on Twitter), Jeff Schultz, Tony Barnhardt, and David O’Brien. O’Brien is the Atlanta Braves’ beat writer and he writes a daily blog online. He is able to report things that an ESPN reporter couldn’t talk about. DOB (as he is referred to online) has established relationships with the players and coaches and is able to talk about things like the “mood” of the clubhouse. He also has inside information on injuries. An ESPN reporter could establish these sources over time and be on the same level eventually, but that serves no purpose to me right now.

I also think, eventually, that if ESPN keeps branching out fan will have a lot of “watered down” coverage. I think ESPN already runs the risk of overkill with its family of networks. I mean, really, how many channels are on cable/satellite now? Not to mention ESPN Radio and all of its affiliates.

MEMO TO ESPN: If we want to find you, we have plenty of avenues to find you. We have a remote and a radio dial. Do not invade our territory and find us!

Again, I’m not trying to throw ESPN under the bus. I am a supporter of ESPN. But leave my local coverage alone. Don’t invade that territory!

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The ESPN Dedicated Local Coverage Debate – I’M ON ESPN!!!!!

July 29, 2009

Read the debate intro and Loyal Homer’s argument that a national sports media outlet such as ESPN has no business in reporting on “local” sports topics.

I am sorry I did not get this article written sooner. I was busy getting on the local news from Channel 3 (WKYC), the NBC affiliate in Cleveland.

After I write this, I’ll be checking out ESPN Radio Cleveland, because I like what their experts have to say on the Cleveland sports issues of the day!

Let’s face it – we get ALL of our local entertainment filtered down to us from major, national outlets. Whether it’s our television (broadcast on local NBC, CBS, FOX, or ABC affiliates), our music (which includes the national Clear Channel radio network), or our sports (such as ESPN Radio affiliates and ), EVERYTHING is centralized!

If that as the case for every other mainstream entertainment platform, why should I (or anyone, for that matter) take issue with ESPN making an attempt to provide more specific, localized sports reporting that would include high school and college sports news, in major cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles?

On the contrary, I think this is actually a very positive opportunity for all the parties involved.

ESPN – who is in no way the first (nor will they be the last) to try this – can actually improve their ability to report sports on a national level, because they will be developing much stronger “local” ties within those major markets. When a potentially interesting “local” story breaks out in Chicago, ESPN can leverage their local ties to improve their accuracy and speed in how they report the story.

ESPN can also help raise the quality of local sports reporting. Let’s not forget that ESPN is owned by the Walt Disney Company, the parent company for the same ABC network that ALREADY reports locally for each of these markets via their television affiliates. As ESPN (under the Disney umbrella) ventures into local market reporting, they will most likely do so by leveraging the networks already established through those local affiliates.

In a worst case scenario, ESPN would change nothing except the name, while the product would remain exactly the same. However, there is a strong likelihood that many organizations and institutions within each locality may be willing to provide greater access to information, because of the credibility implied from the name “ESPN.” In that case, local sports fans would soon find that they were receiving more in-depth reporting than they had previously received. It would potentially be more accurate, and more timely.

To further validate ESPN’s plan, this strategy of repackaging a product which already exists in the marketplace has been used successfully by many businesses worldwide.

Remember the Firestone Wilderness AT tire accidents of several years ago? These tires were found to be the cause of many fatal car accidents, and the Bridgestone-Firestone organization potentially could have gone out of business as a result of the backlash from the public.

How did Bridgestone-Firestone respond? They recalled the tires, repackaged their product, emphasized the “Bridgestone” brand, and continued to be a successful operation, despite the fact that consumers were still essentially buying “Firestone” tires.

As for the local sports organizations, such as minor-league, college, and high school squads, they stand only to benefit from this partnership. Attaching the letters “ESPN” to the name of the media outlet covering a local story brings credibility AND exposure into a market that otherwise would not receive that kind of respect.

When sports fans hear “ESPN” they automatically pay more attention. Did it hurt LeBron James, OR his high school St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron, Ohio, when they partnered with bigger media outlets to showcase James’ prodigious talents? Of course not! Instead, as a result of the increased exposure for James AND the high school, one former alumnus of the school felt compelled to make a $10M donation to the school. In addition, the school leveraged their new-found publicity and made a deal with Time Warner Cable to broadcast their home basketball games (featuring James) on pay-per-view at $7.95 each. That partnership earned the school an additional $400,000 in revenue, all of which was generated because a local story became a national one!

With greater access to those large media outlets, many municipalities stand to benefit in a similar manner because greater exposure and notoriety can help build a larger customer base, as well as help with recruiting and advertising. I’m sure that no one at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School could have anticipated that kids in California would want a #23 jersey from an Akron, Ohio high school!

And the best part of all is that ESPN is only looking to provide fans with another option in sports reporting. If you as a sports fan don’t like what ESPN has to say, then I’m sure you can find some other nationally based media outlet to get your “local” news from!

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